Thursday, July 30, 2009

Orcas and Ecotourism

How much of our fascination with orcas is too much? How many boats, how much underwater noise can they take? At what point, given the dwindling salmon supply, are the whales either going to leave this area permanently or gradually succumb to the environmental stressors and just die off?

CWR 2009 Photo by Erin Heydenreich

No one knows. And that is the problem.

We do know that they are endangered locally, and their survival depends upon our ability to figure it out and set sustainable guidelines…compromises between our desire to watch them as they live their lives as wild, free, and peaceful animals and their ability to cope with us. And in these rotten economic times, we do have to take into serious consideration the businesses and individuals that rely upon the income generated by whale watching tourism. But the whales may not be able to endure it much longer.

In previous posts we have discussed how our resident orcas are constrained in their movements by where they can find salmon, and how the geographic and oceanographic features of the area put the orcas so close to us as they forage. They really can't get away from our boats and noise without leaving. And for them to look elsewhere for food means acquiring a new culture, new ways to hunt fish and to find each other for mating. And still, we would dog them wherever we spotted them because they are so enchanting to us.

The government proposes to give them a break in one small part of their range while we figure it all out - while we learn how much the orcas really can tolerate - and we concentrate on restoring salmon stocks.

We'll just have to adjust, adapt to new rules, and take the long view. After all, they have been adapting to us for centuries.


  1. I do wonder - because in many ways we still know so little about orcas - where do we draw the line? I was watching this documentary on orcas ( which features CWR's Kenneth Balcomb, and the other scientist, Paul Spong, believes that no people in boats should interact with orcas at all. No matter the distance.

    What are your thoughts on that?

  2. It is such a dilema. Whale interactions are such a double-edged sword. If people never interact with whales, people will cease to care. It is the ease of access that has swept up the current positive feelings about them. It is the availability to the masses that has brought about the masses sharing their experiences with others and doing the simple act of simply reading this blog.

    You know, my friend went to the Congo a year ago and he visited the Virunga gorillas. He showed me amazing photos of them and thier habitat. This caused me to begin researching those gorillas and other higher primates by using the internet and National Geographic and when I see a show on gorillas, I always tell other friends about this amazing trip that my 'gorilla friend' took.

    In having one person in my circle of friends experience something so wonderful, I have assited those gorillas, who are a half a world away, by educating others with the little I now know about them. If my friend had not had that experience, I would not possess the little bit of knowledge that I do have. I would not be able to spread the word. I would continue to be an ignorant bystander while the poachers continue to work. Right now, I might give money or join an action group in some way to help the gorillas. Without my friend's contact, I would not.

    The same goes for the whales. There have been thousands of tourists spending time with the Southern Resident population over the last 10 years. It is the unfolding of that network that has caused such a strong affection for those whales. If it was only researchers and government employees who went out to see them, there would be little to no connection with them by the public.

    That is the double edge. If access is severely resticted to the masses, then the masses will not care about them to the degree that the masses need to care. If access is open, the whales will suffer unduly.

    To maintain the whale watching business as current, there is a base of "fans/followers/defenders". To restrict access will diminish the public's interest. I just hope that the interest does not fall to the pre-1970s level, when we had no respect and no knowledge of them. It was our ignorance and non-connection by the public that made the orca hunts of the 70s possible and fruitful.

    Those hunts were also a double-edged sword, as the whales are still suffering the consequences, yet human-kind shattered the invisible barrier and we began to do science on the whales. Only by breaking that barrier has human-kind come to kindly associate with the orca and endeavor to assist in the orca's survival.

    Be careful when restricting access. We must not dis-associate the public. And take government direction with a grain of salt; look what happened when humans tried to decide how to treat Luna and how much access was too much or not enough. That question is still not answered.

  3. Bryan - Interesting question. I think that if we could count on people to behave responsibly 100% of the time, and to travel in non-motorized vehicles - then I can see no reason why we would need any restrictions.

    My sense of the orcas is that they are curious and interested in humans, but when they are engaged in activities that require their full attention (such as foraging for fish) they could care less one way or the other about us.

    Of course we want to see them and engage them on our own schedules - we plan to spend our leisure time and our hard earned dollars on ventures out to see them - but too often our timing conflicts with theirs and then people behave badly, chasing after them etc.

    So I think that the problem is not 'whether' we are out there in their environment, but 'how' we are out there, and history tells us that we need laws to govern our own behavior.

  4. BigTrav- Very thoughtful comments, and a great distillation of the problem.

    What I believe to be true is that we need to do something, and do it now, to turn the situation around. The laws can be changed, updated, or even removed entirely in the future.

    But we can't bring back the whales if they die, and no one wants that to happen.

    I'd like to see the government establishing more whale watching parks and land based places to see them, it would be easier on everyone.

