Accidents involving whales rare but incidents can be dangerous

WATCH: A Canadian family is mourning after a young woman died while on vacation in Mexico. Jennifer Karren, from Calgary, was on a snorkeling trip off Cabo San Lucas, when a whale breached and hit the boat she was on. Reid Fiest has the story.

TORONTO — A Canadian woman is dead after a whale landed on a tourist boat she was on Wednesday in Mexico.

While it seems like a freak accident, sometimes it’s easy to forget that being near whales — as with any type of interaction with the wild — can be dangerous. And it’s certainly not uncommon for people to have encounters with whales that are a bit too close for comfort.

READ MORE: Canadian woman killed in Mexico after whale lands on tourist boat

“One of the biggest things is…things can happen. It’s not that the animals are doing anything on purpose. There can be a little bit of unpredictability,” said Tonya Wimmer, Manager Species Conservation, Oceans with WWF Canada. “There is a chance that things can happen and completely unexpectedly. Not at the fault of the person driving the boat or anyone in the area, but it’s just that in that particular area it is a quite heavily used areas for gray whales.”

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Wimmer said that whales are only at the surface about 10 to 20 per cent of the time. There have been a few incidents over the past few years between whales and humans.

In May 2013, a man was seriously injured when his boat collided with a humpback whale off the B.C. coast. He underwent extensive facial reconstructive surgery. In July 2013, two boaters who were whale-watching in San Diego were thrown into the water after a blue whale capsized their boat.

Just this year in Hawaii, tourists were shocked when a whale and her baby calf passed so close to their boat, it bumped them.

WATCH: Whale rams tour boat in Hawaii

The best chance you get to watch whales is during migration, particularly off the coast of Baja California where thousands of whales migrate to and from Alaska. But that, too can be a problem as there can be potentially hundreds of whales in the area, many of them with their young calves which they seek to protect. And remember: these whales can be 16 metres long and weigh 36 tons.

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WATCH: Whale close-encounters

On Wednesday, just before the Canadian woman was killed, the Mexican National Commission for Natural Protected Areas issued a press release citing an increased presence of gray whales around Baja California.

At the end of February, they said, the migration had reached its peak with 2,652 adult whales being recorded, 10 per cent higher than what was recorded in 2014.

Some tips for whale-watching:

1. Ensure you go with a reputable company

Not anybody can just take a boat full of tourists to watch whales. Before you book your trip, make sure that your operator has the appropriate licences. Mexican operators must pass a course in protection and observation of the whales. They must also pass a passenger safety inspection. Canada and the United States have similar guidelines.

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In Canada, under the Fisheries Act, whale-watchers must reduce their speed when they are less than 300 metres from an animal, and must not go closer than 100 metres of a whale — although if the animal chooses to come closer, it cannot be chased off. When at a distance of 100 metres, the motor must be put into neutral or idle.

In Mexico, approaching a mother and a calf is strictly prohibited. If a boat approaches a pair by accident, it must slowly move away.

2. Avoid taking young children

It’s not so much that it’s dangerous, but that kids can be bored easily and possibly rock the boat, literally. As well, you don’t want to make a lot of noise or possibly risk having your child go over in their excitement.

3. Don’t feed whales

Of course you want to see whales close-up, but remember: they can be unpredictable. Trying to entice them to come closer to your boat could result in an encounter you may feel a bit uncomfortable with.

Overall, the message is: remember that you’re in their territory. Whether you’re snorkelling, diving or just passively whale-watching from a boat, you’re still in the wild.

Wimmer said that it’s good that people are interested in exploring our oceans, but it comes with a caveat: “On one side it’s good, but it means that people need to be more cautious.”

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As we get a better understanding of animals, we get to know more about their habitats, and that is important. We can learn how to avoid interfering with their habitats.

“It does highlight there is a fine balance between our want and desire to be in the ocean and use the ocean and see the things in the ocean, but also being able to protect those areas that are important for the animals, too,” said Wimmer.

“That’s their home. That’s where they live.”

–with files from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Kathleen Jolly