A prominent California marine biologist was sentenced Monday after pleading guilty to violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act by feeding killer whales in the wild, a misdemeanor.
Nancy Black was sentenced to three years of probation, $12,500 in fines and 300 hours of community service.
Black, who runs a popular whale watching tour on Monterey Bay, had pleaded guilty to one count of violating the federal act when she fed whale blubber to orcas in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in 2004 and 2005.
Black broke into tears as she addressed United States District Court Judge Edward J. Davila on Monday.
"I made a mistake,'' she said. "I've learned a big lesson.''
Since her crime, she added, she has been through "the worst nightmare I could ever imagine,'' referring to the grueling case.
"It's a sad event when a good scientist falls off the path,'' Davila responded. "This is your life. This is your passion. These creatures rely on you.''
Prosecutor Christopher Hale said Black's crime raised the danger that the whales would come to associate humans with food.
"When wild animals are fed by humans, they learn to lose their natural wariness,'' he said. "That can lead to devastating effect.''
Although Hale said he had never heard of a person being attacked by a whale, he added, "Who wants to be Patient Zero to be eaten by a killer whale because they're chumming for them.''
Federal prosecutors initially accused Black of feeding orcas in 2004 and 2005, altering a videotape of her encounters with whales then lying about it.
Black's guilty plea resulted in federal prosecutors dropping all the other charges and not seeking jail time.
The marine biologist's work has appeared on PBS, National Geographic and Animal Planet. She also operates Monterey Bay Whale Watch.
She has also worked with federal agencies on the study of whales, including the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Black's attorney Larry Biegel said for scientific research, his client had collected a piece of gray whale blubber and tied it to rope in order to film the orcas eating.
The case has been closely monitored by the whale watching community, and Biegel feared that because Black has been ordered to maintain a distance of 100 yards from whales that her business competitors might seek to report her if a whale happened to come closer than that.
"Whale watching in Monterey Bay is a wonderful business, but it is a business,'' Biegel said. "And it is intensely competitive. There is tension there that could be used adversely.''