ORCAS: Advocates ask commercial whale-watching boat operators to pledge to keep their distance

(Southern Residents J56 and J31, photo by researcher Mark Sears, permit #21348)

The orcas we’ve been seeing in local waters lately are transient killer whales, but the Southern Residents are expected soon. When they get here, some advocates want to be sure they’re not hounded by whale-watching boats – especially considering three of the endangered whales are pregnant. Today those advocates, including West Seattle-based The Whale Trail, are issuing a challenge to whale-watching operators to take this pledge:

On behalf of my company, I pledge to increase protection for the Southern Resident orcas and give the pregnant orcas in all three pods the best possible chance of having healthy calves, by giving them more space and quieter waters to find food and communicate with each other. Between now and September 2021:

• We will stay 1/2 nautical mile (1,000 yards) away from the southern residents.

• We will focus our tours on other ecotypes of killer whales and other wildlife, and will not intentionally plan or route trips to view them.

• If we encounter southern residents incidentally while viewing other whales, we will slow down (as Washington State law requires) to reduce our vessel noise, but will not approach or follow them.

• If we encounter southern residents incidentally while in transit, we will slow down (as State law requires) and not approach or intentionally follow them while continuing to transit. If it is unsafe to maintain a 1/2 nautical mile distance while transiting we will maintain the distances required by State law.

See the full letter here. The problems caused by noise, particularly from whale-watching vessels, was discussed at The Whale Trail’s February meeting – more than 100 operating in the region, morning through night. The Southern Resident population is down to 72, barely above its historic low, and advocates fear that further losses could put this species on an irreversible path to extinction.

21 Replies to "ORCAS: Advocates ask commercial whale-watching boat operators to pledge to keep their distance"

  • Sunflower September 2, 2020 (11:17 am)

    Thank you to all working on behalf of our endangered Orcas, and in advance to these businesses for pledging and doing the right thing for our native whales.

    So wonderful to hear of the 3 pregnancies, is there an eta on when their calves will arrive?

    Is the Whale Trail or other advocates in regular contact with the WSF?  With the importance of these pregnancies, perhaps reaching out to them for enhanced awareness and caution periodically over this year would be good? I worry about possible ferry collisions with whales, but sure these boats are on the look out and avoid this best they can.

    Thanks WSB for all reporting on orca whale matters. Please keep us posted on what more we can do as a community to help.

  • anonyme September 2, 2020 (12:03 pm)

    These should not be optional guidelines.  They should be mandatory regulations with hefty fines and/or revocation of licenses for violators.  This is too important an issue to leave entirely to conscience, especially when money and human greed are involved.  Extinct is forever.

    • Erin98126 September 2, 2020 (1:15 pm)


      • c peterson September 2, 2020 (9:58 pm)

        Agreed as well. But since they are not mandatory, appealing to their morals is the best they can do it seems. I hope that patrons support businesses that protect and respect the species they make their living on

  • donna September 2, 2020 (1:09 pm)

    Thanks WSB for helping us get the word out! And Susie, we always alert DFW Enforcement when we know the whales are near, or here. Their marine patrols are the single most effective way to protect the whales. We want boaters to go the extra (nautical) mile to protect the whales because it is the right thing to do. We also want to be sure DFW has the staff and funding they need to field patrols each time the whales are in. (More on that soon.)Last year J and K pods returned on September 16, a few weeks earlier than normal, and stayed in the area for about ten days. We were distraught to see the constant boat traffic around them, making it harder for them to forage and increasing the risk of ship strike.  We really hope that things will be different when the whales come back this year.Kayakers, windsurfers, and paddle-boarders can take the pledge too! It’s not just noise that matters – any disturbance can be costly to these critically endangered pods. Give up your chance to get close to the whales now, so they have the best chance of having a meal, and a future.Take the recreational boater pledge here: https://bit.ly/2YRclMpTake the commercial operator pledge here: https://bit.ly/31P6U2tAnd if you want to help get the word out, take the individual pledge here: https://bit.ly/34OTp4wLet's give Tahlequah and her kin a fighting chance, starting right here in West Seattle.

  • Herongrrrl September 2, 2020 (1:18 pm)

    Commercial whale watchers already put voluntary guidelines in place years ago, many of which have since become laws, which they are already obligated to follow like anyone else. The Pacific Whale Watch Association members continue to follow best practices guidelines beyond what the law demands.

    How about we demand better enforcement presence for ALL vessels–especially private vessels who routinely harass orcas? And yes, even paddleboards and kayaks need to follow the regulations; these vessels are so quiet the whales often don’t know they are there–I have personally witnessed a Southern Resident surfacing directly under a kayak and rolling aside at the last moment; they can’t see upward easily and the whale was surprised by it.

    And just a reminder that all the vessel regulation in the world won’t save our endangered Southern Residents if we don’t restore salmon. Orca Behavior Institute just released a report showing that the residents didn’t even bother to visit here for the entire month of August, first time that’s happened since research on them started 40-odd years ago. Directing our energy and resources toward making sure there is food for these hungry pregnant mamas is the very best thing we can do to help them have successful pregnancies and births.

  • Howard September 2, 2020 (3:05 pm)

    Haven’t the ferries hit two whales in the last year?

