Story Summary

Icon of the Pacific Northwest: The killer whales

The number of orcas in the Southern Resident population, which includes those in the Puget Sound region, has been declining. The issue of how best to protect them is an ongoing debate.

Story Timeline
Previous Next
This story has 9 updates

orca5PUGET SOUND — A pod of orcas that often call the Puget Sound their summer home returned early Wednesday, reported.

According to the Orca locating site, the 27-member J Pod was spotted off the coast of Henry Island near Friday Harbor, Wash. The pod had been absent from the Puget Sound for about 70 days.

Part of a clan of Orcas known as the Southern Resident Killer Whales, the orcas are the only killer whale species listed under the Endangered Species Act. The pod is commonly referred to as the Orcas of the Salish Sea. Little is known about their range of movements during the winter months.

Local News

Newborn orca found dead

orcaSEQUIM, WASH.  – A newborn orca calf was found dead Monday morning on a beach at Dungeness Spit near Sequim. The 7 1/2-foot male calf was found what is believed to be a day or two after his death.

According to Brad Hanson with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, the carcass will be taken to Seattle for a necropsy. After the necropsy is completed, authorities hope to determine whether the calf was a resident or a transient and whether or not it was born alive.

There have not been other Orca sightings near Dungeness Spit.

If anyone has any photos of the Orcas seen in Puget Sound over the past few days, the Orca Network is asking the public to send the images to them so that they can work to identify the whales in order help identify the dead newborn.

Local News

Orcas: A species on the brink

SEATTLE — The federal government said Monday it will review the Endangered Species Act status of killer whales in the region as the result of an Endangered Species Act delisting petition by a California-based group and two California farmers. This comes as it appears the government is failing to do enough to protect the orcas.

For instance, on patrol with Washington state Fish and Wildlife officers off of San Juan Island, whale-watching boats appear to get too close to the orcas.

The officers say that because of budget cuts, they don’t have the resources to enforce regulations that protected the endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

“Obviously, things are going to happen when we`re not around,” Zach Gaston of Fish and Wildlife said. “And if people know that we`re not out, they`re more inclined to bend the rules in their favor.”

In 1995, researchers counted 98 Southern Resident orcas. Now, there are only 85.

“We aren’t 50 years away from the problem,” said Mark Anderson, founder of Orca Relief, an organization fighting to save the killer whales.  “The problem is happening right now.”

Anderson said the country is at risk of losing them forever.

“Could it happen?  That’s the wrong question. Is it happening? It’s happening right now.  Can we stop it? Maybe,” Anderson said.

Government scientists say killer whales in the Pacific Northwest face three important threats: A decline in Chinook salmon, their primary food source; pollution; and the deafening underwater noise of pleasure boats and commercial whale-watching boats, which pursue the orcas all summer.

Research clearly shows that boat engines interfere with the whales’ ability to communicate and feed.

Jim Nollman has been contracted by the Navy to study whale communication. “It’s as if you were about to go to your garden, and find something to eat, and somebody had a spotlight in your face,” Nollman said of the engine noise.

Scientists say the noise from boat props is even more disruptive to the whales, because whales use clicks, whistles and calls to find food.

The responsibility for protecting the orcas falls squarely on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA.

Told that his agency is failing to protect the orcas, NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman said, “We’re certainly not failing. These animals are fully protected.”

They protected, NOAA said, by laws that were changed this year.  Under the law everyone in the water must stay 200 yards away from orcas; it had been 100 yards before. And boaters in the direct path of a whale must stay 400 yards away.

Activists fighting to save the whales call that a joke.

“You’ve got to remember these whales can hear things 20 miles away, could be 100 miles away,” Anderson said. “So if you move it (restriction) from 100 meters to 200 meters, you`re still running at it (the whale) at 40 knots with twin Mercs on the back, doesn’t matter.”

And, Anderson said, even those rules aren’t being enforced.

NOAA rarely has crews on the water running whale patrols.

But the agency reports it’s paying the state to do it, which is partially true. In 2011, NOAA paid the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife $47,000 to run enforcement patrols.  But this year, it only paid $6,600.

In 2008 and 2010, there was zero money paid to the state.

