October 2009 / Links updated 2012
So, you want to see—and save—these endangered animals. First, do no harm.
ONE-MINUTE VERSION: My boating excursion in the Pacific Northwest to see endangered orcas was as thrilling as I had hoped. But it wasn't the best experience for the whales. Find out why and learn about the alternative: land-based whale-watching.
I have mixed feelings about the story I am about to tell. It concerns a new encounter with whales—my first since visiting Baja with NRDC three years ago. On that memorable trip, not only did I have the extraordinary experience of caressing, and once kissing, gray whales in the wild; I also had the satisfaction of helping NRDC, in my own small way, to secure their mating and birthing grounds at Laguna San Ignacio.
My more recent encounter—this time with orcas (aka killer whales) off San Juan Island in the Salish Sea—was a different kind of thrill involving less contact but greater beauty. With their striking, not to say, menacing, dorsal fins and perfect contrast of black and white patterning, orcas are simply spectacular. On a clear afternoon in the crisp air of the Pacific Northwest, these animals are literally brilliant in the sun, especially when they breach, providing a near full-body view.
But here's the rub.
The orcas I had the privilege of visiting this summer are not a healthy population like the grays I saw in Baja. They are members of a small sub-group of orcas, known as Southern Resident Killer Whales, that is on the Endangered Species List. Scientists are now considering whether they constitute their own sub-species or perhaps (along with their Northern Resident cousins) a distinct species of their own.
There are only 80 to 90 Southern Resident Killer Whales in existence. While their population has increased since the 1970s, when there were just 67, they are still a tiny band, beset by grave threats and at risk of extinction.
What's more, one of those threats is thought to be whale-watching boats. Now, guess how I got close enough to view these gorgeous creatures.
All I can say is, I didn't know better. Or, to be more honest, I didn't know better before arriving on San Juan Island. Once there, I did see something on the subject in a brochure, but ignored it because it didn't accord with what I wanted to believe.
My subsequent research for this piece, however, could not be ignored. I'd intended to write about threats to Southern Residents from the Navy's use of mid-frequency sonar in training exercises in the area (which, due to the efforts of NRDC and others, the Navy has agreed to limit for now), depleted salmon stocks (the orcas' food of choice) and heavy contamination of the water. Wherever I found information on these topics, I found references to the whale-watching boat problem as well.
So, what is the problem, anyway? It turns out there are several. One is the possibility of whale-watching boats colliding with the whales they are tailing. Another is the exhaust from the boat engines, which pollutes the air the whales breathe when they surface. Third is the engine noise, which pollutes the underwater acoustic environment.
Sound pollution may not seem as important as collision, but it interferes with orcas' basic life functions. Orcas depend on hearing for navigation, using echolocation to orient themselves, locate objects and hunt. They also use sound to communicate. Resident whales are particularly vocal, and each pod has its own distinct set of calls, or dialects.
Recent research also suggests that whale-watching traffic leads to avoidance and other adverse responses on the part of the animals, which increases their energy expenditure and, therefore, food requirements.
Of course, whale-watching boats are not the only vessels out there disturbing orca habitat. The Salish Sea is a mecca for pleasure boaters (with good reason—it's beautiful) and also serves as a virtual on/off ramp to the ocean for commercial ships. However, these other boats aren't following the whales; they encounter the animals accidentally.
Let me be clear—I'm not trying to demonize whale watch operators. There are many good operators that are careful to keep the legally required distance from whales, slow their boats as they approach and then turn their engines off. Still, every morning and afternoon, they chase the whales down and, finding the whales, encircle them. Whatever the intentions of crew and customers, it's still a kind of hunt and does a kind of harm.
I know, it's easy for me to say, having had the experience of seeing orcas in the wild. But what if you never have?
The answer is land-based whale-watching, a popular activity in many parts of the world. On San Juan Island, the place to go is Lime Kiln Point State Park. The orcas regularly swim by, very close to shore and you can view them from the promontory. Porpoises, otters, seals and minke whales can also be seen there.
Yes, you'll probably have to invest some time in the activity, maybe even come back a second day. You'll laze on the benches or boulders, stretch your legs on the trails, marvel at the orange bark of the madrone trees, check the lighthouse board for information on the latest whale sighting, clamber along the rocks, have a snack, chat with your companions, worry a little that you might miss out, lose yourself in a daydream...and then suddenly, you'll hear an exhilarated cry from the person next to you.
And there they'll be.
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), wherealong with her children, Sophie and Gabe, and husband, Petershe tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
If you get this close by boat to an orca, you could be putting the animal at risk.
The view from Lime Kiln State Park can be much better—and the whales go unharmed.
My daughter, Sophie, enjoying the scenery at Lime Kiln.
The Lime Kiln Park experience. Michael Jasny, an NRDC advocate working to protect whale habitat, has this to say about land-based whale-watching at Lime Kiln: "I've been out on the water (on a research boat) with the Southern Residents, but the most spectacular behavior I've seen was just right off Lime Kiln: full breaches of mature whales very close to shore. I took my then-4-year-old, and he was dazzled!"
Help NRDC protect whales. Take action to save orcas and other whales in danger from habitat destruction and deadly military sonar. Watch the video for information.
NMFS wants boats to steer clear. New regulations proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service would lessen the risk posed to orcas from whale-watching boats and other vessels. These rules would prohibit vessels from approaching within 200 yards of a killer whale, twice the distance currently required under Washington State law. They would also set up a half-mile no-go zone, where virtually no boats would be allowed, on the west side of San Juan Island from May to September.
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Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites. In between issues of This Green Life, she muses aloud on green issues at thisgreenblog.com.