By Roy Moulder
The topic of diving with cetaceans has many different aspects with varying points of view. This is my personal view as a diver of 43 years and a marine conservationist, not necessarily the view of the organizations I am part of. I write as someone who has experienced chance encounters only a couple of times while in the water, although I have seen them in the wild numerous times. It is difficult to express the feeling of surfacing from a dive and seeing large male orca dorsal fin go by right beside you. Better yet was being spy-hopped by a large male right next to the boat after taking off my tank. To this day I have to wonder if he was seeing if I was that diver he just saw next to him in the water.
There are two categories of interactions of divers and cetaceans, chance encounters and intentional ones. The latter brings up ethical considerations in regards to how invasive the interaction is. Rules on diving with cetaceans vary from countries that have or don’t have legislation on diving with cetaceans. Many countries have regulations on proximity to boats which often means that divers are dropped off in the paths of the cetaceans in the hopes of them swimming by. Some countries have regulations specifically banning being in the water with cetaceans. Often there are provisions in the laws to facilitate getting permits for scientific or documentary purposes. The benefits to view cetaceans in the wild are much more useful (than in captivity) to the scientists as they can observe natural behaviour. Any attempt at a wild encounter needs to be researched beforehand to see what the legal rules of engagement are. There are also voluntary suggested best practices in places that have yet to receive legal protections. This is why the best way to approach this is with local operators that are well versed in what is allowed and what is not. To risk an encounter without good knowledge of the risks is not recommended under any circumstances.
A good dive operator will recognize signs that the cetaceans are not willing to participate. Diving is often discouraged because blowing bubbles by divers can be interpreted as aggressive behaviour. Consequently many dive with dolphin encounters only allow snorkeling. Most charters will not stay for any long period of time and not push the animals. The good operators will build an educational experience for participants so that they can learn more about cetaceans. Baiting and touching are discouraged by operators that follow best practices for viewing cetaceans.
Diving does have inherent risks and it is always a good practice to investigate the reputation and experience of any charter organization that offers encounters. Many encounters are restricted to by snorkel only with no open or closed circuit dive systems allowed. Bubbles can be interpreted by cetaceans as aggressive behaviour, so diving is not always a good option, with the exception of using a reabreather. Reputable charter operators will be able to answer the needs for permits, rules of behaviour when diving, and provide rules of engagement. It is always important to remember diving with wild animals can be dangerous. It is usually prudent to discourage direct contact with the cetaceans.
These are incredibly intelligent creatures deserving of respect and given proper recognition of having priorities over human activities. Not all people are prepared for chance encounters and even those who do it out of love, still need to be conscious of the risks. The feeling of being in the water with cetaceans is one few get to experience and is deserving of doing it properly.
Is the Trustee of the World Cetacean Alliance and current President/Canadian Marine Environment Protections Society. You can find more info on their work : www.cmeps.webs.com. Mulder is also served as the past President of the Marine Life Sanctuaries Society of British Columbia and the past Vice President of the Underwater Council of British Columbia.