State wildlife officers are also responsible for enforcing commercial, tribal and recreational fishing laws. Without those federal dollars, they can`t spend time cracking down on boaters threatening the whales.

“Based on other things going on in the area, it`s very difficult to focus your time solely on marine mammal protection, Southern Resident orca whale protection,  without having that dedicated funding source and those dedicated hours,” Gaston said.

The multimillion-dollar whale watch industry isn`t shy about pushing the limits, getting their boats as close as possible to the orcas to give paying customers a good show.

Some head into Canadian waters where regulations allow the boats to get closer to the killer whales.

“The presence of an enforcement boat radically changes the behavior of the commercial whale watch operators,” Anderson said.

“I think we`d like to do more,” NOAA’s Gorman said.  “I mean, theoretically. it would great if we had an enforcement officer of some kind every 300 or 400 yards on a busy weekend, but that`s not practical.”

What is practical?

“What is practical is what we`re doing right now — partnering with the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife (and) partnering the Coast Guard to enforce the law by fining people, by citing them and fining them,” Gorman said.

The reality is that very few fines are being handed out. This year, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife issued a total of six citations. There have been only 17 written since 2008.

The fine for getting too close to the whales had been $1,025, but it was reduced this past summer to just $87.

“If more and more is shown that noise is the problem, then we ought to take stronger steps to ensure noise doesn`t do all the damage it`s apparently doing,” said former Environmental Protection Agency chief Bill Ruckelshaus.

Gov. Chris Gregoire named Ruckelshaus as chairman of the Leadership Council of the Puget Sound Partnership – a community effort to restore and protect the Sound.

“Orcas are magnificent beasts and we`re the ones who are going to cause either their demise as a species or flourish in health,” Gregoire said. “So it`s up to us to apply our intelligence in such a way that the species has the chance of surviving. And to me it`s unconscionable that we wouldn’t do that.’

A few weeks ago, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife applied for a $1 million federal grant that would be spread over three years for orca protection patrols. It could be May or June until it’s known if that’s approved. But in the current tight budget environment, the chances appear slim.

Meanwhile, environmentalists had been pushing to sharply limit whale-watching operations to help the orca population recover. That generated too much opposition from whale-watch operators and the tourism industry in the islands.  They said it would put jobs at risk.

So, now they`ve come up with a plan that protects the whales without threatening the industry. It’s what’s called a “no-go zone” – a small area off the west side of San Juan Island, where the whales swim, feed and breed.

WASHINGTON — The federal government announced Monday that it will begin a review of the protected status of killer whales in the Southern Resident population, which includes those in the Puget Sound region.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, said it is reviewing the orcas’ current listing under  the Endangered Species Act because of a petition from a California-based group, the Pacific Legal Foundation, to remove existing protection for these whales.

NOAA said the petition presents new information from scientific journal articles about killer whale genetics, addressing issues such as how closely related this small population is to other populations, and meets the agency’s standard for accepting a petition to review.

During the status review, the agency will seek public input and gather all relevant information to determine if NOAA should propose to remove this distinct population of killer whales from the federal species-protection list.

The agency cautioned that acceptance of this petition does not suggest that a proposal to delist will follow.

These fish-eating marine mammals, sometimes called orcas and officially known as Southern Resident killer whales, were listed as endangered in 2005, when there were 89 of them in the population.

Southern Resident killer whales spend time in Washington’s Puget Sound and nearby waters. They generally leave for the open ocean in the winter. Scientists say that there are now 86 killer whales in the population. The petition asserts that the Southern Resident killer whales are actually part of a much larger population and are, therefore, not in danger of extinction.

NOAA Fisheries has a year from receiving the petition to make a decision on whether delisting is warranted. Any formal proposal to delist would be followed by a public comment and public hearings before a final decision about official listing could be made.

The Pacific Legal Foundation filed its petition in August 2012, on behalf of the Center for Environmental Science Accuracy and Reliability and two California farms, Empresas Del Bosque and Coburn Ranch.

The PLF says on its website that two Central Valley farmers’ water supply is threatened by the orcas’ continued Endangered Species Act listing. The foundation said it expects a decision from the federal government in August.

The foundation says on its website that it is “devoted to a vision of individual freedom, responsible government and color-blind justice.”

