Frequently Asked Questions
Our operators often get asked by guests, other boaters and shore-based observers whether our activities affect the whales. We like to get these questions because it shows people care about the welfare of the whales as much as we do. Here are some of the more common questions we hear about whale watching and whale conservation in the Salish Sea:
How is the whale-watch industry in the Salish Sea regulated?
In the mid-1990s, the industry was instrumental in creating a set of strict viewing guidelines that are now used as a model for sustainable practices worldwide. These guidelines were created in cooperation with government agencies and NGOs in Canada and the US and are regularly adjusted to reflect the newest and best available science.
What is included in these guidelines?
The guidelines describe best practices for minimizing underwater noise; establishing distance, speed limit and sonar restrictions; creating clear corridors for the whales to travel; and limiting boat numbers and time spent on scene. All members of the PWWA must adhere to these guidelines, which also apply to any small recreational vessel in the vicinity of whales. Learn more
How are the guidelines enforced?
Maintaining the highest standards for responsible wildlife viewing is critically important to the PWWA. By joining our association, operators agree to abide by the viewing guidelines and act as positive representatives for the industry. Every member has a strong vested interest in ensuring that compliance is industry-wide. Any violations are immediately addressed, and compliance is reviewed at regular captain meetings that include representatives from two official enforcement agencies—Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
What do the guidelines say about distance from the whales?
Current guidelines say that all vessels—including commercial whale watchers, recreational boaters and kayakers—must approach no less than 200 metres from southern resident killer whales in Canadian waters and 100 metres away from transient (Bigg’s) killer whales. In the US, vessels must approach no less than at least 200 yards from killer whales.
Why do boats often seem closer than that?
Accurately estimating distance over water is challenging for an untrained eye, whether you’re watching from another boat or from shore. It’s a well-known visual phenomenon—known as foreshortening—where objects appear to be much closer to each other than they actually are. Our captains are experienced at estimating distances on water and routinely overcorrect to remove any doubt. Some of our captains also use radar and laser range-finders to ensure they’re at the required distance from the whales.
Are there any rules about speed around the whales?
Moving slowly keeps noise to a minimum, which is why the guidelines also govern speed of vessels approaching and near the whales. Recent studies have shown that vessel speed near the whales is the biggest contributor to noise disturbance. Based on this new information and advised by acoustic experts, the PWWA adjusted its guidelines in winter 2018 to expand the go-slow (7 knots) zone to a one-kilometre or 0.62-mile radius around the whales.
Why do whale watching boats seem to chase the whales?
We can understand why this perception would be upsetting. But it’s not the reality. Our guidelines state that boats must slowly approach and parallel the whales at the required distance or more. This is why you may see a small line of boats set off at a distance beside the whales. There are strict rules against pursuing the whales from behind or “leap-frogging” up in front of them. Departures must also be at the prescribed slow speed.
Why are there so many boats around the whales?
As ecotourism increases in popularity in the Salish Sea this has been an ongoing topic of discussion within the PWWA. We always strive for a balance between minimizing our impact on the whales and providing an enriching and enjoyable wildlife experience for all. But ultimately, the welfare of the whales takes precedence. That’s why in winter 2018, PWWA placed limits on the number of commercial boats on scene, and on the length of time a boat spends on scene. Our captains work hard to coordinate arrivals and departures, and spend a large portion of their tours looking at other wildlife.
Why do I sometimes see boats right next to whales?
Whales are wild animals and they don’t know the rules. If the whales turn toward a boat, the captain makes every reasonable effort to slowly back up out of their way. If a whale unexpectedly surfaces near a boat—as sometimes happens—the engine is turned off or put into neutral, if safe to do so, until the whale has passed.
Are boats allowed to park in the path of whales?
Absolutely not. All vessels, even kayaks, are forbidden to knowingly park in the path of whales. If you see a commercial boat deliberately doing that, we’d like to hear about it.
Why are boats allowed to herd the whales into shore?
We can see how it might sometimes look that way, especially from land. But as any seasoned whale observer will tell you, wild whales do what they want, when they want. Viewing them as we do at the surface, we often forget that more than 95 per cent of their lives take place in a multi-dimensional realm out of our sight. If the whales are close to shore it’s because they choose to be. They can (and do!) easily move offshore when they want, while boats are present
Wouldn’t it be best to leave the killer whales alone?
For anyone who loves whales—including us—it’s tempting to think this. But in today’s world it’s not realistic or advisable. The marine environment is under siege from many directions and as human populations continue to increase these pressures will intensify. As whale watch operators, we’re in a unique position to educate the public about multiple issues impacting this rich but fragile ecosystem. Awareness is the first step to solutions. Inspiring and empowering people to protect the ocean through responsible wildlife viewing is at the heart of PWWA’s conservation mission.
Why don’t you view other wildlife on your tours?
We do. Watching killer whales (when they’re around) is only a small part of each tour. Our captains and naturalists—many of whom are marine scientists and educators—show our guests as much diversity as possible to help them appreciate how interconnected life is within this ecosystem. In addition to killer whales, we can see humpback, minke and grey whales; porpoise, seals and sea lions; river and sea otters; and an astounding variety of coastal birds. We’ll even stop to talk about the ecological significance of kelp forests and food-fish bait balls. We consider our boats to be classrooms on the water!
Some reports say killer whale populations are booming, others say they’re endangered. Which is it?
There are two very separate populations of killer whale, or orca, that we see in the Salish Sea. In recent years, we’ve had record sightings of transient, or Bigg’s, killer whales, which eat marine mammals such as seals, sea lions and porpoises. This population is thriving. But based on annual census data from the Center for Whale Research, the endangered southern resident killer whale population has been declining since 1995 and is showing no sign of recovery. As of June 2018, there are only 75 whales left in this iconic population.
Why are the southern resident killer whales endangered?
Although there are many reasons, scientific evidence links increased whale mortality to periods of low chinook (king) salmon abundance. Chinook salmon makes up at least 80 per cent of their diet. Over the last 35 years, chinook numbers in the Salish Sea have declined drastically, mainly due to human activity.
Isn’t whale watching one reason the southern resident killer whales are endangered?
There’s no evidence that whale watching is a significant factor in their decline. If that were the case, transient killer whales and humpback whales wouldn’t be doing so well in the same environment. Scientific studies on stress hormones in the southern residents show that when there’s sufficient food, boat noise and disturbance have a low effect. But when chinook salmon are scarce, as they are now year after year, and the whales have to work longer and harder to find what little food there is, any noise disturbance undoubtedly has a greater effect.
What is the whale watching industry doing to reduce sound disturbance?
Science shows that speed is the biggest indicator of noise disturbance, so PWWA has recently strengthened the guidelines to slow down our vessels at a greater distance from the whales. While near the whales, operators shut off their engines as much as possible. They also limit their time with the whales, especially when they’re foraging. Recently, a number of operators have had their boats acoustically tested to see what modifications can be made to further reduce underwater sound. Our operators are always looking for new ways to minimize their impact on whales and other wildlife in the Salish Sea.
How does whale watching help the whales?
All members of the PWWA share a passion for the Salish Sea and its wildlife and are deeply committed to protecting it for future generations. PWWA operators regularly support salmon restoration projects and participate in community outreach activities related to whale and marine conservation. We routinely contribute to whale research, both financially and by sharing valuable sighting information collected on the water with government agencies and research organizations. We’re often the first to spot problems on the water, such as whale entanglements, and serve as a caution sign around the whales, signaling private boaters to slow down.
How can I help the whales?
We love to get this question! Please go to the website of the Center for Whale Research, which has loads of information on the whales and what you can do. The whales need our help now, more than ever!