There is much contention these days over whale watching in the Salish Sea. The Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery and Task Force, charged with creating a list of recovery actions to save the southern resident killer whales, decided to make an 11th hour, back-room decision to include a 3-5 year ban on commercial whale watching in the Salish Sea in their recommendation package to Governor Inslee. This was done without public input, without consultation with biologists, and without talking to the Pacific Whale Watch Association.
Imagine for a movement, all other factors remaining the same, that there was never a whale watching industry in southern resident killer whale territory.
Imagine how this would have impacted how we view these animals and their population status today.
Without whale watching, we would not know the unique personalities of each individual southern resident killer whale. The naturalists that spend years watching the animals know them all by sight and can tell you about their quirks and temperaments. The Whale Museum would have a difficult time offering unique, personalized whale adoption packages that provide adoptees with intricate details about an individual whales’ personality and life history. These adoption packages are extremely popular and are purchased by people all over the world and contribute to conservation.
Without whale watching, we would not know the spunk and character of J50, the little whale who was photographed by many whale watchers displaying her exuberant and boisterous aerial behaviors:
One of the most popular photos of J50, taken by Clint Rivers of Eagle Wing Whale Watching Tours.
Without whale watching, millions of people would not have been exposed to the charismatic southern killer whale population. The majority of companies in the Salish Sea belong to the Pacific Whale Watch Association, a coalition of whale watching companies that adhere to strict federal and voluntary guidelines. The naturalists on these vessels are often scientists and educators and impart a valuable wealth of knowledge on their passengers; even when whales are not seen, they make an effort teach passengers about the natural history and conservation issues of the southern resident killer whales (I can attest to this personally after my whale-less trip in Victoria, BC). Not only do they expose their paying guests to the world of southern resident killer whales, many of these companies and their employees also actively participate on social media and bring the whales to people who have never laid eyes on them through video and professional photographs (See Tasli Shaw, Gary Sutton, Grace Guiney, and Sara Shimazu for examples)
Without whale watching, biologists would have much less access to the valuable data that daily observations bring. Full-time biologists cannot afford to spend every day surveying the whales due to financial and time constraints. Whale watchers in the Salish Sea are often the first to document a new calf, interesting behaviors, and inform biologists of the whales’ whereabouts.
Without whale watching, there would be less monitoring of private whale watching in the Salish Sea. Private boaters are the biggest violators of whale watching regulations, and commercial whale watching vessels are often the first to hail a private vessel and inform them of the whales’ presence and the proper vessel conduct.
Finally, without whale watching, the world would have never known about J35 Tahlequah’s mournful, 17-day long journey carrying her dead calf. Her actions have caused the world to zero in on the southern resident killer whale population and demand action. Whale watching has been critically examined as a result of this newfound attention. Ironically, it was whale watchers who first saw her with her calf, still very much alive at first, and reported it to biologists. Without them, the world may have never known about Tahlequah and her calf.
Make no mistake, whale watching can have negative impacts on whales. However, whale watching in the Salish Sea is among the most regulated whale watching activities in the world. When done correctly, whale watching has minimal impact on the animals, and any negative effects are usually offset by the huge conservation benefits whale watching brings. That being said, I see no issue with further regulations, such as a permit system for commercial operators.
But keep this in mind: whale watching is not the cause of the southern residents’ decline, and a ban is not a solution. What these whales need most desperately above all else is SALMON. The actions that need to be done to save them are not easy, they are politically charged, and will take hard work to implement. Banning whale watching is a low hanging fruit that the Task Force has claimed as “bold action,” despite the fact it does not address the main issue of prey availability.
The whales are starving. Banning boats will not bring them fish. You cannot eat what is not there.
Please call Washington State Governor Inslee and urge him to reject a whale watching ban and instead favor solutions for salmon habitat restoration and dam removal. 360-902-4111.