Orca Watching with No Harm Done

This summer, I had the time of my life on a whale-watching boat trip to see orcas around San Juan Island. The orcas I saw are known as Southern Residents — a sub-group or maybe even sub-species of killer whale (the other name by which orcas go). Much to my chagrin, I later discovered.that the presence of the boats can harm this endangered population — not just from collisions as you might guess, but from air and sound pollution, as well as other factors.

Altogether, there are 80 to 90 Southern Residents, distributed among three pods, or extended family groups, known as J Pod, K Pod and L Pod. Each whale has distinctive markings by which it can be recognized. Scientists have used these markings to identify and name the individuals. They have also drawn up genealogical charts showing who is related to whom.

When whale sightings occur, naturalists are able to say which animals they are — whether J1 (born 1951) or J2 (born 1911) and so on. Many of these animals also have English names.

You can imagine what if feels like to return from a whale-watching ride in awe from seeing “Mike” breach, only to learn that your boat may have put Mike’s very health and safety at risk.

Does this mean you should give up the idea of ever whale-watching for orcas in the Pacific Northwest? Not at all! Just don’t take a boat to do it. There are excellent locations for watching whales from land along the Washington and Oregon shores, including Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island.

Read Orca Watching, my October 2009 This Green Life column to learn more. You may also enjoy In the Bay of Whales, a kiss-and-tell story about gray whales at Laguna San Ignacio in Baja, where, by the way, stricter regulations of whale-watching boats exist to protect the whales.


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6 Responses to Orca Watching with No Harm Done

  1. Monika October 16, 2009 at 7:46 pm #


    I was the naturalist on the whale-watch trip you took from San Juan Island. After reading your extended article This Green Life, I’m sorry to hear that you felt your experience did harm to the whales. I can tell you that as a naturalist, biologist, and environmentalist, I care very deeply about the whales and their well-being, and have questioned myself about the pros and cons of whale-watching from a boat. I have decided that the benefits far outway the impacts (or, more accurately, if you read the scientific literature – potential impacts) and I’d like to explain to you why.

    It’s true that vessel effects are one of the three main risk factors facing the endangered Southern Residents, but in my opinion far more crucial to the whales’ survival are the other two issues: prey availability and toxins. I think its unfortunate that you didn’t mention in your article how the whale-watch industry positively impacts the Southern Residents through the education we provide. I make it a point every trip to talk not only about how amazing the orcas are, but all the major issues that face them and how we can all act as stewards not only for the whales but for the entire marine environment.

    This includes educating passengers about the current legal and voluntary vessel operating guidelines that are in place, and why we follow them. We do our best to stay out of the direct path of the whales, don’t approach them within 100 yards (a global whale-watching standard, which often means we stay 150-200 yards off so we can get out of their path if they veer towards us), and keep our engine speed down to minimize the engine noise we put into the water. The regulations that most whale-watch operators have agreed to follow are far more extensive than the current laws on the books. As far as vessel strikes, there has only been one fatality of a Southern Resident from hitting a boat, and that was in the very unique case of L98 Luna, who sought out interactions with boaters when he got separated from his pod. A few weeks ago I actually saw orcas surfing in the wake from a freighter, the loudest, largest, and fastest moving vessel the whales routinely encounter.

    I’m a strong advocate of shore-based whale-watching, and I’m glad that you experienced how great Lime Kiln can be. Whenever I’m not working on the boat, I’m watching whales from shore. It’s a great way to view the whales if you have the time and patience to put into it, but often people will leave the shoreline, if they are lucky enough to have seen the whales, with some great photographs but no deeper understanding of the whales and why they are endangered.

    Just yesterday I was working on the boat and got asked a series of questions by the nine year-old boy onboard. “What does endangered mean?” he asked. “Why are the orcas endangered? Will they always be endangered?” Within the span of our three and a half hour trip, I watched a child transform into an environmentalist. That is precisely why I do what I do.

    With the new proposal put forward by NMFS/NOAA for increased vessel regulations, this issue has received a lot of media attention, and there are many strong opinions out there on both sides of the issue. I gave you my e-mail address at the end of the trip with the hope that we could discuss some of these issues further, but since that didn’t happen I invite you to read a recent post on my blog with more details on why this is such a contentious issue. You can find that post here:

    I recently attended the NOAA meeting here in Friday Harbor about the proposed vessel guidelines, and when I gave my public comment I concluded by saying that so much time has been focused on this vessel issue, but I wish this much energy was being put towards salmon recovery, the true deal breaker for the Southern Residents.

    Monika Wieland
    Marine Naturalist

  2. Sheryl October 22, 2009 at 8:07 am #


    Thanks for writing in. I appreciate your nuanced view and interest in educating the public, as expressed here and in your own blog post, but I have come to different conclusions.

    It is not clear from the science which of the three risk factors you mention is primary, and I don't know that it ever will be. For that reason, I believe it is important to reduce risk in all three categories. I chose to focus on boats in my column because the point of the column is individual action — and choosing land-based whale-watching over boat-based whale-watching is a clear and simple step people can take, whereas reducing toxins and increasing the availability of salmon in the local environment are not.

    That said, I have written about both issues in other contexts in the past. In fact, my very first issue of This Green Life was about avoiding consumption of threatened fish species — http://www.nrdc.org/thisgreenlife/0401.asp. I've also written about body burden in people, which is the same issue, really, as body burden in killer whales. That piece can be found at http://www.nrdc.org/thisgreenlife/0803.asp.

    Like you, I am interested in educating people about environmental issues of concern to me. In my case, I do it with words on a screen. There is no question that that is a less powerful method than showing people real, live animals one is trying to save — but such an experience could be provided on land rather than water, with less risk to the whales.

    I might add that I am a believer in the precautionary principle, which says, to paraphrase, that in the absence of conclusive scientific information, we should err on the side of caution when human health or the environment is at risk.


  3. Deborah October 26, 2009 at 8:51 am #

    What a pleasure to see someone actually discussing the very distinct possibility that whale watching boats are a real part of the problem facing the southern resident killer whales. With the announcement of the new NOAA proposed vessel regulations I have been saddened to hear many people in this community say the regulations are not necessary and that the government should ONLY focus on salmon and toxin issues; I am talking about trained naturalists who know better but who also make their living talking to people on whale watching boats.

    Thanks Sheryl and thanks NRDC for putting out this issue of "This green life".

  4. This Green Life November 5, 2009 at 7:03 am #

    One This Green Life reader asks:

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    These pages have some good information about low VOC stains:

    Ecowise low VOC stain page

    Green Home Environmental Store Non-Toxic Paints and Stains

    GreenSeal website, where they are working on standards for a low VOC stain

  5. Mari November 6, 2009 at 8:32 am #

    Let's leave these orcas alone. To hell with whale watching, if it causes this much harm to their habitat!!!! Humans are so unaware of the damage they do, to wild creatures, by even surveying them!! I suspect human curiosity, and the revenue it generates, is what keeps this harmful spectator interest flourishing.

  6. Sherwood November 6, 2009 at 8:33 am #

    Lime kiln IS amazing; however, there is a good alterative for whale watching, which is to view the whales – and the scenery – as we did, from a kayak tour!

    No noise, no exhaust, and the paddlers can't go too fast, so it is up to the whales to initiate as much contact as they want.

    Heck you might even get a little exercise at the same time (gasp!).