Whale Watching Guidelines

The Pacific Whale Watch Association is one of the most progressive ecotourism business associations in the world. In the mid-1990’s, long before federal mandates, we developed a dynamic set of local whale and wildlife viewing guidelines. These have been modified throughout the years to adjust for the newest and best available science. We have minimized underwater noise, established speed limits, sonar restrictions, and created clear corridors for whales to travel.

background information

The Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) is the transboundary (US and Canada) industry organization representing commercial whale watching operators in the Salish Sea. The first local whale watch association began in the early 1990s working out "Best Practices" around marine mammals. The local association became known as the Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest (WWOANW), representing companies on both sides of the border.  Today the PWWA is beginning to work with whale watch companies from California, Oregon, Alaska and Hawai'i. One of the Association’s major objectives is to assist in the conservation of all marine species in these waters. The development of these Best Practices (guidelines) have given guests from around the world the ability to learn about wildlife through observation while creating minimal to no impact to the animals. The industry, government and non-governmental organization conservation management model employed in these waters (and initiated by PWWA) is one of the most comprehensive self-management conservation frameworks in the world. It has been proven to be one of the most utilized conservation tools wherever charismatic, protected megafauna are viewed, and has been presented at the Conference of the North American Committee for Environmental Cooperation (NACEC) attended by the United States, Canada and Mexico.

pwwa whale viewing diagram

PWWA Viewing Guidelines Temp 2019 2.png

PWWA Voluntary Guidelines

Revised June 2019


A vessel shall approach an area of known or suspected whale activity with extreme caution.

A vessel within 1 km or 0.65 mile of a whale is considered to be in the vicinity of whales and is required to abide by all of these Best Practices Guidelines as are relevant.

If a vessel operator is unaware of the whales’ location he/she must maintain a vigilant watch for whales at all times. Mere observation of whale watching vessels in the distance does not fulfill this responsibility, as individual whale may be encountered anywhere and at any time.

Maintaining a vigilant watch often includes significant speed reductions.

A vessel within the vicinity of whales - within 1 km (0.65 mile) of a whale - is considered to be in the slow zone and must operate at no more than 7 knots. This reduced speed zone shall also be observed when disengaging the vicinity of whales as well.

As the vessel approaches, the distribution of whales and the positioning of other viewing vessels should be surveyed. Communication with other member vessels is strongly encouraged at this point (on the designated marine radio frequencies).

A vessel shall limit its time in the vicinity of a particular group of whales on any one tour to 60 minutes.

Vessels should limit the amount of viewing time to a maximum of 30 minutes in the vicinity of whales on days when there are more than 9 PWWA vessels within 1 km of that particular group of whales. On these occasions vessels should spend more of their tour observing other marine wildlife in other locations and searching for other groups of whales.


When approaching vessels already engaged in viewing a whale or group of whales, the vessel operator must ensure his vessel moves to the outside of the vessels already accompanying these whales, and head in a direction parallel to the direction these whales are traveling. This is meant to maintain existing view angles of all vessels previously on scene.

Vessels should maintain heading and speed equal to the whales at all times while paralleling.

Minimum approach distances should be maintained as follows: US: 200 yards from killer whales, 300 yards for Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW), 100 yards from all other whales. Canada: 400 meters from SRKW, 200 meters from Bigg’s mammal-eating killer whales, and 100 meters from all other whales.

A vessel’s speed should be the same as the whale’s speed or slower. However, when traveling slower than the speed of the whales, a vessel relinquishes its priority sequence. This technique is generally used to disengage the vicinity of whales when the intention is to break away and return to port. When leading a group of paralleling vessels engaged in viewing whales, that vessel should keep pace with whales as to not block any vessels behind them. Furthermore, that vessel should not shut down without adequate notice to the vessels following behind.

1. When whales are within 1/2 mile of shore, vessels should maintain a seaward position and not within 1/8 mile (220 yards) of any shoreline that the whales are traveling along.

2. All sonar, depth sounders, fish finders and other underwater transducers should be shut off whenever a vessel is in the vicinity of whales.


Every PWWA driver will always operate in a manner respectful of other vessels and their passengers.


To maintain PWWA captain certification, all PWWA drivers must complete required training once per season.


Race Rocks

The Pacific Whale Watch Association has worked collaboratively with all stakeholders and the Canadian Government in the development of these Best Practices Guidelines for the Race Rocks Marine Protected Area, which apply equally to all vessels, whether commercial or private, whether intending to view wildlife of otherwise transiting the area.

Vessels will allow for a speed transition by slowing their approach to Race Rocks such that speed at 1/8th mile (220 yards) from any rock or landmass is reduced to minimal wake and wash, relative to the condition of the sea state at the particular time. This Go Slow Zone extends 1/8th mile (220 yards) around every rock and landmass in the Race Rocks area.

Vessels in the Go Slow Zone will remain as close to mid-channel as is practicable between the major rock outcroppings know as North Race Rock, West Race Rock and Helicopter Rock. While in the Go Slow Zone vessels will transit the area with the current whenever conditions are suitable to do so.

Vessels exiting the area will allow for a speed transition.

Vessels will remain outside all of the Go Slow Zone whenever Resident, Transient or Offshore Killer Whales are present in the Go Slow Zone.

West Side of San Juan Island

Vessels will remain a minimum of 1⁄2 mile (880 yards) from the light beacon of the Light House at Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island when whales are in the vicinity.

Vessels will remain a minimum of 1⁄4 mile (440 yards) from the main shoreline of the west side of San Juan Island when between Mitchell Point to Cattle Point (facing south).