SEATTLE — A new orca calf has been spotted in the Puget Sound near San Juan Island, the Center for Whale Research said.

The Sound’s “J pod” returned Monday with what is now a typical “spread out” pattern all along the west side of San Juan Island, heading north, the center said on its blog Tuesday.

The center’s photographers “next observed (orca) J37 at 2:35 p.m. in Haro Strait off Spieden Channel with a very new born calf,” the blog said, adding that it was this female orca’s first known calf.

It said the calf’s dorsal fin was flopped over to the left and there were “very visible creases in the blubber of its side due to fetal folding.

“The head and neck region was lumpy looking, like that of a very newborn human baby, and the calf surfaced with exaggerated head lunges, indicating it had healthy energy and was breathing properly — no maternal lifting required,” the blog said.

Anne Stateler, or Orca Annie as she likes to be called, has spent the last 17 years tracking Southern Resident Killer Whales and recording the sounds they make underwater as they pass her home.

She buried a heavy duty cable under the sand into Puget Sound that’s attached to a hydrophone and connected to a computer in her home.  The microphone captures the clicks, whistles and calls whales make to communicate and hunt.

“Sound is their world. They are sonic creatures. We’re visual so sometimes it’s difficult to understand the impact of our manmade noise on these whales,” Stateler said.

There’s no argument orcas are acoustic animals. Sound to them is everything. They use sonar to navigate and hunt for fish, but when boats get too close, research indicates engine noise interferes with those processes making it much more difficult for the Orcas to hunt a dwindling population of Chinook salmon.

In the summer of 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service recommended new restrictions on all vessels, including whale watch boats. The rules would keep them a minimum of 200 yards from the whales and completely close down a half-mile of water along the west side of San Juan Island from May to September each year.

That proposal ignited outrage among whale watch operators and caused the public comment period on the new rules to be extended for over a year, as boat owners and conservation groups argued over the research and its impact.

“The research is quite compelling. I know that’s what some people point to and say they don’t agree with that research finding but it’s data, it’s there,” Stateler said.

Senator Maria Cantwell chaired the committee that provided more than $2 million for the research that found boat noise can negatively impact Orcas. She said the whales must be protected and that she’s confident whale watch operators will do whatever is required.

“We want the strongest regulations possible. If science says this is what we need to do then I think everybody in the community will go along with what is important for science,” Cantwell said.

The plan is now in the hands of the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C.  They would only tell us the rules are under review and that we were welcome to check back on their progress, but time is growing short as whale watch season starts May 1. Local fisheries staff says they are ready to put the new regulations into effect.

“As soon as the regulations are cleared and ready to be published we will publish them.  They’ll go into effect and killer whales will have that much greater degree of protection,” says Brian Gorman.

Orca Annie will continue listening to the Orcas. She just hopes the government will listen to her and others who say we need to do everything in our power to protect these animals.

“As powerful as these whales are they’re incredibly fragile and their fate is in our hands. We all need to ensure their survival,” Stateler said.

NMFS officials expect a decision from the Office of Management and Budget by April 26.

Allison Lance grabs her megaphone and joins other animal activists in confronting whale watch boats that get too close to the endangered Southern Resident Orcas.

“Attention whale watch operators and customers, you are breaking federal law by pursuing an endangered species, specifically you are in violation of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 Section 9,” shouts Lance.

Federal law clearly states it is illegal to “pursue, harm or harass” the threatened killer whales but activists charge that’s what these crews do for a living.

“You should leave these whales in peace.  You have no right to pursue them. It’s like somebody coming into your house and watching every move you make.  They can’t eat, they can’t play, they can’t make love,” shouts Lance.

On our whale watch trip from Victoria, B.C., our captain explained how he is able to guarantee customers will see whales.

“We kind of know where they were the night before.  We also try to stay in touch with these planes, with ferries and bed and breakfasts.  Once they find them they call and share it with everybody,” said our captain.

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Rich Phillips patrols the San Juan Islands in search of violators.

“We’ll observe the boats and see what they’re doing, how they’re acting. Right now we’ve got at least 16 commercial boats within a mile of us or less right here watching this group of whales,” says Sgt. Phillips.  “We’ve got video cameras and still cameras to try and document the violations.”

