Whales and other marine mammals are among the most intelligent creatures on Earth. No wonder so many of them make a home in the Pacific NW.

Sharing the Waters with Whales

Marine mammals, such as seals, sea lions, whales, and orcas (“killer whales”) are often considered among the most intelligent animals on Earth. No wonder so many of them choose to live in the waters of the Pacific NW. Encountering a pod of orcas can be a memorable experience. These graceful creatures often speed along near the surface, with a dorsal fin exposed. Orcas will “spyhop”, emerging vertically from the water to take a better look above the surface. Sometimes an orca will leap entirely out of the water, providing an image that any photographer would covet.

While orcas may be at or near the top of the maritime food chain, these stalwart specimens are far from indestructible. Like other marine mammals, killer whales are a protected species. Populations of resident Pacific NW pods wax and wane, but the year-to-year trend is well below historic levels. Marine biologists blame the decline on decreased number of Chinook salmon, our resident orcas’ favorite food. The fact that overfishing and the loss of salmon spawning habitat have reduced the viability of an entirely separate species illustrates that living creatures on our planet have common interests in a clean and healthy environment.

Killer whales can live for many decades, and scientists are concerned that a variety of chemical toxins that simply didn’t exist 100 years ago are building up in the bodies of whales swimming near large cities or industrial areas. Most experts also list the presence of boats, jet skis, seaplanes, and other craft as a factor that raises the stress level of orcas and can affect their feeding behaviors.

Boaters may not be able to do much, on an individual basis, to restore salmon habitat, remove industrial waste, or otherwise address some of the largest challenges faced by our local orcas. We can, however, choose how we operate our boats to minimize any stress on the whales. We not only can choose, we are expected to. Some very specific rules and regulations provide a guideline for boaters who might be interested in “whale watching”, or might simply and unintentionally be surrounded by a pod of orcas.

The United States Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to kill, wound, trap, capture, collect, harm, hunt, or shoot, any endangered species. While most recreational boaters would be unlikely to hunt or shoot a killer whale, the Act also enjoins any type of “pursuit or harassment”.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act provides a more specific definition of harassment. Any act of pursuit, annoyance, or torment, which has the potential to injure a marine animal or disrupt behavior patters, is considered harassment.

A Washington State stature, RCW 77.15.740 provides some specific guidelines boaters can observe for purposes of complying with the laws and minimize the impact of our recreational activities on whales. There are five very simple rules.

  1. Remain at least 300 feet from any killer whale. This rule primarily addresses an approach situation, in which a boater sees a whale or pod of whales in his or her path while underway. It is not unusual for whales to swim toward a boat, or surface unexpectedly very near a boat, and some of the following rules address those situations.
  2. Do not cause a vessel of any other object to approach within 300 feet of a killer whale. (The same clearance rule that applies to the primary vessel also applies to dinghies, rafts, inner tubes, etc.)
  3. Avoid intercepting a killer whale. Placing a vessel in the path of a whale, or needlessly allowing a vessel to remain in the path of a whale, is considered intercepting a killer whale as soon as the animal is within 300 feet of the boat.
  4. Disengage the transmission of a vessel that is within 300 feet of an orca. This rule addresses the circumstance in which a boater is surprised by a killer whale that surfaces within 300 feet of the boat. If though no fault of the operator the whales approach closer than 300 feet, taking the boat out of gear is an acceptable response.
  5. Do not feed any whale.

Exceptions to the rules address commercial fishermen deploying or recovering gear, government vessels, and situations where strict compliance with the regulations would put a vessel in danger.

Killer whales are among the most spectacular wildlife we will observe in the Pacific NW. With only a little common sense and a willingness to follow the existing regulations, it’s likely that we can co-exist with the whales.