Each year, thousands of people
flock to the Pacific Northwest to catch a glimpse of the
beautiful Orcas and wildlife that live there. Most of
these people are nature lovers who would never think of
harming these animals, but by stepping onto whale watch
boat, they too may pose a threat.
The problem is that far too many
boats are now crowding around each group of whales when
they come in to their traditional feeding grounds. The
boats can raise the whales' stress levels, obstruct
their whales' movements, and produce so much noise
underwater that the whales can't hunt effectively.
What Is Being Done
Local governments sometimes
stipulate minimum distance allowed between boats and
whales. But for the most part, the whale watching
industry is entirely self-regulated. Unfortunately, both
governmental regulations and industry guidelines are
based on incomplete data about the possible adverse
effects that whale watch boats can have on the wild
animals they observe.
Studies are currently underway
that map out paths that whales swim relative to whale
watch boats. Each year, dedicated researchers sit atop
hilltops that overlook the waterways where orcas swim
and they carefully track the paths of the whales
relative to the boats that follow them. Hopefully, these
studies will provide information that will allow the
development of effective regulations that will protect
the whales from inadvertent harassment.
Near Vancouver Island, a voluntary
program called Soundwatch has been developed to regulate
whale watching. It is a self-sustained program with its
own boats that warn whale watch vessels if they venture
too close to a group. Most people want to do the right
thing and willingly adapt to suggested guidelines once
they are given the necessary information.
What You Can Do
Before embarking on a whale watch
excursion, ascertain whether the boat is an active
participant in SoundWatch (or other self-regulatory
group). If it isn't don't give them your patronage.
If you are on a whale watch, and
you believe the movements of your boat interfere with
the natural behavior of the whales that you paid to
observe, then complain to the owner/operator and file a
complaint with local official. Let the company know that
their customers what proper behavior that is respectful
of the wildlife.
Lastly, consider whale watching
from shore. In some locations, this can be remarkably
enjoyable. We ourselves had some delightful experiences
at a number of locations on San Juan Island. At one
point, we had a pod of orcas swim so close to shore we
were only about 30 feet away!