Why These Orcas Need The Whale Watching Boats

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Given that the effort to save the Southern Resident orcas is sort of a ‘darned if you do, darned if you don’t’ situation on levels that are tough to resolve – do we leave Chinook salmon for the whales and impact fisheries? Do we prohibit naval sonar tests to protect the whales’ hearing and risk diminished security? – the issue of whether, or how close, to allow whale watch boats to approach the orcas seems pretty straightforward. The question boils down to whether or not the whales’ behavior changes when the whale watching boats are present, and if so, how? In answering this for myself, I was in for a big surprise, and have wound up reversing my opinion on the subject.

Exuberance! (Photo by Candace Whiting)

All summer, whenever I could, I watched the orcas. I watched the boats. I trudged around the shores of San Juan Island with binoculars, camera, handycam, tide tables, and a current atlas. I watched from shore and from boats. I stayed in the background as much as possible and I talked to tourists about their opinions. I took my friends and relatives with me until they couldn’t take another hour of sitting on rocks, as inconceivable as that may be. And I noticed some fascinating things that altered not just my opinion, but the way I see the the orcas themselves.

Canada’s Strait Watch helps inform boaters of the whale watching guidelines (Photo by Candace Whiting)

The apparent answer for me to the question ‘does the presence of boats negatively affect the whales behavior’ did turn out to be straightforward: the answer is seldom – given the efforts of the whale watching industry to stay within voluntary guidelines (and the presence of Sound Watch and Strait Watch vessels). I never saw the orcas go into a rest pattern when there were hoards of boats around them, although I did see the whales in that pattern when they were inshore and the boats stayed 1/4 mile off…but that was about it. As a matter of fact, time and again the orcas would charge over to largest fast moving vessels (usually commercial fishing boats) in the area.
There is a phenomenon often referred to as ‘evaporating whales’, when whatever orcas are nearby just disappear. One minute they are swimming all around, the next they are just gone. There is nothing gradual about it, it happens in the blink of an eye – sometimes you will see them surface far away, but usually they disappear without a trace. Amazingly, on two different occasions I watched from shore as these wily beasties pulled this stunt – only to reappear just as suddenly once the whale watching boats left. It would seem that the orcas know how to ditch the boats when they have had enough.

At times the orcas are spread out over miles (photo by Candace Whiting)

Sometimes the orcas will stretch themselves out for miles along the shoreline in small groups or the occasional solitary individual, and at times they pepper themselves out not just along the shoreline, but for miles offshore as well. If the water is at all rough it becomes a needle in the haystack effort to locate them. In those cases the whale watch boats naturally gravitate to the whales which are breaching and splashing – always a crowd pleaser – leaving the remaining groups in peace. Several times in the early summer adult/calf pairs would hang out quietly near shore with no boats nearby, and I could see other orcas breaching not far down island surrounded by boats. It looked like the calves were learning how to catch fish, but that is just a guess.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place for me just recently. It was a gorgeous, warm day, the seas were calm, and the whales were active. The boats were thick on the orcas, and the ‘watch’ vessels had their hands full keeping the small pleasure boats informed as to the guidelines of safe whale watching. I was perched on a boulder video taping the scene when a commercial fishing boat cut between the whale watching boats and the shore, right through the group of whales. I was a bit worried about the whales…until I watched in surprise as the orcas regrouped then headed for that big, loud, fast moving vessel. I had seen them do this before, but usually farther offshore where it was harder to tell what was going on. There was no mistaking it this time – the whales swam over, and started to slap the water with their flukes (tails). They rolled around and just seemed to enjoy the turbulent water generated by the boat, and didn’t seem to attempt to ride the boat’s wake.

Victoria Clipper (photo by Candace Whiting)

Watching that made me wonder if the orcas take advantage of ship generated turbulence to help drive salmon, and I wondered about that again yesterday as I bobbed in a small boat and witnessed similar behavior when the huge Victoria Clipper came on the scene.
Maybe the orcas have figured out that when they are ‘putting on a show’, boats will often slow down. Or perhaps it is just exciting for them to be in any kind of turbulent water, the captain of the yesterday’s boat voiced this thought, saying that he noticed that the whales seem to be more active in tidal rips (where the incoming tide collides with slow moving water).

Double tail lobbing (photo by Candace Whiting)

Researchers know that the orcas are in communication over a mile or more, and it is conceivable that the whales may have figured out that they can distract the boats away when they want. The whales were known to do this during the captures that took place for amusement parks back in the 1960s and 70s, when the females and calves would dive and the males would swim off on the surface, luring the captors away.
The only way to find out what is going on with the orcas is to spend more time watching them, which is why it is so important to continue to permit the whale watching boats to get close enough to the orcas to really observe them. Those men and women are out there every single day, all day long, and their only agenda is to bring people out to see the whales – but they notice things that might otherwise be overlooked. Scientists don’t have the budget or the staff to be out there all day, every day; the funding just isn’t there – also scientists tend to have very specific, narrow questions they ask when they do go out on the water with the orcas.
The whale watch boats are able to police each other, and keep an eye out for uninformed boaters. They watch for new calves, note the condition of the orcas, and report back to researchers if there are problems. The vessels with naturalists on board can, and do, keep notes on which individual whales are there, which whales hang out with which, and where they are.
NOAA is in the final stages of deciding how to protect this small population of endangered whales, and I hope they can find a good balance point without cutting off the whale watching boats, and with them the ability to watch over the orcas.
If it turns out to be true that the whales have ways of ditching the boats when they need to, that they are smart enough to distract us with their antics so that the vulnerable members can forage and rest, and that they have found ways to take advantage of the effect some of the vessels have in their environment, I can see no reason to further limit the whale watchers among this population of orcas.

As I write this, warm and toasty by my computer, those boats are out in the cold, blustery rain on the west side of San Juan Island. Watching, and watching over, the orcas.
Please take our poll on whale watching: The Center for Whale Research

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