Whale Watching

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.

photo M. Noonan

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.

photo M. Noonan

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.

photo M. Noonan

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!



Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.