Whale rider wanted by Australian officials

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LISA MULLINS: An Australian teenager allegedly went on a dangerous joyride this weekend. An eye-witness says the boy climbed onto the back of a southern right whale off the western coast of Australia and rode on its back. The report has caught the attention of the authorities and they are not amused. The BBC's Phil Mercer is in Sydney, Australia. You have to admit, Phil, it sounds like the ultimate joyride, but there's a lot more to the story. What do you know about it?

PHIL MERCER: Well, wildlife officers are on the trail of what they've described as an extreme surfer. This is a teenager who reportedly clambered onto the back of a whale quite close to the coast of the city of Albany in Western Australia. A witness has told the authorities that the teenager pulled off this daredevil stunt by swimming out to the animal, climbing on its back, as it was basking in the shallow waters. Now, this whale apparently was a southern right. It's on its annual migration along the Australian coastline and is about 60 feet in length as a full grown adult. So these beasts of the deep are fairly impressive and foolhardy and reckless is how some conservation officials are describing this brave, or silly, teenager, depending on your point of view, of course.

MULLINS: And do they know anything about this young man? Do they know for sure that he actually did ride the back of this whale?

MERCER: The Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation says it has a photograph showing this teenager riding a whale. Investigators are trying to determine whether the image is authentic. If it is, then they'll have to identify the young man in question and he could face a fine of up to nine and a half thousand dollars for harassing wildlife. The southern right's can come very close to the coastline. They bring their young with them so the calves can gather strength on their journey further south down into Antarctica. So the laws are there to protect the animals from intrusion and also to protect people because these southern right whales can weigh up to 80 tons and certainly any one hit by a leaping or a breaching whale, or a thrashing tail, is unlikely to survive.

MULLINS: Yeah, one big slap of the tail is enough to do you in according to authorities. What about the tradition though that we have heard about, is a right of passage of riding the back of a whale. There was even a movie about it several years ago. I guess it was based on the Maori tradition of riding a whale.

MERCER: That 2002 movie, The Whale Rider, was a story on an indigenous Maori girl who rides a whale in her bid to become the chief of her tribe. But certainly the tradition, the more modern tradition, the contemporary tradition here in Australia, is for people to take to boats to come and look at whales. Whale watching is a multi-million dollar business across the eastern and western seaboards in Australia. So people spend a lot of money seeing whales. To try to learn and to appreciate these enormous beasts. But, if this story is true, of this teenager swimming out and climbing on and riding a whale all on his own, well certainly that's the first time I've ever heard of such a story.

MULLINS: Alright. Phil Mercer in Sydney, Australia. Thanks for keeping an eye on the story for us.

MERCER: Thank you.