Two kayakers paddling off Redondo Beach, south of Los Angeles, got the thrill of a lifetime recently — the kind that most of us will never experience. They met a blue whale, the largest creature on Earth.
The 50-foot cetacean came within arm’s reach of the small kayak. But, not content with this closest of encounters, Rick Coleman, one of the kayakers, plunged into the water for a face-to-face session with the whale — all the while keeping his video camera running. Of course, that video soon appeared on YouTube and the inevitable interviews on TV news shows followed.
In many of those interviews, the Colemans (Susan Coleman was the second kayaker) made the comment that it is important to remember to always approach wild animals with the “utmost respect.”
But is pulling your kayak up to a blue whale and then jumping into the water next to it showing respect for wildlife — or is it more indicative of a desire for renown?
Taking chances for the camera’s lens
Wanting to have close encounters with animals — and capturing those moments for posterity — isn’t new, of course. As long as I can remember — and some say going back to the 1940s — there has been an urban myth circulating about the camera-crazy parent at Yellowstone National Park. The story goes that this mom or dad smeared honey (or peanut butter or any of a number of different spreads, depending on the version you hear) on his or her child so that a “cute” picture of a bear licking the youngster could be snapped. Although this particular story has never been proven, myths are usually somewhat rooted in reality.
But in the last few years, the soaring popularity of reality TV shows and social media sites has really upped the capturing-dangerous-wildlife-encounters ante to a whole new level.
Not long ago, in 2006, television’s famous “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin died when he got too close to a stingray while shooting what would have been a new TV show about the Great Barrier Reef. Irwin’s heart was pierced by the animal’s serrated, poisonous spine as he swam with it while the cameras were rolling. At the time, a witness to the filming said that Irwin was taped pulling the barb from his chest moments before losing consciousness forever. Would Irwin have attempted swimming so close to that stingray if it weren’t for the cameras and the TV show? Of course, the show was never aired. Queensland state police secured the video as evidence for the coroner’s inquiry.
As recently as two years ago, a woman who wanted a “closer look” at a bison in Yellowstone National Park started stalking toward it — getting far too close per park regulations — while operating her video camera. The bison charged. The video was posted on YouTube.
As long as a decade ago, in the waters of southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound, the National Marine Fisheries Service had to issue mandatory regulations requiring that people stay at least 100 yards away from humpback whales. A growing number of people on tour and recreational boats were throwing objects or food at Steller sea lions and harbor seals in order to produce some sort of reaction that they could photograph.
If you need more proof that people do dumb things in the presence of wildlife all in the name of getting the perfect shot, becoming a reality TV star, or causing a “hit” sensation on social media sites, just check out the Facebook page titled “People who get too close to wild animals.”
In his “tips for getting closer to wild animals,” nature photographer Galen Leeds says it’s important to remember that if you get too close, any animal can feel threatened. Maintain your distance. The use of a telephoto lens is wise. Just because you can get closer doesn’t mean that you should. Some states, such as Washington, are even creating Wildlife Viewing Ethics policies.
Do you think that the desire to post extraordinary videos on social media sites has made us disrespectful of wildlife — and is causing us to take foolish risks we wouldn’t otherwise consider?
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Feature photo: In the thrill of the moment, it’s hard to balance our desire to “get the shot” with keeping a respectful distance. ©Colin McNulty