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Whale of a fine so watch out

Townsville Bulletin Editorial

19th August 2003

Sightseer be warned!

News of a North Queensland yachtie's close encounter with what may have been Migaloo, believed to be the only all-white humpback whale in the world, has rightly stirred excitement in the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and no doubt in the northern scientific community.

But sightseers who decide to grab a piece of the action and put to sea in the hope of finding the whale and getting an up-close look at the 14m white wonder could be buying themselves trouble.

Trimaran owner David Snell yesterday told of the collision at sea that happened in the blink of an eye as whale and boat met and which nearly sank his $85,000 craft. A repeat collision would be a possibility for anyone deliberately venturing too close, assuming Migaloo is a male that has reached reproductive maturity and who knows, may have been flexing a bit of territorial muscle.

Whales on their annual 10,000km migration from the Antarctic to northern waters and back have only one thing in mind on the northward stage of their journey -- to find a mate and to breed. But since this is August, that might have already happened.

However the 5000 whales that pass along the coast still need room to move, even though on the return journey they tend to be more relaxed and playful, stopping off for a few days at a time in bays along the Queensland coastline.

Perhaps the whale that came up beneath Mr Snell's boat did so by accident and was not looking where it was going. Perhaps it was being playful or just inquisitive.

Of course there is the safety aspect for humans. Mr Snell went close to losing his boat and his life could have been at risk.

But the authorities are also very concerned for the welfare of the giant marine mammals and have laws in place to protect them. Under existing laws it is an offence to approach deliberately within 300 metres of a whale while in a boat or 100 metres on a jet ski or by swimming.

But the albino whale is deemed a rare treasure -- so rare in fact that Queensland Environment Minister Dean Wells signed a notice on July 11 this year declaring Migaloo an animal of special interest in view of the excitement and attention generated when it was spotted swimming north past Byron Bay and the Gold Coast.

The new ruling makes it an offence for a boat or jet ski therefore to get within 500 metres of the white whale or for an aircraft to fly within 700 metres. Offenders face a fine of up to $12,375 if caught flouting the rule.

That is a hefty fine in anyone's book, just for creeping in close enough for a photograph or to swim with the giant. For the sake of safety and the hip pocket and for the sake of the whale, stay clear.