Last year, the Department of Fish and Wildlife issued warnings to scores of boaters who got closer than 100 yards, but only three were hit with tickets and the $500 fine.

One was a private boater from Deer Harbor who drove right up to one of the animals.  The two others were Canadian whale watch companies, “Seafun Safari” in Victoria and “Seaquest Adventures” in North Saanich, B.C.  Incident reports obtained by Q13 FOX News show the driver of the “Seafun Safari” boat admitted he felt pressure to provide a “good show” and that commercial operators are “motivated by tips from happy tourists”.

“It was an unfortunate lack of judgment,” says Shane Aggergaard in response to the report.

He runs a whale watch company in Anacortes and is also past President of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, a group representing 30 tour owners in Washington and Canada.  He feels the threat to whales is overblown.

“It’s gotten so much mellower and so much more respectful.  I think the whales are going what?  Huh? You got a ticket for that?  He just stopped sitting there watching and we just swam over to him,” says Aggergaard.

Mark Anderson is the founder of the group “Orca Relief”.  He believes the entire ocean going whale watch industry is in violation of the Endangered Species Act and is a persistent and active threat to the future of the three pods that live in the waters off San Juan and Vancouver Island.

“It’s almost like they can’t help themselves.  If there’s not enforcement around there is so much pressure to come closer, come closer,” says Anderson.

Whale researcher and University of Washington Professor Sam Wasser says it’s absurd that business owners claim they’re not doing any harm when scores of studies found boat noise has a serious and damaging impact on whale behavior.

“When the killer whales come in the summertime they’re swamped by boats, commercial boats, private boats.  Are they a whale? Do they spend their life doing what a whale does?  Do they know the pressure the whales are under? It’s kind of absurd people even offer these suggestions but they always will,” says Wasser.

In spite of the mountain of research and species protection rules, as things stand right now, law enforcement can only do so much.

“If you have one observation of a boat too close to a whale they can obviously say they didn’t know and that may be true.  They can claim their motor broke down or they ran out of fuel,” says Sgt. Phillips.

“So is that boat getting too close?” asks Q13 FOX News reporter Dana Rebik.

“It’s getting perilously too close, but he’s just drifting in the water not trying to intercept them.  That’s where it becomes a lot of discretion.  You could technically violate but they’re holding still right there,” says Phillips.

Sgt. Phillips has his hands full as looking after these Orcas is only a small part of his responsibility.  Patrolling these waters involves enforcing all maritime law, from pleasure boaters to commercial fishing boats.   Thanks to budget cuts, he doesn’t have a lot of help.

“In a perfect world how many people would you like to have?” asks Rebik.

“It would be between seven to ten officers plus a Sgt.  Right now we’ve got three officers.  We’ve got more boats than we have officers,” says Phillips.

As Chair of the Senate Subcommittee which oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service, Senator Maria Cantwell says existing law must be enforced and that the government needs to fund its Orca Recovery Plan.  The Senator says $15 million will get the ball rolling.

As for boat noise, regulators are working on doubling the required buffer zone around the orcas from 100 to 200 yards and making the entire west side of San Juan Island off limits to whale watchers from May to October, the height of whale watching season.  For some scientists, that’s still not enough

“I requested initially and still would like to see a five year moratorium, but at least 1000 meters from the whales,” says Dr. Birgit Kriete.

Another solution is land-based whale watching from places like Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island.  It’s one of 20 sites in Washington that are part of the “Whale Trail” project, encouraging people to observe the orcas safely, from dry ground.

“It’s absolutely amazing.  They come right here where the bull kelp is and leap out of the water and do tail lobs.  It’s fabulous.  When the orcas are here the view is better than if you’re on a whale watching boat,” says whale watcher Kelly Alan.

NMFS still has to make its recommendations on the proposed regulations to NOAA.  Then NOAA will send a recommendation to the Department of Commerce which will make the final decision.  NMFS hopes to have a decision by the start of the 2011 whale watch season in May.  The public comment period on the new regulations has passed, but you can write to Senator Cantwell and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke at and and let them know what you think ought to be done about Orca protection.


Below is a response from Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) to our questions on Orca protection.