    The tour boats seem to be doing a lot of good work these days, educating the public and teaching people how to behave responsibly around the whales. Maybe they can come up with self policing methods, and ways to drastically cut the engine noise, and the regulations can be relaxed.

    In the meantime though, the whales need a place to be free of our intrusion, while we figure it out.

    My brother said something similar about the Mountain Gorillas by the way, his comment to me was that people will care when they understand the orcas.

    Double-edged sword, definitely.

  5. Hi,

    I think the tour boats are great for education, however, it's the private boats out there that need more policing then anything. Sure, there are some that understand, but ... I'm glad to see more enforcement and new guidelines that are stricter happening. It's been long needed, and it's only another step in helping these wonderful creatures keep their environment. After all, we are only there VISITING them, and we should show respect for their home as a visitor would in OUR home. (or should, anyways!)

  6. I would like to see regulations directly aimed at underwater noise reduction. Boats make such a racket.. it must drive the orcas CRAZY!! It was said a couple times in these posts that teh tour boats are good for education. That is so true. I have been on them several times. The professional boats generally behave exactly how they are supposed to. It is usually the private craft that venture in too closely and behave in a negative fashion.

    What probably needs to happen the most is to give the whales more wardens; more blue boats (SoundWatch, etc). The professionaly boats need to be forced into creating/using sound reduction technology in/on/with their engines and the whales need more humans to travel with them to shoo and educate the masses.

    I am worried about doubling the distance for watching the whales. I have been out on the tour boats over a long time span. ten years ago, there was little direction to follow when near the whales. The captain used to go out in front and intentionally position his boat so the whales would most likely pass beneath. This is now a prohibited behaviour. Then the rules changed and the boats stay back 100 yards at all times. The old tactic was exciting. It brought the whales into clear view for the passengers. The drivers were good and could maneouver such that we usually got to see the orca as they passed under the boat. This is the most exciting moment while whale watching. These days, those moments are very rare indeed. These days, sometimes, it seems the whales are a very long way from the boat. To double that distance, in my opinion, would make a whale watching trip not worth $100.

    If it becomes not economically viable for the guest, then the tour companies will cease to exist. I am in favour of some level of interaction with the whales (see my earlier post). It is true that the problem is not with the tour boats. It is with the volume of boats and the general racket that they make. It is also with the sometimes reckless behaviour of private craft.

    I think canoes and kayaks should not be restricted AT ALL. As a matter of fact, they should be encouraged.

  7. Anonymous and BigTrav,

    I agree about the private power craft, and I think most of those folks don't see the harm they are doing because they don't think about the all the other boats out there.

    And I also agree that we have to get people out to see the orcas, politely and with respect.

    Maybe making an exception for kayaks, canoes, and sailboats, or any quiet craft would motivate people to come up with other solutions. We have to get away from gas powered engines eventually anyway.

  8. Candace,

    That is my point, exactly.

  9. Personally, I feel that the current guidelines for watching whales to be flawed. Currently, boaters are asked to stay 100m away and move alongside the whales. The 100m part is fine, but it disturbs me that this method asks boaters to be moving consistantly, making more noise, rather than asking them to move ahead of the group, shut off the engine and just watch in silence.

    I feel the new rules being proposed are excessive and it's just an easy way to make it seem like more action is being taken to protect these animals, while the more serious issues of pollution and declining salmon stocks remains ignored.

  10. What are the major concerns with boats and whales. Common sense tells me, noise and fumes. The regulations require boats to maintain 100 yards....regardless of motors on/off. This is not going to help. If your engines are on, then you shouldn't be within 400 yards of these animals, not only to reduce noise but what about all those fumes billowing out of the exhaust and settling on the surface of the water? What happened to the "stop and wait" way of watching whales, acting like a floating pilon on the water where they can echolocate you easily?

  11. This comment has been removed by the author.

  12. Thank you for the this post and discussion. I too feel concern for the new proposed guidelines for a variety of reasons and I am all about protecting the orcas. I also watch orcas from land and from boats, the boat I am on uses a whale friendly drive for noise reduction underwater. To me the new guidelines also create new problems... And after it's all said and done, will this change actually make a difference in saving these whales? I think it's time to start enforcing boater education upon obtaining a license, enforcing greener boating technology, enforcing a reformed 100 yard guideline, and most importantly, address the fish crisis. I feel this 200 yard guideline is approaching the weakest of impacts and therefor will make very little difference while spending incredible amounts of energy, money and time. If we're going to do this, let's do it right. That is my personal feeling...

  13. My apologies for not getting back to this sooner! We have decided to confine the posts on this subject to our blog on the Seattle P.I. for the time being, please join us there!

    Right now we're just presenting the case as it is being made by NMFS and are trying to keep our own opinions out...but yours are all welcome!



Candace Calloway Whiting