Reality Check: Whale Watching in 2022 | Guest Column

By Erin Gless, Executive Director, Pacific Whale Watch Association

In July, members of all three Southern Resident killer whale (SRKW) pods visited the Salish Sea, great news for whale lovers. Unfortunately, this also sparked a fresh burst of misinformation about professional whale watching. By quick way of background, the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) is an organization dedicated to education, conservation, and responsible wildlife viewing, supported by a small staff and mostly volunteer-driven. Our membership, composed primarily of family-run businesses in communities like the San Juan Islands, appreciates this opportunity to set the record straight.

MYTH: Professional whale watchers view Southern Residents constantly

Commercial viewing of SRKW is extremely restricted and has been for some time. Since June 2019, an agreement in Canada prohibits professional whale watchers from viewing SRKW from any distance in most British Columbia waters. Here in the US, under Washington’s Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program, professional whale watchers aren’t permitted to come within 1/2 nautical mile (1,013 yards) of SRKW except during July, August, and September under very limited circumstances. In fact, for all of 2021, PWWA vessels viewed SRKW from closer than 1/2 nautical mile for less than 60 total hours. Per the license rules, PWWA vessels have not viewed SRKW from closer than ½ nm since September 2021.

MYTH: Whale watch boats are the biggest threat to Southern Residents

The biggest threat to SRKW in the Salish Sea is the decline in size and quantity of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon. In these same waters, growing populations of mammal-eating Bigg’s killer whales and humpback whales demonstrate that animals with adequate food can thrive in this environment.

For those focused on boats, while research shows that underwater noise can interfere with SRKW foraging, a 2017 acoustic study commissioned by the Port of Vancouver found that just 0.6% of underwater sound in our region is generated by professional whale watch vessels. Ferries (66.9%), tankers and shipping vessels (14.1%), and tugs (11.7%) generate most of the region’s underwater noise. Yet, current restrictions on viewing SRKW apply only to whale watch vessels. Recreational vessels may view SRKW anytime from 300 yards in Washington and 400 meters in Canada. Commercial shipping vessels and ferries are exempt from all distance regulations.

MYTH: Whale watching harms whales

By viewing whales at slow speeds and appropriate distances, our trained naturalists educate guests while observing undisturbed behaviors like feeding, mating, playing, and resting. The whales we watch most frequently here, such as humpbacks and mammal-hunting Bigg’s killer whales, have thriving populations that are growing rapidly.

There is mounting evidence that PWWA vessels can benefit local whales. Our operators regularly perform “sentinel actions,” contacting private boaters, ferries, shipping vessels, etc. when whales are nearby. In 2021, the PWWA documented 753 vessel-related sentinel actions, successfully slowing or diverting other vessels in 70% of encounters. PWWA operators can make a difference by simply modeling proper behavior. In 2021, Orca Behavior Institute observed that the number of dangerous recreational boating incidents around whales decreased from 6.60 per hour to 2.65 per hour when professional whale watch boats were present.

For more than a decade, regulators, activists, and select environmental groups have taken the easy path of targeting commercial whale watching, yet it has not helped Southern Residents. Like everyone fortunate enough to call this region home, the PWWA cares deeply about the well-being of whales in the Salish Sea.

It’s time to move on and work together toward solutions that will actually make a difference for the whales.