Q: Are you aware there are currently four missing Southern Resident Killer Whales, three of which are breeding age males?  The latest numbers show the population for J, K and L pods is down to 84 Orcas and scientists say the whales are starving to death.  Ken Balcomb from the Center for Whale Research says it’s a certainty the Orcas will be extinct in 100 years if not sooner if something more isn’t done to protect them.  Where do the Orcas fall on your priority list?

A: They’re a major priority. What is happening to the orcas is a sign of the overall health of the entire Puget Sound, and the Puget Sound is clearly in trouble. So when we talk about the orcas and the health of the Puget Sound, we really can’t separate the two. They’re intertwined. Unless the orcas have a solid food source, clean water, and a healthy environment, they’re going to be in trouble. One of the things I’m concerned about moving forward is whether NOAA and the federal government are giving orca recovery the high priority it deserves from a budgetary perspective. The federal government’s orca recovery plan clearly spells out the costs and schedule for getting this species back on track, including specific actions and priorities. The federal government’s plan would cost just under $50 million over 28 years, $15 million of which they need in the first five years.  NOAA’s budget requests to Congress, however, have fallen far short of that need.   So important work that needs to get done to help save this species simply isn’t happening because the federal government isn’t making the investment.

Q: These animals are on the Endangered Species List which specifically prohibits “any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which has the potential to injure a marine mammal by causing disruption of behavioral patterns including feeding”.   The Orcas are also protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Despite that, scientists say they are starving and dying.  What do you think about that?  Do you think the general public expects better protection of these animals once they are on these lists?

A: I think the public does expect better protection of orcas once they’re listed, and they’re right to expect that. I expect it, too. It’s what the law demands. The Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act are meant to provide greater protections against both direct and indirect threats. To save the orcas in the Puget Sound, this means that we need to look at everything: salmon populations, rockfish populations, vessel traffic, water quality, chemical toxins, and the overall health of the Puget Sound.  

Q: Are you aware there are seven independent studies from researchers at NOAA, NMFS, and the University of Washington that all conclude boat noise is extremely detrimental to the Orcas, specifically whale watch boats that pursue and observe the whales for half the year.  The studies found boat noise can interfere with the Orcas sonar and echolocation used to communicate, navigate and hunt prey?  NMFS is considering new regulations that would make boats stay twice as far from the whales, from 100 to 200 yards.  Boats would also be prohibited from entering a “no-go zone” on the west side of San Juan Island from May-September.  Do you feel it is important for NMFS to put these regulations in place and why?  How have you stayed abreast of this process?  Do you think these regulations go far enough considering the severity of the Orcas’ situation?  If no, why not?

A: I am aware of the research that has been done in this area, and in fact helped secure much of the necessary funding to conduct these studies (see The National Marine Fisheries Service’s proposal for new regulations is important exactly because the science points to vessel traffic and noise as a problem. Regarding whether the proposed regulations go far enough, we need to rely on the scientists. The regulations should be based on the best scientific data we have available.  Any new rules should result from a thorough process that involves both rigorous science and extensive public input. People should be able to air their views on the importance of protecting the orcas and what they think about the agency’s proposed rules. But at its core, any new regulations should be based on the science of what the orcas need for their populations to recover.

Q:  According to Washington Department of Fish &  Wildlife Sgt. Rich Phillips, enforcement is difficult to achieve because there are only four officers working in the San Juan Islands and “Orca patrol” is only one of their duties on the water.  Phillips says it would take at least 10 officers to adequately patrol this area and that now he has “more boats than officers”.  Do you feel the budget for Fish & Wildlife needs to be increased to give them the manpower they need to protect this endangered species?

A: Enforcement is a critical piece of the puzzle here, and it’s an area where we consistently come up short. I can’t comment on state budgetary issues. On the federal end, NOAA’s enforcement arm in the National Marine Fisheries Service is chronically underfunded, understaffed, and overwhelmed. And it is a challenge to boost their resources when the public are demanding government cut spending, not increase it.  The NOAA enforcement program is also going through a period of major turmoil and upheaval right now, after the Department of Commerce Inspector General conducted investigations into the program and revealed huge management problems – mostly on the east coast. Enforcement is an area where we definitely need to do much better.

