Owner of Capt. Dave's Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari
Capt. Dave Andersen is an experienced marine naturalist, award-winning filmmaker and author, photographer and conservationist. He currently owns and operates Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari out of Dana Point, Calif. He is also the founder of The Caretakers, a group that raises awareness of one of the biggest threats facing dolphins and whales: entanglement in fishing gear. In that capacity, he organizes rescues when entangled whales are spotted off the Orange County coast.
Sea: What first piqued your interest in marine life?
Anderson: The TV show “Flipper” and Jacques Cousteau inspired my love of ocean and cetaceans. Cousteau’s son Jean Michele Cousteau actually wrote the forward for my book, “Lily: A Gray Whale’s Odyssey.” He was part of the team I watched when I was a kid, so it was a real blessing for me to have him in my book.
How long have you been conducting whale watching tours?
This year is our 20th anniversary.
What’s on your plate these days?
Every day is different. Currently I am developing a low-cost, low-drag whale-tracking buoy to better track entangled whales. We have just finished the working prototype. And I am working on a new film tentatively titled “Drones Over Dolphins and Whales,” along with running trips and dealing with the needs of our whale watching business.
My book and last film won several awards, and I love sharing what is off our coast and the problems these animals face with the public through my publications and films as well as other platforms like YouTube, where tens of millions of people have learned about these animals. The local footage I took off Dana Point has been used on National Geographic, in a new theatrical film called “Racing Extinction,” and also was featured in Scientific American Journal.
Few people realize that just off the urban coast of Orange County, Calif., it is like the plains of Africa. We actually have the greatest density of oceanic dolphins in the world off Southern California, with wild herds up to 10,000 strong — more than 460,000 common dolphins alone! We also have the largest concentration of blue whales in the world that feed off our coast in the summer. Record numbers of gray whales migrate by in the winter. Not to mention the fin and Minke whales that are spotted all year round.
We’ve seen many of your drone videos. When did you start doing those, and what guidelines do you follow so you don’t disturb the creatures you’re filming?
I started filming about two years ago with a drone over whales and dolphins, and six months later I was a keynote speaker at the LA Drone Expo! That’s how fast the industry is growing. I am always watching for any reaction from the whales and dolphins but have never noted any. Unlike pinnipeds (seals), bears and elephants, which, from what I have read, seem to be afraid of the buzzing noise of a drone, whales and dolphins don’t seem to mind it. I do keep the drone a respectful distance away, just to be sure it doesn’t disturb them, and because I spend so much time with the whales, I am more likely to notice any change in their behavior. No one should do anything that changes their normal behavior. And while I love filming them, I would never want to disturb them in any way.
Drones are currently being used by NOAA to study whales. Unfortunately, we are not yet allowed to use them in our disentanglement work, which would make our job safer, for us and the whale. I am very involved in whale rescues as part of a NOAA Large Whale Disentanglement Network.
Have you seen any sea life recently that’s rare for Southern California waters, maybe thanks to the El Niño? Is there a creature you’d like to see that you haven’t?
We have seen sperm whales this year and lots of hammerhead sharks. And more humpback whales than ever before, both this year and last year. There also were a lot of pelagic red crabs that came into the harbor.
I would love to see a North Pacific right whale, one of the rarest and most endangered of the big whales. To my knowledge, no one has seen one off California for many years.
What is the correct and safest way to enjoy viewing marine life while boating?
If you see a whale and there is a whale watching boat nearby, stay behind and to the side of him and you can’t go wrong. If you spot a whale on your own, follow the guidelines for your area, which vary. Different whales behave differently. Their down times vary, and some may be moving, some stopped and feeding. In general, be sure you always give a whale plenty of room, and leave your engine running so he can hear you and know where you are. Move slow at all times. Never zoom up on whales and never point your boat right at them, if possible. In most areas, 100 yards from whales is recommended, but this varies in different areas. The main thing is not to disturb them. Whales may come over to you if you are respectful, as they are often curious.
What’s a humorous experience you had on the tour boat?
I had a boat full of wealthy individuals on a private charter to see blue whales. They showed up with snorkels to swim with whales. When I explained my insurance would not allow them to go in the water, their leader said they would self-insure for $10 million and their attorney, who was on board, would draw up something immediately. I was not sure what to say to this but I was not going to change my mind. A few minutes later, one of them asked what all the fishing boats were catching near the whales. “Sharks,” I explained. It was unusual that they were catching a lot here, but it was true. “They caught an 800-pound thresher yesterday,” I said.
They never brought up swimming with whales rest if the trip after that. We saw more than 20 blue whales that morning.