Tour operator fined for whale collision

Passenger injured in 2006 incident

Posted: Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Juneau whale-watching tour operator agreed to pay $7,000 for an alleged violation of the Endangered Species Act in an incident last summer when a humpback whale collided with a jet boat and injured a tourist.

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also charged the company, Orca Enterprises and its owner Carol Pitts, another $2,000 penalty that will be suspended for three years if no other similar violations occur in that time, NOAA announced Monday. The boat's captain, Scotty Davis, also was charged.

"This case clearly demonstrates that failure to observe the proper whale watching restrictions can result in harm to both whales and humans," said Scott Allee, the agent who investigated the incident for NOAA Fisheries Service's Office of Law Enforcement.

On Aug. 15, Davis was conducting a whale-watching cruise aboard the Awesome Orca in Stephens Passage near North Pass.

During the tour, NOAA officials said Davis drove the boat into the path of three oncoming whales and closer than the required 100 yards from the endangered mammals.

As a result, a whale hit the boat, causing passenger Kimberly Kanago of Florida to fall and suffer a head injury, her husband said.

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"He did not take any evasive actions like turning to the left to deliver a glancing blow or yelling for us to hold on. Instead, we collided head-on into the back of the whale as it was rolling, lifting the front of the boat to the left causing Kim to fly head-first from her standing position," said Kanago's husband, Mike Kanago, in an e-mail soon after the event.

"Obviously the captain that was on the boat made a mistake," said Captain Larry Dupler of Orca Enterprises.

Whales often dip out of sight under the water and can resurface anywhere, often close to boats, though collisions are rare.

"This could happen to anybody at any time," he said.

Davis is still employed with the 11-year-old company and Dupler believes he will be a better captain because of what he learned from the incident.

"It is a good thing. It'll help keep all the captains on their toes a little," he said.

Oftentimes, tourists can put pressure on boat captains to get close to whales, but Dupler said that the companies know the regulations.

"There has been enough education," he said.

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