    • herongrrrl September 2, 2020 (6:47 pm)

      Yes, two humpbacks were struck and presumed killed by WSF vessels in recent years; most recently in Possession Sound, and before that in Elliott Bay. Which raises the important point that we have 4 whale species that regularly occur in our waters, and 3 of those species look and behave very differently from orcas. Orcas, with their tall dorsal fins, are usually easy to spot from a distance. The fact that they travel in family groups helps with that. Humpback and gray whales are more likely to be alone, and have a much lower profile when they surface, so they are much harder to spot–especially if you aren’t expecting them to be in the area. Grays and humpbacks are also much less agile than orcas; once they are heading to the surface, they are pretty committed to that course and can’t easily avoid a fast moving vessel at the last minute. Minke whales are faster but also can surface anywhere out of the blue, sometimes too close to avoid a collision. The take-home is that every vessel operator has to be aware that they share the water with these whales and they can potentially pop up at any time.   Fortunately Orca Networks Share the Water event (in comments below) will be going over all of this! 

  • Also John September 2, 2020 (3:33 pm)

    Take their permit and boat if they don’t follow the rules.   Simple as that.    Just like the government takes boats and vehicles from drug dealers.

  • Susan Berta September 2, 2020 (3:51 pm)

    We invite people and especially recreational boaters, kayakers, paddle boarders etc. to join Orca Network for our Share the Water webinar at 7 pm tonight – we are focusing on the issue of the huge increase in boat sales in Puget Sound, and number of recreational boaters on the urban waters given COVID stay at home/work at home situations.   You can find more information on our Share the Water page at https://www.facebook.com/ShareTheWater/ and learn more about watching whales from shore at:  https://www.facebook.com/OrcaNetwork/ or http://www.OrcaNetwork.org.  Boater regulations and guidelines are the focus of tonight’s webinar, with Lynne Barre of NOAA Protected Resources, learn more about the regulations for ALL boaters at http://www.BeWhaleWise.org.   BE WHALE WISE! Please join us for the first in a series of webinars about responsible boating around whales, and how to Share the Water. We are pleased to have Lynne Barre from NOAA’s Protected Resources Division as our first presenter. Sep. 2nd 7:00-8:00pm (Pacific)REGISTER HERE: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_RFCu-eWXQVedUZMncBkyiA?fbclid=IwAR05QvQI2GZIj1zaRufYmMPe8ir7fz7krC_4XOVlbus2Nw0G2Z0Irx0mw-ITo begin the series Orca Network staff will spend a few minutes introducing our new Share the Water – Whale Safe Vessel Project, share our position on watercraft and whales, and briefly review the whales & dolphins you are likely to encounter in the Salish Sea. Lynne joins us to discuss Be Whale Wise – a partnership of governmental agencies, non-profits and other stakeholders in the Salish Sea to research, implement and educate best vessel practices.Learn about vessel safety and how to lawfully and safely share the waters when you see marine mammals of the Salish Sea; learn the importance of keeping your distance for the safety of the whales and yourself; and where/when to report if you observe someone not following the Be Whale Wise regulations and who is harassing whales or marine mammals. We will have a few minutes at the end of the presentation for your questions.

  • LuLuBelle September 2, 2020 (8:33 pm)

    Also john. AGREED.  Take those ferries!! If a tug or fast ferry hits a whale take them too. Container ships have hit them also-take them too.  Nobody’s going to exempt commercial vessels are they???

  • Kersti Muul September 5, 2020 (7:58 pm)

    J35 has had her baby (J57) and it is with her in San Juans. I dread the greeting they receive.This pledge is now more crucial than ever…..

    • Sunflower September 6, 2020 (8:22 am)

      Yay, wonderful news. Thanks for sharing this. Stay safe, mamma and baby. 

      Maybe protesting efforts are needed at this point to help this endangered species and these pregnant orcas this year. Many people are currently out of work and I bet others would be more than happy to participate in some protesting or demonstrating, on water or off. 

      Orca organizations… what more can we do?

      • Donna September 6, 2020 (6:13 pm)

        Thanks for asking, Sunflower. Take the individual pledge. Call every whale-watching operator in the Pacific Whale Watch Association and ask them to take it too. Ask your friends to do the same.

        Write or call the Seattle Times and tell them not to publish pictures of the new calf provided by commercial whale-watchers, as they did today.

        The odds are against this calf surviving its first year in the best of times. Let every decision-maker know that you want these whales protected, now.

        A socially distanced protest or vigil is a great idea. We can do it around The Whale Trail. Please contact me donna@thewhaletrail.org if you want to help organize or participate.

      • Herongrrrl September 6, 2020 (10:36 pm)

        Work for salmon restoration! Get in touch with Whale Scout for ideas about personal actions–lifestyle and policy oriented–that will help restore the salmon these whales so desperately need. Let the governor and your state legislators know that restoring salmon passage, improving stormwater quality, enforcing existing rules around shoreline development, and preventing toxics from entering our waterways are priorities you consider when you vote. 

      • Sunflower September 7, 2020 (8:14 pm)

        Thanks Donna, and Herrongrrrl. Appreciate the suggestions, I’m on it, and will email you this week Donna. 

        I have volunteered as a salmon watcher in the past and hope to help again this Fall, and will look for more ways to support salmon.

  • Donna September 6, 2020 (11:20 pm)

    Herongrrl makes some great suggestions. Yes, we need to bring back salmon and reduce toxins. And, reducing noise is something we can do right now, that will make it easier for the orcas to find what food that is there.

    This isn’t an either/or solution – we need to do them all. The threats are inter-related, each making the other worse.

    The Governor’s Task Force recommended 49 actions to recover the southern residents. Only five have been implemented. We have work to do! See the final Task Force report here:


    • Sunflower September 7, 2020 (8:16 pm)

      👍 Thanks to you both!  

      I’ll add writing a letter to the Governor to the to-do list.

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