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Keep your distance from playful belugas: Animal welfare experts 

Qila, a beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium receives a freshly prepared herring from trainer Katie Becker during a feeding at the aquarium in Vancouver.
Qila, a beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium receives a freshly prepared herring from trainer Katie Becker during a feeding at the aquarium in Vancouver. The Canadian Press / Jonathan Hayward

Ottawa will impose new regulations Wednesday that will require boats to keep a healthy distance from marine mammals, just as two inquisitive beluga whales have been drawing onlookers into waters off a Cape Breton beach in encounters experts say could jeopardize the highly social animals.

Corey Webster, a federal Fisheries conservation and protection official, said the new Marine Mammal rules require vessels to stay 100 metres from marine mammals in Canadian waters. The new provision gives regulatory weight to existing guidelines that previously recommended a 100-metre buffer zone.

“The amendments aren’t intended to control whether or not whales approach vessels closely,” he said in an interview in Halifax.

“It’s just that we don’t want vessels going out and harassing the whales in terms of chasing them down or separating a mother and calf.”

He wouldn’t reveal possible penalties for infractions, saying only that they would be determined on a case-by-case basis.

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The announcement comes – coincidentally, Webster said – as people continued to flock to an area off Ingonish Beach to see two playful belugas that have been cruising the waters near the shoreline for about a week. The pair – which appear to be a juvenile and young adult -have been captivating locals and tourists for days, with some onlookers getting into the water to swim with them.

Videos and photos on social media sites show boats and kayaks surrounding the splotchy white whales as they bob to the surface, coming within reach of the various vessels. One video shows a dog swimming near the animals as one breaks the surface, while someone in a wetsuit swims nearby.

Bernie Lamey, 42, was out on the water again Wednesday as the two belugas swam about 50 yards from his kayak. He had previously captured video of the pair swimming near two kayaks, a ribbed vessel full of onlookers and a fishing boat with several people on board.

His underwater footage shows the creatures peering at his boat, coming right up to his camera and rolling over as the dull roar of boats is heard in the background.

“They’re quite curious and they stare right at you – it’s like they’re looking right into your soul,” he said as the wind whistled in the background.

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“They’re very interactive. I think they want to know more about us than we want to know about them.”

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Lamey says that while it’s been a great experience for the community, it may be time “to leave nature alone.”

Marine mammal experts agree, saying the close encounters could be harmful to the gregarious whales – and to the people getting a closer look.

Catherine Kinsman of the Whale Stewardship Project, which has studied belugas since 1998, said the whales could become too familiar with people and boats, increasing their risk of injury.

Having watched the videos online, she said the animals appear to be familiar with people and boats, despite having been there for only a week or so.

“I have a grave concern that if these two whales continue to be attracted to and habituated to people that the possibility exists they could become less bonded to each other and become increasingly more interested in all of the activity and objects that they’re interacting with,” said Kinsman, who specializes in beluga whale incidents.

“These are wild animals and they need to stay wild for their own protection and survival.”

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Their comfort around boats could lead to them getting struck, which has happened with other belugas who have spent time interacting with people. Kinsman said belugas that end up getting separated from their mates are at higher risk of injury because they’re seeking social interaction with humans.

“They can be severely injured or in some cases have been killed,” she said.

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In 2015, the federal Fisheries Department looked into reports of people in eastern Newfoundland trying to lasso and ride a beluga whale around Grates Cove. It had been spotted swimming with divers while people were reportedly trying to ride the animal.

In 2002, a beluga that had become used to people near Calvert, N.L., was killed when it was hit by a boat propeller.

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People are at risk of getting hurt if whales start pushing boats around or jostle people in the water as part of their play.

“Especially with belugas, never try to feed them or swim or interact with them,” Webster said.

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