For 20 minutes I’d stood at the rail of the Pelagic, watching the rise and submersion of two black dorsal fins in Haro Strait, off San Juan Island. “Granny,” a 95-year-old orca matriarch, and “Ruffles,” named for the ripply edge on his fin, were cruising the silver waters in search of Chinook salmon.
The whales are members of the southern resident population that lives year-round in Washington’s San Juan Islands and Puget Sound.
Suddenly, one of the whales leapt into the air off our starboard side, a flash of black and white that hung for a split-second against the evergreen backdrop and crashed with a massive splash. “Mom! Mom! Did you see that?!” my 10-year-old daughter yelped jubilantly, awed by the whale’s dramatic breach.
I was delighted she got to see such an exciting “performance” by a whale that was not in a tank at Sea World. I hoped our encounter with orcas in the wild would enchant my kids and deepen their connection with the natural wonders of the region in which I grew up.
Yet I confess I came aboard this three-hour excursion with some baggage – a light load of guilt that got heavier after the cruise ended. I hope my learning experience may offer some lessons for readers, as you contemplate responsible eco-tourism.
The whale-watching cruise dilemma
When we signed up, I was aware there was controversy over whale watching in the San Juans, an enterprise that’s grown markedly in the years since the movie Free Willy made killer whales seem cuddly. I knew that Captain Tom Averna with Deer Harbor Charters was a whale-watching pioneer and knew the family pods intimately after 20 years among them. And I knew his boat burned biodiesel, less polluting than a standard diesel engine. And I’d learned that the Pelagic used a type of above-water engine exhaust system that does not interfere with the orcas’ natural sonar the way other engines do. And yet.
The fact of the matter is that excursions like the one we took are contributing to a decline in the numbers and well-being of these engaging mammals, even with individual operators’ attempts to mitigate their impact. I didn’t realize how grim conditions are for these orcas until I did more research after our trip.
It’s a classic case of a charismatic creature being loved too much: An estimated half-million visitors a year seek orca sightings in the San Juans, either on commercial vessels or from private boats. Some 30-40 companies offer regular whale-watching trips, 7 days a week, 6 months a year. While regulations prohibit boats coming closer to an orca than 100 yards, violations happen frequently, and it’s not unusual for a flotilla of 15 or 20 boats to follow one or two feeding whales.
Scientific studies conducted by Orca Relief, an organization created to address the decline in the southern resident population, indicate that boats prompt orcas to swim faster and farther, requiring them to eat 20% more fish to sustain themselves than they needed 15 years ago. Other studies have found similar effects on Hawaiian humpback whales. Engine noise also interferes with orcas’ feeding, obstructing their pack-like communication and echolocation ability that help them find fish. Compounding the problem is a massive decline in the salmon once abundant here. The fish are victims of rapid development around Puget Sound and its attendant effects: stream pollution and toxic storm-water runoff, erosion from logging that’s impacted spawning streams, and overfishing.
In sum: boats stress whales, pushing them to eat more while impeding their ability to find food, while at the same time, their “dinner table” has fewer offerings. As the whales lose weight, they draw down toxin-laden blubber where PCBs and other chemicals are concentrated at levels hundreds of times higher than would be safe for humans, affecting their fertility and immunity.
The result? A 20% drop in the southern resident orca population in Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands. In 2006, these southern resident orcas were listed under the federal Endangered Species Act — and the Center for Biological Diversity says they could be wiped out in less than 30 years — even though orcas elsewhere (such as those farther north on the B.C. coast, or in Alaska) are not classified as threatened.
How to watch whales responsibly
The orcas’ plight is tied to an intricate web of factors affecting the ecology of the entire region. It is no simple task to clean vast bodies of seawater or rebuild salmon runs. The easiest way to aid the whales immediately is to reduce the impact from motorized boats dedicated to observing them.
Unfortunately, I can’t reverse my decision to go out on a whale-watching boat. But I can recommend ways to watch wild orcas without a heavy conscience:
1. From shore. At Lime Kiln State Park on the west side of San Juan Island, viewers often get closer to orcas than boats do, which must stay at least 100 yards away. The park fronts the strait where orcas spend great amounts of time feeding, so the odds of spotting them are high.
2 From a kayak. A number of guided kayak tours are available on San Juan Island, through companies such as Sea Quest Kayak Expeditions and Outdoor Odysseys. Paddle for a couple hours or make it a fully catered camping tour, staying two or three nights on uninhabited islands accessible only by boat.
3. In a less-threatened environment. Thriving orca populations are found off northern Vancouver Island and in B.C.’s Queen Charlotte Islands. Multi-day boat and/or kayak tours are offered by several outfitters such as Ecosummer Expeditions, and Whitney & Smith Expeditions. And Natural Habitat Adventures offers an exciting coastal B.C. trip to see humpback whales and the rare white ‘spirit bear’ on one itinerary.
Last but not least, take a cue from my misstep and do some research before you sign up for an “ecotourism” outing. If we care about preserving wildlife, we need to be sure our affection doesn’t become part of the problem.