Friday, July 27, 2007

Invasion of the floating paparazzi

Whale-watching is big business in the San Juan Islands of northwest Washington State, generating $10 million per year in revenues. And for good reason: three to four pods of the "Southern Resident Killer Whale" population roam the inland waters of Puget Sound and the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. Gray, humpback and minke whales also pass through the area on occasion.

Last weekend, with three friends, I had the amazing good fortune to watch from shore as more than thirty orcas of the "K" pod swam past the lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point on San Juan Island. Some came within twenty-five feet of the rocky Point and lingered for at least half an hour before they resumed their northerly course up Haro Strait, which separates the San Juans from Vancouver Island. Through the "Orcasound" hydrophone set up by observers, we could hear a din of orca cries and their staccato echolocations.

Though I'd seen orcas before, from shore and from the Washington State ferries, I'd never felt immersed in their culture until last Saturday. We felt surrounded by orcas as we watched them engage in breaching, fluke waving, pectoral slaps, rolling, tailobbing and spyhopping. They didn't just swim on by--they stopped and lingered. A couple orcas also engaged in obvious, um, mating "behavior" less than fifty feet from shore in the cove north of Lime Kiln Point (despite the close presence of a boat). All this was a first for me.

The pod was accompanied, as usual, by a fleet of recreational boats that could best be described as floating paparazzi. Several boats sped ahead of the orcas, dropped anchor in the middle of their obvious path and waited for the show to begin. Larger vessels crammed with whale-watchers loomed farther offshore. Small planes flew low overhead and circled for better views. The underwater engine noise from the flotilla of boats often overwhelmed the orca communications that we heard through the hydrophones.

The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island, estimates that a half million people patronize commercial whale-watching vessels each year in the archipelago, while another 3,000-8,000 watch orcas from private boats. The industry certainly contributes to the public's general knowledge of orcas and marine mammals, thereby increasing support for the preservation of endangered species. My impression is that the commercial operators are more careful about observing guidelines than the owners of smaller vessels.

And there's little doubt the orcas have become accustomed to the prolonged attention they receive, even though boaters routinely violate the ineffectual "Be Whale Wise" guidelines that have been developed. Still, the constant presence of humans and their machines seemed like low-level harassment to us. It's hard to believe that it has no effect on orca behavior, including hunting and socialization. These animals have a right to be free of human interference during at least a portion of their migrations through the San Juans.

In the absence of state or federal action, the San Juan County Council has been urged to adopt an ordinance that would be more effective at regulating human interaction with whales. Violations would be punishable by a fine of up to $750. It's unclear whether the County has the resources to enforce such an ordinance, but it would be better than nothing at all. In addition, the Council--or the state or federal governments--should designate certain areas to be "harrassment-free" zones, where humans are not permitted to approach orcas at all.

PHOTO #1: Orca adorned with kelp, seen from Lime Kiln Point, San Juan Island, Washington State. (All photos taken from shore.)

PHOTO #2: One of thirty orcas that swam past the Point over about three hours on July 21st.

PHOTO #2: Two orcas swim past a private boat that had leapfrogged ahead of their group and dropped anchor in a cove at Lime Kiln Point. In so doing the pilot violated the following "guidelines":

"KEEP CLEAR of the whales’ path. If whales are
approaching you, cautiously move out of the way."

"DO NOT APPROACH or position your vessel
closer than 100 metres/yards to any whale."

"STAY on the OFFSHORE side of the whales when they are traveling close to shore." [The boat was inshore as the orcas approached.]

The pilot could've easily complied with all these guidelines. But hey, I'm sure they got some great pictures. Kayakers are also numerous in these waters, but they can't keep up with the orcas for long and don't create noise pollution.

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