Q:  Orcas are iconic to Washington, an emblematic animal used on billboards, signage, products, logos, etc.  What would it mean to our state if this animal becomes extinct?  What do you plan to do as an elected leader to make sure this doesn’t happen?

A: It would be a huge and devastating loss, and I’m completely dedicated to making sure that never happens. There are several pieces of legislation that I’ve authored or cosponsored and helped support that would take steps towards addressing some of the key problems facing the orcas:

  • My Puget Sound Restoration Act would help give the EPA the tools and funding it needs to restore the Puget Sound ecosystem and tackle issues like water quality that threaten the entire Puget Sound ecosystem, including the orcas;
  • My Pacific Salmon Stronghold Conservation Act would provide important new protection for our healthy salmon populations – including salmon strongholds in the Puget Sound – before they become endangered, to help ensure that those populations remain strong and continue providing a crucial food source for species like the orcas;
  • My Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Amendments Act would reauthorize and strengthen our nation’s program for rescuing and assisting stranded or entangled marine mammals; and
  • Senator Murray’s Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiate Reauthorization Act, of which I am a cosponsor, would help strengthen the Northwest Straits program, which does crucial conservation work like removing dangerous derelict fishing gear from throughout the Puget Sound – gear that if left on the seafloor, will continue to kill countless fish, birds, and other animals upon which the orcas depend.
  • I also worked to broker an agreement between the U.S. and Canadian fishery agencies to provide for the return of a stranded L pod whale named Luna.  While ultimately unsuccessful, the effort did help build a partnership between our nations that have helped in other related efforts.  (See: and


Below is a response from Governor Christine Gregoire to our questions on Orca protection.

“Our orca whales are a living symbol of our Pacific Northwest , and we’re making it a priority to protect them so they’re here for future generations of Washingtonians.

In 2008, we enacted a state law that provides additional protection from vessel disturbances – beyond that offered by current federal law. The law ensures that boats and other passenger vessels keep ample distance between them and an orca whale to protect them from impacts from vessels, and provides guidance to educate the public on how to reduce the risk of disturbing these important marine mammals.

Our state Department of Fish and Wildlife is working with the National Marine Fisheries Service on a recovery plan for our southern resident orca population. And our Fish and Wildlife officers are actively enforcing whale-protection laws as they patrol our marine waters. Currently, 10 officers are assigned to the northern Puget Sound region, with four officers dedicated to marine patrols. Officers have issued hundreds of warnings and several citations to boat operators who violated state and federal laws.

Orcas depend on the salmon, so our salmon-recovery work, our habitat restoration, and our cleanups of contaminated areas of Puget Sound also are keys to saving the orca.

Since 1999, our Washington Salmon Recovery Funding Board has invested $156 million in state grants for more than 600 projects to help communities recover salmon in the Puget Sound region. The Puget Sound Partnership’s Puget Sound Action Agenda outlines the immediate and long-term actions necessary to restore and protect Puget Sound, including our orcas and salmon.

In addition, the Department of Ecology is cleaning up contaminated sites, acquiring critical habitat, helping to restore upper watersheds where salmon nest and spawn, and working to block sources of toxic pollution in storm water from our streets and roads and other paved surfaces.

Through actions like these, we are working hard so that these wonderful creatures not only will survive, but thrive in Washington’s marine waters.”


The Whale Trail

SEATTLE — 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.

SEATTLE — This past summer, seven Puget Sound killer whales went missing and are presumed dead in what would be the largest decline in the local Orca population in a decade.

There were once hundreds of southern resident Orcas swimming in the waters of Puget Sound and now there are fewer than 90. Scientists say many of those are starving.

Researchers say there are three things behind this decline, fewer Chinook salmon — their primary food source, pollution and — us.

The Southern Resident Killer Whale is one of nature’s most powerful and majestic animals.  From the islands to the streets of Seattle, their image is everywhere.

Orcas are the top level predator in the sea.  Adult males weigh up to nine tons and can swim 30 miles per hour.  They live in every ocean, all over the world.  Some are known as transients, regularly migrating from one region to another.  Others are residents, living primarily in one place year-round.  The Pacific Northwest is home to three pods of southern resident orcas, J, K and L.

