Orcas at 200 Yards

orca1(Wave Writer, May 2011)

Orcas are magical. To see one up close is to look at something intelligent, playful, dignified, intimidating and enlightening.

Starting the middle of this month, we’re all required to keep the magic at least 200 yards away and 400 yards away if one is in their path. So says the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.  There are a lot of questions with this edict; how will it be enforced? What are the penalties? How on earth does one know exactly how far 200 yards is? What if the orca comes to you?

If you’re worried about a posse of armed enforces swooping down on you if you stray to within 197 yards, don’t be. It’s not going to be like that. 

Why I like Orcas 

Nearly 20 years ago was honored with a magical moment with a pair of juvenile orcas. I was skippering a 36-foot sailboat under power on the west side of San Juan Island. Family stress had made things unpleasant onboard. I saw two orcas, let’s call them Frog and Toad, break from their pod and come racing at us from, I guess, about a half mile away. I slowed the boat, taking the engine out of gear, and waited to see what would happen. They came close to the boat, and Frog spy-hopped about 10 feet away while Toad swam around the boat. I understood Frog to be saying through that look he gave me, “Let’s PLAY!” I engaged the gear and throttled up to hull speed, and sure enough F and T swam along, darting back and forth under the boat.  I felt the wash from a tail against the rudder. After about three minutes they realized the boat just wasn’t going to go any faster than 7 knots and, and went back to their pod. My crew was beside itself with joy. That joy kept us smiling for days and carried us through the rest of that cruise. I’m still grateful to Frog and Toad.

I’m sure a marine biologist out there will be able to tell me exactly what I did wrong. Later that day I motored along near several orcas swimming in the same direction, and in retrospect I should have given them wider berth. But they didn’t change speed or course or, outwardly at least, pay any attention to us.

As personal as it felt, I‘m not alone. “It happens all the time,” says Brian Goodremont, vice president of San Juan Outfitters, which conducts kayak whale watching tours. And it’s not just orcas. Humpbacks in Alaska have been drawn to boats with music (I don’t think it was heavy metal or rap) and a gray whale sought out my friend Bev when she was kayaking alone on Barkley Sound and gave her an experience she’ll never forget.

There is no doubt that whales and porpoises sometimes seek contact with humans.

And to me, that’s where this law, and the reasoning behind it, misses the mark. Do you fine the person who is sailing along the west coast of San Juan Island who all of a sudden has an orca escort? What if this contact with humans is somehow important to orcas and we’re rejecting some important overture?

What Really Bugs Orcas?orca2

Orcas are among the more researched animals in the world. They’ve been observed in the wild and in captivity (sadly). They’ve starred in movies and been anthropomorphized and animated. They have some “human” attributes of emotion and loyalty, and have had some inexplicable episodes such as when Tilikum killed its trainer Dawn Brancheau in SeaWorld last year. There seems to be a lot going on in their well-formed brains.

Research can give answers sometimes but not always. In the 200-page Final Environmental Assessment for the new regulations, three factors affecting orca population were cited: food availability, pollution and vessel disturbance. There are a lot of qualifiers in the language such as “possible” and “may affect.” NOAA used the “best available science” to come up with the policies and is being very cautious.

What is actually known about behaviors? Some are clear, others not so much. Research by Dawn Noren et. al. indicates that there seem to be increased Surface Active Behaviors (SABs) when vessels approach or are present. SABs are things like breeching, spyhops and tail slaps. And while the report acknowledges, “The function of performing SABs will never be known for certain,” the report is used as evidence for widening the buffer area around orcas.

Goodremont, who’s seen orcas and is a lot more interested in keeping orcas healthy and happy than most of us, points out that orcas do a lot of behaviors when there are no boats or people nearby. In fact these behaviors often seem like playing.

So what if, at some times, orcas are just having some fun with us? Is there a data point for hamming it up?

And there’s a legitimate question whether the vessel interference factor means much relative to the other factors.  Goodremont feels the emphasis on vessel interference seems over the top. “Is the highest predator in the ocean bothered by a couple kayaks? I think the focus on boating is misplaced. That’s all,” says Goodremont.

One of the factors that deserve mention is this region’s military sonar testing, which seems to many of us like it would do serious and obvious harm to whales.

Common Sense to Prevail

Fortunately, when I presented my personal orca scenario to NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman and asked the boater would be fined, his response sounded extremely sensible. “It depends on who is doing the approaching and what the intent is. If you are sitting there in your boat, and the orcas approach, you’re not in violation of the law.”

On the other hand, the law does make it clearly illegal to approach, or intentionally get in the path of, the whales. You can’t box them in, then get approached and still call it OK.

For a while, anyway, enforcement is going to come largely in the form of outreach and education. “We don’t want to give the impression we’re coming out like gangbusters,” Gorman says. “We’re going to assume initially that boaters are not familiar with the law.

It would be a good thing to become familiar with the laws and heed them. If and when fines are handed out, especially for willful violations, the penalties can run many thousands of dollars. The US Coast Guard and state officials and other agencies will ultimately be responsible for enforcement.

Soundwatch Director Kari Koski also emphasizes the educational element over the enforcement side of things. Soundwatch, which is affiliated with The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, is in fact an education program, though it monitors and catalogues human encroachments on the southern resident orcas.

Koski, who’s been involved with the resident pods since the mid-1990s, feels that boaters who are actually not trying to see the whales as the biggest challenge. “They might just be headed home after fishing or trying to get to an anchorage, and they just don’t see why they have to go so far out of their way,” she says. And then there are the folk who charge right through a cluster of boats that are quietly whale watching. That’s as disturbing to the orcas as it is to the boaters already there watching them.

Koski puts in context why giving the orcas a little more room is important: “It’s about the food,” she says. “They need to get fat and happy in the summer when salmon are more plentiful. We just need to give them every opportunity to do that.”

On the surface, at least, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of discord between the commercial whale watchers and the folk trying to protect the whales. The Whale Watch Association has a set of guidelines its members adhere to (they’ll have to be updated with the new 200-yard rules). According to Goodremont and Koski, most professional whale watchers are already at 200 yards or more much of the time. “With the commercial guys, it’s all about subtlety,” says Koski. A good professional whale watcher will know what the whales are going to do and could manipulate the situation to get closer than 200 yards. But that would be both illegal and really against the intent of the law.

What’s more likely is that the professionals will adjust to the new law. “I can make a living viewing them at 200 yards,” says Goodremont.

The biggest threat looming over the professional whale watchers and, for that matter, boaters is not the 200-yard buffer zone around the whales, but a potential half mile no-go zone along the west side of San Juan Island. This proposal, which has been shelved for now, met major resistance. “That would probably put some people out of business,” Goodremont said. NOAA’s Gorman said, “If research indicates unequivocally that it would help the orcas, we’ll revisit the question.”

We Still Get Orcas

So, the new law is here and it looks like we can all live with it, as long as we have good binoculars and do a little practice gauging 200 yards before we leave the dock.

That said, there’s also no doubt that there are some dimwits out there who think orcas and all other wildlife were put out there for their enjoyment and don’t think twice about chasing them around until they get a satisfying photo. They may ultimately spoil it for the rest of us. I don’t think we should mind if they get fined.

But if you happen to be out there on a beautiful day, and a couple of orcas pay you a visit, you can actually just sit there (no, you’re not supposed to motor with them) and enjoy it without worrying about a big fine.

For more information, here are some good web sites:




All these sites have guidelines for viewing orcas and other marine wildlife. Print a copy and keep it onboard if you’re headed where southern resident orcas hang out.







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