By John Kruse
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission has enacted new rules, meant to help resident orca whales, that will impact commercial whale watching boat operations in Puget Sound.
The endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) numbered as high as 98 in 1995 but declined to 74 orcas by October of 2020. They frequent the North Sound, especially around the San Juan Islands during the summer months. According to Julie Watson, the Killer Whale Policy Lead at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, “The purpose of creating rules for commercial whale watching of SRKW is to reduce the impacts of vessel noise and disturbance on the whales' ability to forage, rest, and socialize while enabling sustainable whale watching”.
In the past, whale watching boats would offer trips featuring sightings of these orcas from May until early October. It isn’t unusual to see a dozen or more commercial boats and numerous private boats watching these whales on any given day. One of the most reliable places to see them during the summer months is on the west side of San Juan Island from Cattle Point north past Lime Kiln State Park to Mitchell Bay.
This area has now been designated a voluntary “no-go” zone for commercial whale watching vessels on a year-round basis. There is an exception for commercial kayak operators (who don’t have engine noise issues to worry about). In addition to this, licensed commercial whale watching boats are now only allowed to view these whales from closer than one half mile from July through September. On top of that, these boat operators can only view the whales from 10 AM to noon and from 3 to 5 PM. Finally, during this time period, only three commercial boats at any given time can be within this ½ mile area around the whales.
These restrictions do not apply to private boaters. However, when it comes to killer whales, everyone in Washington waters is required to:
1. Stay 300 yards from either side of orcas
2. Stay 400 yards behind orcas
3. Stay 400 yards out of orcas’ path
4. Slow down to a speed of under seven knots within a ½ mile of orcas
I spoke with Beau Brandon, the owner of Outer Island Excursions operating out of Anacortes, Bellingham and the San Juan Islands. When asked about how the “three boats at a time rule” was going to work, Brandon replied, “I don’t think even the rule makers have an understanding of how this is going to work. It makes for a conundrum for whale watching operators to follow the rules, especially when they are vague or hard to understand. For example, can we have three boats following each one of the individual pods (from the SRKW) and what happens when the pods come together?”
Brandon is concerned about these new regulations. In the past, commercial whale watching boat captains have acted as sentinels for the whales. They have modeled good behavior by abiding by the stand-off rules so private boaters could see what that looks like and do the same. Whale watching operators have also been the ones that often notify WDFW enforcement officers of boaters who flagrantly violate these rules.
I asked whether these new rules will force him and other whale watching operators out of business? Brandon said relatively little time is spent by their boat captains viewing Southern Resident Killer Whales and they keep their time spent with the SRKW to a short experience to minimize disturbances. In fact, Puget Sound is home to all sorts of marine mammals you can see from commercial wildlife watching boats. This includes transient orca whales, humpback whales, gray whales, minke whales, porpoises, sea lions, seals, eagles, sea birds and more.
The bottom line? There will be some confusion in the months ahead as these new rules are sorted out but don’t let them get you down. You can still have a great day viewing wildlife on a commercial whale watching boat in Puget Sound and do so knowing efforts are being made to further protect our iconic resident orca whales.
John Kruse – www.northwesternoutdoors.com and www.americaoutdoorsradio.com
1. An orca whale off of San Juan Island – J. Kruse
2. A whale watching boat from Outer Island Excursions – J. Kruse
(Editor Note - originally published 2021)