GRACE UNDER PRESSURE: The Controversy of Boating with Orcas

By A. Michael Kundu, Director, Project SeaWolf

Six gleaming black fins burst to the surface in an explosion of vapor. "Here they come," calls Bob Otis as he leaves the Lime Kiln lighthouse and heads toward the rocks below. Within seconds he has aimed his powerful spotting scope at the pod and starts recording data. "It's J-2 Pod," he says confidently, recognizing the distinctively ruffled 6-foot dorsal fin of J-1, largest male orca in the southern community. Already we could hear the drone of engines racing to intercept them. Within minutes the whales are completely surrounded by a flotilla of noisy power boats. "Just like yesterday," says Otis, "they'll probably follow the pod right back to border."

Each summer, thousands of tourists travel to the coastal waters between Vancouver Island and Washington State to search for killer whales (commonly called "orcas" in order to dispel misconceptions about the species). Located in the accessible boundary waters, Washington's San Juan Archipelago has become known as the central location for regional orca activity.

The three southern pods of killer whales, composed of 88 individual animals, are frequently assailed by powerboats and kayaks as they forage for salmon along the west coast of San Juan Island. Killer whales and other marine mammals living in these coastal waters are becoming an increasing source of revenue for local communities and businesses. In the San Juan Archipelago alone, whale-watching generates over 45 million dollars in direct and secondary revenue annually. Although the whales support jobs, tourism and research opportunities, scientists and residents alike have begun asking themselves, "Just how much more intrusion can these animals tolerate?"

For the last three summers, Bob Otis has been trying to answer that question. Otis, a professor from Ripon College in Wisconsin, is studying the impact of boats on the behaviour of the orcas that travel past Washington's Lime Kiln Park -- the nation's only federally established whale-watching park. Otis and his students have documented hundreds of whale-boat interactions. One of his main concerns is the growing number of boats around these orcas.

"Each summer we've observed triple the amount of boats from the previous year," Otis says. "On one occasion this year, we counted 67 boats hovering around these animals." Otis adds that whales also tend to act unusual around kayakers, who frequently speed out to get closer to the passing animals. "It's easy for kayaks and smaller boat to sneak up on orcas," he says, "and we've documented whales skipping or cutting short a breathing cycle when encountering kayakers."

Otis has also seen larger boats accelerate over submerged animals and place themselves into the path of the whales as they attempt to surface for air. Studies conducted in Canada have shown that orcas frequently stop vocalizing when powerboats pass into their immediate range. "Beyond the obvious spacial intrusion, we can only speculate how disrupting the underwater engine sounds must be," he adds, "engines drown out the low frequencies that these whales use to echolocate and communicate with each other."

Researchers have collected considerable data suggesting that noise pollution has a negative effect on cetaceans. Over the last decade, grey whales migrating along the west North American coastline have changed their migration routes substantially, to remain further away from shore. Fin whales, which also communicate socially at low frequencies, have been forced to contend with increased noise output from large oceanic freighters. Pelagic and aerial sighting records indicate that both fin and grey whales are now avoiding the main shipping routes in the open seas.

Unlike the fin and grey whales, orcas belong to the suborder Odontoceti, or the "toothed whales." Members of their suborder depend on sonar to locate prey and examine their surroundings. Due to their accessibility, the whales roaming the San Juan waters are subjected to even higher levels of recreational boat traffic and interfering noise pollution than their offshore cousins.

On the U.S. side of the San Juan Archipelago/Gulf Islands region alone, more than 16 commercial tour operators have surfaced in this last decade. Combined with over 220,000 powerboats registered in Washington, countless additional kayakers, canoeists, commercial fishing and industry vessels, the region's marine mammals face a considerable amount of aquatic competition plying the waters surrounding the archipelago. Otis harbors a growing concern that many of this region's boaters are unaware of important behavioral and feeding patterns of marine mammals.

