Calling Captain Ahab To The Intersection of Ethics & Self Interest

There’ll be no photos with this post tonight. And that’s a sad, sad thing because today I shot three of the most epic, most perfect, most amazing photos of humans interacting with creatures on LBI probably ever taken. Gorily detailed captures of light fishing vessels recklessly joy riding right up on top blowing Humpback Whales, right off LBI’s Beaches, Captains all smiles while the passengers point, snap pics, and squeal with delight. I got about 75 of these today, and two hours of epic video, all of which has gone in the trash.

As perfect as these photos are, and as much as they capture all the joy, the pain, the conflict, the good, the bad, the ugly, the everything about humans and creatures sharing the Shore, there is no way I would ever show these to anyone. Even though the sad predicament of the animal and the ghoulish glee of the people juxtaposed is just stunning, stunning stuff, every detail of the scene is on display including boat names, VIN numbers… even the Captain and crew are identifiable. I’m just not ready to be a narc. People far more knowledgeable than me actually get paid to enforce the law. Second, what is perhaps most sad, is that if the Captains of these vessels saw these images, they would probably proudly post them to Facebook right away because they are so perfect.

But then, the first comments would roll in…. “Isn’t that dangerous???”….. “Oh, that poor Whale!”…. “That’s awful!” Before anyone knew what happened, these regular folks would wind up like that Dentist who shot that Lion. And the great Internet would cast its Judgement with great vengeance and furious anger. I think it would hard for the subjects to see just how awful they look to the outside world. It is actually embarrassing.

And perhaps most distressing to me, is that the best part of the whole scene would get overlooked in the mayhem of the ethical debates that would ensue. It was the thing that kept me shooting and watching the scene all afternoon. That thing was the fact that these folks were being made complete fools of by the Whales. The Humpbacks were desperately trying to get back in the action and back to their dramatic lunge feeding, and would have given these boats the most epic experiences of their lives, but the boats kept chasing them away and getting out maneuvered by the Humpbacks. Then the Captain would give up, the Whale would get back to feeding, and the next boat would come along and start the whole cycle again. It was truly comical. And annoying. And sad.

I’m no Immanuel Kant. I do spend a lot of time hanging around wild animals. It is hard not to start caring about their welfare after you start seeing first hand the tiny details and dramas of their hidden lives. But I do think that much of the debate about human/wildlife ethics that takes place out there, especially in the Internet’s thin one-liner comment sections, is grotesquely over simplified at best, and extremely dangerous at worst, and almost certainly counterproductive. Like most complicated abstractions in the modern world (think Politics or Religion) the debate has become too polarized. Those people are bad, and we are good. And of course, “we” are always on the good side.

But the reality is that wildlife ethics is less about rules and absolutes, and more about experience and judgement. For each individual, it is a learning thing. For every real-world, applicable experience, there is variance and subtlety. It’s dynamic, and evolutional. An artist will often look at work he or she did even a year ago and think “Ugggh. What was I thinking. That’s awful!” Behaving like good people around wild animals is the same kind of thing. In wildlife photography, there are not really, innately “good photographers” and “bad photographers”… just generally good people with differing levels of experience and understanding. Those on a good path will know it when each year their judgement gets better and they grow. If you look back on whatever you did last year and think, “Jeez, I was a jerk,” then you are probably on a good path. If you catch yourself thinking “Look at those people. If only they acted like me everything would be fine!” then you probably have a tremendous blind spot and someone, somewhere, is leaving an Internet comment about the “bad guys” and picturing your face as they type.

I refuse to throw the 7 different Captains I watched grossly violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act today under the bus because I am pretty sure they are not horrible people. In fact, they are probably awesome people. Even more so, they probably love animals, and they probably tried to get closer because they were as enthusiastic and giddy as some of us are. They certainly used poor judgement in relation to the Law, and also in relation to Common Sense in terms of the animal’s welfare (and in a couple instances, the welfare of their craft!)

But what caught my attention the most was what poor judgement they used in regards to their own self-interest. That is what was so remarkable about the whole scene. If they had just stayed put on the Bunker, thus obeying the Law and Common Sense, they would have gotten exactly what they were seeking: an incredible view and incredible pictures of the Humpback Whales. Instead, they chased off perfectly good opportunities and got nothing but a few cheap blow shots from fleeing animals that found them annoying.

I’m particularly sympathetic to this, because this applies to photography as well. People make the same mistake at Holgate with the Snow Owls, all the time. I’ve done one million similar stupid things myself. While wildlife photographers have an enormous responsibility to continually develop good judgement regarding the welfare of their subjects, the truth is, many ethical dilemmas are easily overcome when photographers just focus on their own self interest. I’ve botched more of my own best shots by using bad judgement in the field, mostly in trying to get too close at the wrong time.

I’m also sympathetic to Anglers, because in the end, Beach Wildlife Photography & Fishing are basically the exact same hobby, just different gear and different subjects. We’re both out there every free chance we get, spending hours of dead time waiting for those few magic moments of sudden surprise in the wild that make it all worthwhile.

But trashing these photos tonight was painful, and has tested the limits of my sympathy & generosity. I’m not sure if I will be able to do this again. Still I’d  bet these Captains are good people and not deserving of the shame, the fines, and all the hype that would be heaped upon them when these photos went viral, all because they got a little too excited when a Humpback murderballed them on a Sunday afternoon.

Beyond the legal and ethical issues, I encourage all boat Captains to simply think about their own self interest. The lessons I’ve learned from taking pictures of the surprising wild things that pop up around the Island are to be patient, to set yourself up as well as you can, don’t chase too much, and realize the best experiences are brief so know to say enough is enough even when it feels like you still want more. If you chased a Whale by boat today and happen to be reading this, your VIN is safe, my photos are deleted. But do reflect on how you looked to the folks on the Beach. You looked a little like a child throwing rocks at a dog to get it to pay attention to him. It’s both cruel, and embarrassing. But I tell you, it was funny, like Charile Chaplin Movie kind-of funny, to watch the Whales totally outsmarting boats full of people.