If there had been a movie called “National Lampoon’s Whale-Watching Excursion,” it might have sounded like one family’s recent boating trip in Puget Sound.
In a video that has circulated widely, a man behind the camera — let’s refer to him as the dad, as others on board the boat did — tries to calm his increasingly panicked family members as three humpback whales surround their watercraft.
It was not an easy task.
First, there was the utter terror evident in one woman’s voice as she hyperventilated while a whale expelled a spray of water from its blowhole, inches away.
“Don’t start the motor! Do not start the motor!” the dad shouted. “We’re all right. We’re all right. Calm down. Calm down!”
A second woman’s voice soon joined the chorus of concern: “Oh, my God, it’s going right under us, you guys! You guys!”
Still, the dad tried to reassure his family: “It’s all right! It’s okay!”
The whales, he said, were simply checking them out and would leave shortly. They were not going to hurt them. They are intelligent animals, he assured them.
Pro-whale dad was quickly losing traction with his family, though. Someone in the background could be heard muttering: “Stupid whales.” Another person, perhaps a younger child, began crying. “We’re going to die!” someone moaned.
One last time, the dad tried to spread equanimity.
"Look at this, you guys. You’ll never see this again,” he said. “They’re very intelligent. . . . Relax, relax, relax, seriously.”
It was then that one of the whales rolled in the water — a display so majestic that it prompted the dad to utterly and completely lose his cool.
“LOOK AT THAT, HE’S ROLLING!” he said, gasping. “OH, MY GOD, THIS IS AMAZING, YOU GUYS.”
The whale sank into the water until it was out of view.
That was the last straw for the first woman, who could be heard calling 911 moments later — to report the cetaceans.
“I’m out in Puget Sound, and there’s three gray whales underneath our boat, and I’m afraid we might get flipped over,” she could be heard telling the emergency dispatcher, misidentifying the humpbacks. “I’m really scared.”
By then, the dad was officially outnumbered. One of his kids demanded that he start the boat: “Faster, please! Drive away faster, please! Drive away faster!”
The dad, still sighing in awe and recording video, began speeding away from the whales — and into Internet lore.
Footage from the trip, posted Sept. 29, went viral this week, as such videos do. It attracted a fair amount of ridicule (“I can’t believe she actually called 911 on whales,” was a common refrain) as well as scattered sympathy for the frightened boat passengers.
Monica Pepe, a policy manager with the nonprofit group Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said she could understand the woman’s panic to some degree.
“The fear in her voice is very real,” Pepe told The Washington Post. “For someone who’s not used to encountering whales, I can understand that, because they are so massive — but they really are more like gentle giants.”
The only part of the video that made her nervous, she said, was when she thought the family might start the boat motor with a whale directly beneath them.
“The best thing to do in that scenario is to stay in place and don’t engage the engines, especially if you’re in a boat with large propellers,” Pepe said. “They could have very easily made contact with the whale, which then obviously cause injury for the whales.”
Pepe said people going boating should be aware of regional whale-watching guidelines, which dictate how far away watercraft must remain from various marine life. Some species have higher levels of protections than others.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s whale protection program — “See a Spout . . . Watch Out!” — advises boaters to respect whales' space, more for the whales' protection than for the humans'.
In the rare event that boaters find themselves having to move away from a whale, Pepe said, it’s best to go at a “slow and safe speed.”
“They are unpredictable, depending on what they’re doing in that area,” she said. “Going slow would help to avoid a dangerous or possibly dangerous situation.”