Tour operators question creation of fake whale

Posted: Wednesday, August 16, 2000

Local charter boat captains say they are skeptical of a colleagues claim that he created a fake whale to ensure tourists had a positive whale-sighting experience, but most agree that if he did, it was a big mistake.

We enjoy the tourists up here. Frankly, they keep us going (economically), said Tracy Kubley, co-owner with her husband, Don, of Club Pacific Charters. To try to fool them is just silliness.

Jonathan Stetson, who has taken tourists whale watching on and off for 15 years, claimed that a 22-foot Reinell he scuttled several weeks ago near Point Bridget fooled hundreds of whalewatchers (who) shot thousands of photos of the poorwhales; they dont come to see the bottom of a boat, Kubley said. A scheme like this is a joke. This is the first we have ever heard of anything like this since founding Club Pacific Charters in 1981.

Local captain Jim Preston was unhappy with Stetsons boast that he had fooled tourists.

Its very definitely frowned upon, said Presto, sickly-looking whale.

I think (Stetsons story) is completely bogus, said life-long Juneau resident Ole Bartness of Island Charters. I dont know what he is up to. But I dont think the abandoned boat was intended to do anything like (substitute for a real whale); hes just covering up.

Neither Bartness nor Kubley condoned faking wildlife.

Its ridiculous. People come up here to see n, president of the local charter boat captains organization, of which, he said, Stetson is not a member. If I knew something like that was happening, I would have called the Coast Guard. ...

There has never been any discussion that I know of among any of the captains about creating false sightings. In fact, we give seminars at our meetings about what is appropriate. We might joke among ourselves or to customers, When I push this button here, the whale jumps up. But thats just fun and jest.

Executive Petty Officer Steve Peters of Station Juneau was one of the Coast Guard boat crew that found the abandoned boat on Aug. 2 and attached a strobe light to it.

It wouldnt have fooled me, Peters said. It looked more like a log or a piece of plastic floating in the water than anything.

The black bottom did not appear to him to have been painted recently.

It looked like the original bottom paint, Peters said.

Capt. Larry Dupler of Juneau suspected a hidden sub-plot.

I do not blame (Stetson) for trying to watch fake whales, since last year while trying to watch real whales, he ran into one of them and severely damaged his little boat, Dupler wrote in a letter to the Empire. Fortunately, none of his passengers was seriously injured, no one knows what his propeller did to the whale.

Dupler was upset about Sundays article in the Empire, saying it blatantly questions the credibility of professional whale-watching companies and sends yet another negative message from Juneau to a nationwide audience.

Captain Mike Millar saw Sundays story differently. He thought it was funny.

I thought it was hilarious. Anybody who is complaining is taking themselves entirely too seriously. They are pulling your muktuk, Millar said.

Anyone who didnt understand that the story was written tongue-in-cheek, Millar said, is naive, ignorant -- or a cheechako.

Millar, a 35-year resident and thus no cheechako (newcomer), said he has been offering salmon charters for 14 years, and I have been showing people whales a lot of years before they even started official whale-watching charters.

Stetson claimed that his abandoned vessel drifted for two weeks, eventually winding up in Stephens Passage. The area around Five Finger Lighthouse, where Stephens Passage meets Frederick Sound south of Juneau, is the largest breeding ground for humpback whales in North America. There are so many whales that Auk Nu Tours of Juneau, a Native-owned day-cruise company, guarantees visitors will see whales on its Icy Strait tour.

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