Every year, hundreds of people flock to the Pacific Northwest in hopes of getting a glimpse of one of our region’s most precious natural resources, the Southern Resident Killer Whale. Whale watching means big business in Washington, bringing in an estimated $16 million a year.
Shane Aggergaard owns “Island Adventures”, a whale watch company in Anacortes.
“It has a big impact on the local economy. Towns like Anacortes and Friday Harbor are affected by people coming into town and the hotels,” says Aggergaard. “We have 20 employees who make livable wage jobs. It is all I’ve ever wanted to do. There are a lot of people that count on the industry directly for their livelihood.”
When the boats head out after the Orcas, there are rules they have to follow. They are supposed to stay 100 yards away from the whales at all times, slow down within 400 yards and not drive or park in the animals’ path.
“Although we’ve done a great outreach campaign to educate boaters on responsible viewing, we still see a number of incidents where people are on the water and either they don’t know about the guidelines or they don’t care about the guidelines. They’re getting too close or going too fast around the whales,” says Lynne Barre with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Tour operators who guarantee customers will see whales on their trip can charge about $100 a head. Many offer refunds or free trips if they don’t deliver. Some ads show boats practically on top of the whales. We decided to see for ourselves if whale watch companies are following the current state law.
We went on two undercover trips, the first to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island where we geared up and got aboard the “Western Explorer”.
“How close are you able to get to the whales?” asked Q13 FOX News reporter Dana Rebik.
“At all times we will be trying to maintain a 100 yard buffer from the whales. We will not be approaching them within 100 yards,” said the captain.
The captain kept that promise. We did see Orcas but never got closer than a few hundred yards. Our guide also talked about the whales’ endangered status and the importance of protecting them.
“The main goal with all of these regulations is to get to view them but not impact them in any way at all,” said the captain.
Next we headed to Victoria, B.C. where we booked a trip on the “Serengeti”. Enforcement officers busted the owner, “Seafun Safari”, in 2008 for being parked directly in front of an Orca and cruising much closer to the whales than the law allows.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m the senior driver in the harbor,” said our captain Tom.
Within half an hour, Tom admitted he got a ticket for getting too close to Orcas just the day before.
“So you got written up last night?” asked Rebik.
“Yeah. They keep track of how many times you contravene the regulations and then after three times they write your boss a letter,” said Tom.
“So did they surface by your boat?” asked Rebik.
“Yes, they went under and then over which sounds great, but not so much from the regulators’ standpoint and what you’re supposed to be doing,” said Tom.
Then Tom spotted a group of Orcas and it was full speed ahead, along with several other tour boats. He got us close to one Orca named “Ruffles”. Scientists named it for its ruffle-shaped fin.
“We’re about 40-50 meters,” said Tom. “I’ve had my close encounters before but it’s not good when the enforcement boats are around. It’s not good anytime really, but it’s like how many times do you speed when the cops aren’t there?” said Tom.
This year the National Marine Fisheries Service is lobbying for stronger protections for the Orcas. They want to double the buffer zone around the Orcas and make the entire western side of San Juan Island off-limits to boats within a half mile of shore.
“We’ve identified the west side of San Juan Island as an important foraging area and we know boats can affect the foraging behavior of the whales. We really want to protect that area so the whales can get all the food they need,” says Barre.
Study after study show boats have a negative impact on almost every aspect of Orca behavior. For instance, in 2009, David Bain and J.C. Smith found the whales spend less time eating and more time swimming when boats are nearby.
“What happens is the whales start to swim faster. They take fewer breaks and breathe faster. With every liter of oxygen you consume you expend a certain amount of calories,” says independent scientist Dr. Birgit Kriete.
Kriete says this can speed up starvation when food is scarce, as it is today. Lack of nutrition decreases the overall fitness of the population, which impacts their ability to fight off disease or reproduce.
Orcas depend on sound for everything from hunting to communicating with other members of the pod. This “bio-sonar” is critical to their survival.
“They send sound out into the environment. It bounces off objects and brings back information. Whales use this echolocation to find food,” says Barre. “Fast moving boats at 100 meters from the whales can significantly impair the whales’ ability to find salmon.”
In a 2008 study by Marla Holt, she found because of their incredibly sensitive hearing, engine noise can block between 88-100% of a whale’s sonar signals. Human generated noise can also cause marine mammals to release increased amounts of stress hormones which are as harmful to them as they are to humans.
Some whale watch operators are in denial.
“Affecting their sonar, I have yet to read a study that shows any impact on their sonar,” says Shane Aggergaard.
Aggergaard says it’s unfair to punish the whole industry when most captains follow the rules by slowing down within 400 yards of the whales and cutting their engines at 300 feet. But the whale watching business is built around finding and chasing the animals all over the ocean six months out of the year.
“We know from our monitoring data that there are boats at high speeds getting close to the whales,” says Barre.
Mark Anderson with the group “Orca Relief” lives on San Juan Island. He sees what the whales deal with day in and day out.
“If you try to imagine as a human being what it is like, you couldn’t imagine being blinded all the time. And the effect on your ears when you could hear it at 20 miles and you’re hearing it at 100 feet? It must be completely overwhelming to them,” says Anderson.
More research is being done to determine exactly how boat sounds are perceived by the whales, but even with some questions still unanswered, the government says there’s more than enough evidence of harm to take action.
“We give the benefit of doubt to the whales because we want to protect them,” says Barre.
Some who depend on whale watching for their livelihood worry new restrictions will sink them.
“It’s going to be hard to explain to that kid from Kansas whose life’s dream it was to see a killer whale and have them at Pile Point right against the beach and I have to sit and explain why we have to view them from a half mile away,” says Aggergaard.
The reality is if something isn’t done to help the whales recover their equilibrium, there won’t be any left to see and at least one whale watch customer thinks that ticket’s not worth the price.
“As wonderful as it was to see them, I would give it up if it was for their good. I would give that up for them because that’s their home,” says customer Kristen Berhan.
PART THREE: We ride along with activists trying to protect the Orcas, and talk with enforcement officers about how tough it can be to catch violators. You will also hear the latest on the proposed regulation changes and find out how you can make your voice heard.