Even still, some people are scepticle about the length of time it is taking for Otis to define results with his observations. And a few people even feel that a critical part of Otisí research will always be missing -- primarily the baseline behavioural data of how the southern resident orcas would act without any tourboats present. Yet many people are still hoping that his observation will lead to some quantifiable results.

And while even Otis admits that, in the nine summers he has spent in the sunny San Juan Islands, he has not yet identified any hard evidence suggesting that orcas always change their behaviour around powerboats, he does point out that his observations are strictly visual and that there is no way of knowing what physiological changes these whales undergo when surrounded by buzzing watercraft. "It may entail more intrusive research to get those answers, " Otis confesses, "but after all, if these boats are affecting the whales adversely, we need to know about it."

Steering the cruiser around Cattle Point at the southern end of San Juan Island, Capt. Michael Bennett points to the sickle-shapped fin of a minke whale rolling in the herring-rich waters over Salmon Bank. Bennett is director-of-operations for Mosquito Fleet Enterprises, a charter scenic/whale-watching operation providing tours around the San Juan Islands. Bennett's summertime business depends largely on the seasonal presence of the resident whales.

"Every year, we carry hundreds of passengers around the San Juan Islands to search for marine mammals," says Bennett, "people are particularly fascinated by the orcas -- they just can't seem to get enough of them."

Bennett boasts an impressive history of piloting boats around whales. An ardent diver, he has worked extensively with National Geographic whale photographer Flip Nicklin in Argentina and Hawaii. Bennett's respect for cetaceans is evident when he talks about his concern for their preservation. "Sure there's a potential impact here," he says, "and I believe that our industry is best suited to becoming part of the solution."

The Mosquito Fleet regularly conducts joint summer tours with the Seattle Aquarium. Buzz Shaw, educational coordinator for the aquarium, frequently accompanies these tours. Shaw agrees with Bennett's inclination for using cruisers to educate the public about the natural history of marine mammals. "Larger tour boats are better suited for responsible whale-watching," says Shaw, "they're slower and less obtrusive than zodiacs, and there's ample room for educational programming on board."

Bennett's crew includes a staff naturalist who provides tourists with interpretative programs about marine wildlife and ocean ecology. "Our curriculum is designed to make people aware of the delicate balance of nature that keeps whales in this region," says Bennett. "The better informed people, are, the greater the chance that they will behave responsibly when they return in their own boats."

Bennett believes that most legitimate tour operators act responsible around whales. "Tour boat operators are highly visible," he says, "if any of these drivers act irresponsibly, it hurts the whole industry."

The Mosquito Fleet and a handful of other regional tour groups are part of a professional spotting network operated by Sea Coast Expeditions on Canada's Vancouver Island. In return for receiving information about current sightings and whale whereabouts, Sea Coast subscribers adhere to federal regulations and observe a strict code of behaviour while operating around cetaceans. "Our industry is in a great position to educate the public," say Bennett, "it would be a shame for us to waste this opportunity."

While Bennett is a strong advocate of industry self-regulation, he feels that increased efforts must be made to educate private boaters about existing regulations.

"Last month, we witnessed a blatant case of harassment by a private boater who kept riding up on a resident bull orca named Taku (K-1)," says Bennett. "We tried to call this guy on radio-phone to get him to back off, but he just wasn't responding. Finally we had to report him to the Fisheries Service."

Under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, the "taking" of cetaceans is a federal violation, punishable by up to a $10,000 fine. The MMPA defines "taking" as the deliberate harassment, hunting, capturing or killing of marine mammals. Falling under the umbrella of provisions included in the MMPA, federally established guidelines prohibit boaters -- including kayaks and inflatable crafts -- from actively approaching cetaceans closer than 100 yards. This provision also applies to aircraft flying lower than 1000 feet over marine mammals. In Washington, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is responsible for enforcement of the MMPA, but since 1989, the average number of cases prosecuted has been less than two per year.

"It's a classic staff shortage problem," says Elizabeth Mitchell, a lawyer for the enforcement branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), whose department handles prosecutions for the NMFS. "Our 17 officers, responsible for all areas of both Washington and Oregon states, are scattered around a handful of regional offices. There's an awful lot of coastline here and frankly, we're not always in the right place at the right time."

