Faking it for tourists

Man says he fooled thousands of visitors by using an old boat to simulate a whale

Posted: Sunday, August 13, 2000

If real whales don't materialize, why not launch your own?

This question surfaced a few weeks back at Juneau Sportfishing and Sightseeing, a broker of contracts for whale watching trips for cruise ship passengers, according to charter boat captain Jonathan Stetson. The owner of the business, Nancy Jones, could not be reached to respond to Stetson's comments.

``A recent shortage of whales to watch resulted in a brainstorming session at the office. I suggested an overturned fiberglass boat with a mottled black painted bottom might appear to be a surfaced whale, especially when swells rolled by, causing a spurt of mist to be emitted from the barnacle-encrusted thru-hull fitting at the center of the bottom of the hull,'' Stetson said.

By coincidence, Stetson had just such a boat on hand, an old 22-foot Reinell that he couldn't give away.

Before scuttling the vessel as a faux whale, Stetson said he checked with the U.S. Coast Guard, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Army Corps of Engineers, and ``all institutions said no permit was required for such an undertaking, as long as no oil pollution resulted,'' he said.

He stripped the boat of all oil- or fuel-bearing parts and towed it to Point Bridget. When the boat was fully swamped, he flipped it upside down with a tug from his Zodiac.

``The result was near perfect, as the strakes of the hull closely resembled the forward end of a humpback, barnacles and scars were realistic looking, and the `blowhole' idea worked astonishingly well,'' Stetson said.

Because whale-viewing craft are not allowed to approach closer than 1,000 yards, he figured the pretend whale's cover wouldn't be blown.

For two weeks, the Reinell drifted up and down the North Pass, over to Point Retreat and eventually down Stephens Passage. He said all went well, as thousands of cetacean-hungry tourists unsuspectingly snapped photos. But the blubber hit the fan; the Coast Guard found the boat and labeled it a hazard.

``Your media coverage (of the `abandoned boat') made me look like a real bad guy based on misstatements made by the USCG,'' Stetson, 43, said. Worse, he said, Jones stopped assigning him charters.

``This would have been my third summer with Juneau Sportfishing; I've worked for them off-and-on for 15 years,'' Stetson said. He is now hustling to earn a living via sport fishing charters aboard his 24-foot Trophy, using his teen-age son as crew.

Petty Officer Chip Hamilton of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office has a different version of events -- one less favorable to Stetson.

``He did not contact us before he initially tried to sink the boat,'' Hamilton said. ``It became an issue on Aug. 1. We sent a boat out to investigate. They found it Aug. 2 and attached a strobe light to it. Aug. 3 was the first time I spoke (to Stetson), and I told him the vessel was floating. He needed to tie it off to shore so it wasn't a hazard to navigation and we need not worry about another vessel hitting it.''

Because he has a non-sinking vessel on his hands, Stetson is now in touch with the Anchorage office of DEC.

Boat disposal is a thorny issue, said Ann Lawton, environmental specialist with DEC, particularly for fiberglass and Styrofoam hulls.

``But as long as there is no engine, oil or gas compartment, scuttling is often the best method of disposal,'' Lawton said Friday.

``Stetson has been working hard with us; I am impressed with his diligence in trying to find an environmentally-sound way of disposal of the boat,'' she said.

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