Whale Watching Guidelines

PWWA is one of the most progressive ecotourism business associations in the world. In the mid-1990s, 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


General application

In 2014 PWWA modified these Guidelines and created a new viewing diagram to make it simpler for all vessels to stay in compliance with State and federal law at the same time, giving these animals the respect they deserve. These Best Practices Guidelines are to be applied by all members’ vessels and those others who wish to manage their vessels responsibly while in the presence of marine wildlife. Member vessel operators are to review and be proficient in the application of these Best Practices Guidelines.

PWWA vessels agree to obey all State and federal laws.

Washington State

RCW 77.15.740 /  Protection of Southern Resident Orcas / Penalty

*** CHANGE IN 2014 *** (See 6041-S.SL) ***

(1) Except as provided in subsection (2) of this section, it is unlawful to:

(a) Cause a vessel or other object to approach, in any manner, within 200 yards of a Southern Resident orca;

(b) Position a vessel to be in the path of a Southern Resident orca at any point located within 400 yards of the whale.  This includes intercepting a Southern Resident orca by positioning a vessel so that the prevailing wind or water carries the vessel into the path of the whale at any point located within 400 yards of the whale;

(c) Fail to disengage the transmission of a vessel that is within 200 yards of a Southern Resident orca; or,

(d) Feed a Southern Resident orca. 


operation of vessels in the vicinity of whales

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

2. A vessel within 1⁄2 mile (800 yards) of a whale is considered to be in the vicinity of whales. 

3. A vessel entering the vicinity of whales within 1⁄2 mile of a whale is considered to be in the slow approach zone and should operate at a low wake speed. A vessel within 1⁄4 mile of a whale is considered to be in the slow zone and should operate at a recommended 7 knots or less, with a reduced wake. 

4. The speed transition should be observed in reverse while a vessel is departing the vicinity of whales. 

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



1. Vessels should remain a minimum of 1⁄2 mile (800 yards) from the light beacon of the Light House at Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island when whales are in the vicinity for respect for shoreline viewing. 



1. Vessels should remain a minimum of 1⁄4 mile (400 yards) from the main shoreline of the west side of San Juan Island when between Eagle Point and Mitchell Point when whales are present. 



1. “Go Slow Zone” = 1/8 mile (220 yards) from any rock or landmass around Race Rocks. 

2. Vessels will slow on their approach to Race Rocks such that speed at 1/8 mile (220 yards) from any rock or landmass is reduced to approx... 7 knots (minimal wake and wash, relative to the condition of the seas state at the particular time). 

3. Vessels in the Go Slow Zone will remain as close to mid-channel as is practicable between the major rock outcroppings known as Great Race, North Race Rock, West Race Rock, and Helicopter Rock. 

4. While in the Go Slow Zone vessels will transit the area with the current whenever conditions are suitable to do so. Drifting is encouraged relative to other boat traffic and where safe navigation is not compromised. 

5. Vessels exiting the area may increase speed gradually outside the Go Slow Zone. 

6. Vessels will remain 1/8 mile (220 yards) outside the Go Slow Zone whenever any whale species are present in the Race Rocks Reserve (Go Slow Zone). 



1. Use Association repeater radio first – Switch to line of sight when appropriate. Use private channel for company business. 

2. Use cell phone when possible. 

3. Use the VHF as a third choice to communicate with other commercial vessels and do not give exact location of whales (use code system). 

4. Use VHF on low power whenever possible.