Mitchell confesses that another reason that harassment is sometimes difficult to prosecute is because of the term's inherent ambiguity. "We've got to be able to prove that harassment has occurred, and that the whales are behaving differently from their normal patterns."

While Mitchell's remarks underscore the importance of Bob Otis' studies on San Juan Island, she is quick to emphasize the significance of the existing 100-yard approach guideline. "That 100-yard limit is a safe, necessary buffer zone for the welfare of the whales," she says, "unfortunately, we know that some boaters routinely violate this limit. That's why we try to encourage private citizens to report the name and I.D. number of any violator's vessel."

With the amount of marine traffic found in the inland waterways off Washington and British Columbia, orca-boat interactions are frequent and inevitable. While unintentional violations of the proximity regulations are unavoidable, it is the intentional harassment that concerns researchers and other whale enthusiasts the most. Both Otis and Bennett frequently witness boaters deliberately violating the proximity restrictions. "I've watched some powerboats practically ride up on an unsuspecting orca's back," says Otis. "People seem to think that whales are always alert and capable of dodging approaching boats. That's absurd -- there's no reason to believe that they're always vigilant or mindful of the world around them."

And like the others, Buzz Shaw agrees. Shaw once watched a J-pod orca accidentally collide with a log during a rest session. "I watched this whale swim right into a floating dead-head. It didn't seem to hurt her, but certainly makes me question whether or not they're totally aware of what's around them at all times." Shaw also recounts an incident where a local researcher in an inflatable vessel drifted over a resting orca, which promptly surfaced underneath the zodiac. "Maintaining that 100-yard distance is important," adds Shaw, "those larger cruisers can do a great deal of damage to a whale."

The Whale Museum at Friday Harbor frequently receives calls from people wanting to report cases of cetacean harassment. Jon Luke, curator of the educational museum, confesses that most of these calls rarely end up in any legal action. "It's clear that most people are sincerely upset about what they see, but in order to us to involve the Fisheries Service, we need to have hard evidence of the incident." Luke feels that private citizen witnesses are perhaps the most effective solution for controlling the harassment problem.

As an example, Luke credits the work of individuals like Ray Sheffer, the retired sheriff of San Juan County. Sheffer, who lives on a western bluff north of Lime Kiln Point, now spends most of his summers watching the orcas swim past his vantage point. "To me, it's not a question of whether or not they're affected by the powerboats," say Sheffer, "how couldn't they be?" Sheffer is convinced that studies like Bob Otis's will ultimately provide positive evidence that boats have a negative impact on the orcas. "For the moment," says Sheffer, "I'm more interested in how we can safeguard these whales until the damned data comes in!"

Sheffer has been involved in a handful of successful prosecutions of whale harassment. His immediate reaction to the notion of industry self-regulation is cynicism. "I've spent 35 years in law enforcement, and I can't think of a single incident of successful self-regulation. These tour boats make a profit from the animals," says Sheffer. "You'll have one boat pushing to get their clients better photographs, then the next guy follows suit and pretty soon everyone's on top of the whales! As long as there's money to be made, you're not going to see any voluntary form of restraint."

While Sheffer is critical of the whale-watching industry's behaviour on the water, he does credit it for its educational component. "What we really need is a method of access regulation -- a limit on the number of tour boats allowed around the whales, and to really make a difference, we need aggressive enforcement of all violations of the MMPA."

Meanwhile, Sheffer has developed his own form of spotting network -- a shoreline resident's network dedicated to documenting photographic evidence of cetacean harassment cases. "We've established an informal watchdog brigade," says Sheffer. "Using camera equipment and telephones, we track boaters we see harassing whales until someone living along the shoreline get the culprit's image and boat I.D. numbers on film." Sheffer has had remarkable success in bringing this form of hard evidence to the NMFS. Both Jon Luke and Elizabeth Mitchell credit Sheffer with contributing to the successful conviction of past violators. "He's certainly diligent," says Luke, "it would be great if we could get that kind of help from everybody out there on the water."