For the average person, it can be difficult to tell these whales apart, but not for Ken Balcomb with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor.

“The males have a tall dorsal fin.  The females have a smaller fin and also a saddle pattern,” says Balcomb.

For the last 35 years, Balcomb and his team have been tracking our resident pods of Southern Resident Killer Whales.  They give each animal a name based on which pod it belongs to.  The latest news isn’t good.

“Right now we have four missing.  K11, L73, L74 and J33 are all adult animals.  This is somewhat concerning,” says Balcomb.

Three of those missing whales are breeding age males which are critical to keeping the population going.  That’s a serious issue because while there were once hundreds of southern resident orcas swimming the waters of Puget Sound, now there are fewer than 90.  Only about 25 of those are of breeding age and experts say many of those are starving.

“When you get a depression behind the skull you sort of have this valley.  We call it a peanut head,” says Balcomb.  “They rarely recover from that.  Usually when you see that much emaciation and loss of fat and blubber, they’re beyond surviving.  They might last two weeks.”

“Did any of the four missing whales have that appearance?” asks Q13 FOX News reporter Dana Rebik.

“We’re looking at that now, but yes, we saw hints of it,” says Balcomb.

Scientists at the University of Washington have reached the same conclusion following a very different kind of research.  At the Center for Conservation Biology, a specially trained dog named Tucker sniffs out Orca poop near San Juan Island which is then collected and analyzed.

“You can tell the species, sex and DNA from the scat.  Also if the animal is stressed and if it’s getting enough food,” says UW professor Sam Wasser.

“We’re seeing higher stress during times of low prey abundance and also lower nutrition and higher mortality,” says PhD student Katherine Ayres.

“Does that prove they are starving?” asks Rebik.

“It does certainly suggest that’s something to do with what’s happening,” says Ayres.

Starvation is one of three factors contributing to the diminishing Orca population here.  Chinook salmon are the Southern Resident Orcas primary food source.  While the Columbia River Basin was once teeming with millions of Chinook, the National Marine Fisheries Service estimates there are only around 30,000 left.

Number two is pollution.  Salmon are heavily contaminated with toxic residue from their environment.  The whales eat those fish and the pollutants are filtered out into their blubber.   Without enough to eat, those chemicals can affect their health.

“When you starve, you burn fat and dump toxins into the system and you whack your immune system.  That in turn shuts down critical hormonal pathways,” says Wasser.

The third and most controversial threat to the Orcas’ survival comes from one of the most vibrant tourism industries in Washington.

“There is a growing body of scientific literature that’s documenting the impacts boating can have on the whales” says Lynne Barre with NMFS.

Orcas are acoustic animals that use clicks, whistles and calls to communicate, define their environment and find food.  Their hearing is so sensitive they can communicate with other members of the pod across many miles of ocean, but when so many boats are in the water, their engine noise disrupts the process.

“We are mostly concerned about behavioral disturbance from boats and the sound the boats make and how that can inhibit the whales’ ability to find food,” says Barre.

In 2005, Orcas were added to the Endangered Species list.  Those protections specifically prohibit, “…any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which has the potential to injure a marine mammal …in the wild; or has the potential to disturb a marine mammal…in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns..”

Yet these creatures are relentlessly pursued from May to October by whale watching crews from the US  and Canada.  Their locations are reported by professional Orca spotters whose job it is to tell whale watch crews exactly where they are.

“With a lot of noise it would be like people with the lights off being in the dark, not being able to see what’s around you or see who’s next to you,” says Barre.

Barre says motor noise from whale watch boats and other vessels constitutes enough of a threat to the orcas that the agency is drafting additional rules to keep them farther away from the animals as part of its Species Recovery Plan.

The question is will it be enough?  Every scientist we spoke to agreed unless something is done, and soon, these pods are headed for extinction.

“There’s not only a chance it’s almost a certainty,” says Ken Balcomb.  “There goes our most charismatic marine mammal we have, gone.”

There is some good news to report.  According to the Center for Whale Research, a calf was born in October.  The calf was named L116 and is the third baby born in L pod this year, but one of the three died after birth.

PART TWO: We go undercover on two whale watch boats . You will also hear from whale watch boat owners who deny their business is having a negative impact on the whales as our special series continues.