When orcas kill and eat a gray whale, they often don't finish the whole thing in a single serving. For up to three days after the feast, chunks of blubber float around the area, drawing hungry orcas like leftovers in the fridge.
Marine biologist Nancy Black and her assistant encountered such a scene on an April, 25 2004, during a research trip in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. They watched as the killer whales munched on the bobbing fat. To ensure they got a lasting and up-close view, Black's team grabbed a piece of blubber, stuck a rope through it, and tossed the now-tethered chunk back into the water. They did this with multiple pieces.
The problem, however, is that feeding whales violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act Regulation. Photos of the feeding eventually reached the U.S. Department of Justice, and Black was arrested. On Tuesday, she pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count.
Black, who was arrested earlier this year, had made a career out of studying whales. She's worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and owned two commercial whale-watching vessels. She's also appeared as an expert on PBS and National Geographic.
On that day in April, she tethered the blubber to the boat so that her team could film the orcas' underwater feeding activity. In her plea agreement, filed in federal court in San Jose, she admitted that she did the same thing a year later.
Black had a permit to study the orcas, which pass Monterey Bay on their 12,000-mile migration from the Bearing Sea to Baja California. She could photograph them, and even collect tissue samples from them. But she could not feed them. Feeding the orcas, prosecutors asserted, could alter their natural behavior.
As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors dropped the significantly more serious charges against Black, which stemmed from an incident a few months after the feeding. In October, after receiving reports that that someone had harassed an endangered humpback whale, a sanctuary official asked Black to hand over a tape of her crew's interaction with the animal. When black turned over the footage, prosecutors alleged, several minutes had been edited out. The charges that she intentionally misled investigators by altering the tape carried a total maximum sentence of 25 years in prison plus $500,000 in fines.
By pleading guilty for the feeding, Black faces a maximum of one year in jail and a $100,000 fine.