With the increasing use of coastal waterways by recreational boaters and commercial operators, orcas and other marine mammals will inevitably be exposed to increasing levels of stress and habitat encroachment. Adaptive behaviour has been thoroughly documented in cetaceans. Orcas now avoid the regions of Penn Cove, Washington and Pender Harbour, British Columbia; sites of many previous orca captures. Harbour porpoise numbers in San Juan waters have dramatically decreased in the last decade, primarily due to their intolerance to the increased boat traffic and fishing activities in the area. These reactions seem to suggest that the typical cetacean response to increased stress and spacial encroachment is to permanently withdraw from an area. Unfortunately, with the proliferation of human settlement and the decline of coastal habitat, there are fewer places left to which the orcas can retreat.

In the San Juan Islands, the disappearance of the orca would be a definite catastrophe -- both to the ecology and the economy of the region. It appears that the most viable solution is to geometrically increase the ecological awareness of all user groups in these inland waterways. By combining the efforts of researchers and tourism groups, and by providing more window opportunities for public involvement in active data collection and interpretation, perhaps we can establish a symbiotic model of responsible interaction between humankind and marine mammals in the San Juan Archipelago region.

Increased public education initiatives, combined with increased government enforcement of MMPA regulations, appears to be the most comprehensive solution to marine habitat encroachment. "But that's only going to start when everyone gets together on the issue," summarizes Buzz Shaw, "right now, the naturalists still blame the researchers, the researchers blame the tour operators, the tour operators blame the private boaters, and so on. It's too bad that the whales can't just pop up and give us their verdict, then we can just get on with it and try to solve the problem."

In January of 1994, when congress ratifies proposed amendments to the 1972 MMPA, cetaceans living in American waters may find themselves exposed to a realm of new pressures, brought on by changes in industrial and environmental policies. Proposed studies, including high-decibal acoustic thermometry experiments across the Pacific ocean floor and military tests involving the underwater detonation of explosives close to crucial cetacean habitats, will further degrade the quality of pelagic ecosystems. At a time when the oceans are facing increasing ecological degradation, orcas and other marine mammals must learn to adapt to these conditions and cope with the added impact of eco-tourism and multiple resource use. In the face of this great adversity, the southern resident pods seem, for now, to be maintaining a stable population.

J, K and L-pods are reproducing at a rate of approximately 1% annually; a small increase, but an increase nevertheless. Over the next decade, tourism, pelagic recreation, habitat destruction and marine pollution will doubtlessly increase, along with potential competition from humans over the depleted fisheries populations in the Pacific northwest. Just how well these orcas fare will depend on how well we become acquainted with their behavioral and physiological ethology. Non-intrusive field studies, like those performed by Otis and other researchers, are central to gaining this understanding, while still allowing the orcas to remain free in their preferred and natural habitats.

Turning west toward the Strait of Juan De Fuca, J-2 subpod, led by the impressive bull with the towering dorsal fin, heads out toward the open waters of the Pacific. "If they keep heading in that direction, they just might shake the flotilla," proclaims Otis, as he points to the rougher swells occupying the middle current of the strait. As if on cue, the bull orca guides his four female companions away from the noisy armada and out into the deep blue water. In the distance, two other sub-pods appear. The straggling cruisers appear undecided about whether to commit to the open passage; most subsequently changing their headings and return northward. Ultimately, only one single sailboat unfurls a spinnaker to tack into the wind after the orcas. "I guess that means they'll get a short reprieve," says Otis, noticeably relieved that the whales have been granted an intermission of sorts.

Minutes later, when both orcas and cruisers have passed out of our vision, the prevailing sound shifts once again to the shrill cries of foraging terns and gulls. The empty strait has recovered its serene, non-controversial composure.


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Michael Kundu, Founder & Director of Project SeaWolf

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