Nancy Black steers the Sea Wolf II while Tony Lorenz watches for whales.… (Chad Ziemendorf / San Francisco…)
A well-known marine biologist and whale-watching tour operator has been indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly feeding killer whales in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, in violation of federal wildlife provisions.
Nancy Black, owner and operator of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, was indicted in San Jose federal court Wednesday and charged with violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which bars harming, harassing, feeding and otherwise interfering with marine mammals, including dolphins, sea lions and whales.
The four-count indictment accuses Black of twice feeding killer whales in the marine sanctuary — once in 2004 and again in 2005.
The indictment also alleges that she altered a video showing possible illegal contact with an endangered humpback whale during a whale-watching trip in October 2005, then lied to investigators about doing so.
Black's tours and research aboard her company's whale-watching vessels — the 70-foot Sea Wolf II and the 55-foot Pt. Sur Clipper — have been featured extensively in local media and have appeared on the "Today" show and the "CBS Evening News."
Black's attorney, Lawrence Biegel, said his client was gathering scientific data and broke no laws when she filmed the behavior of killer whales feeding off free-floating pieces of blubber from a gray whale calf.
He said Black and several assistants cut a hole in the blubber and used a rope to secure it close to her 22-foot inflatable research dinghy so she could film killer whales with an underwater camera as they approached to eat it.
Calling the indictment "wholly unjustified" and based on a misunderstanding of Black's techniques and methods, Biegel said she acted within the boundaries of a whale-research permit issued by the federal government and presented the footage to other researchers at a conference in Norway.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the sanctuary spanning 276 miles of California's Central Coast, first revealed the investigation in 2006 and has had ongoing negotiations with the marine biologist over the charges, Biegel said.
The Monterey Bay Whale Watch website calls Black an expert in the biology of killer whales off the California coast who has a master's degree in marine science and works to catalog, identify and document their behavior in Monterey Bay.
The website boasts of trips led by experienced marine biologists who "collect valuable data on the marine mammals sighted" and "the most skilled captains who know where to find whales and how to approach them."