Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Step away from the whale: Whale watch regulations get tougher

Under new federal rules, whale watcher such as these will have to stay further back from the killer whales
Under new federal rules, whale watcher such as these will have to stay further back from the killer whales

Next time you go whale watching on Puget Sound, be sure to take your binoculars. Soon, you’ll have to stay twice as far from the endangered killer whales as before. 

For years, federal rules required boaters to stay 100 yards away from the orcas. So did state law, a San Juan County ordinance and voluntary “best-practices” guidelines

Starting next month, the National Marine Fisheries Service is pushing the limit back to 200 yards. That’s in response to research that suggests boats can impact the whales’ behavior at greater distances than previously thought

Commercial whale watch operators are trying to look on the bright side. Bill Wright, who owns San Juan Safaris in Friday Harbor, says most folks in the industry operate carefully.

Everybody loves these animals. It's so important for us to do what it takes to make sure that these animals get a chance to live a good life and that we don't interfere with their behavior.

Wright says vessel noise can be a problem, but pollution and lack of salmon are much bigger threats to the whales.

The new rule apply to nearly all boats, including private powerboats, sailboats, even kayaks. An earlier proposal to create a no-go zone on the west side of San Juan Island was dropped in the face of strong public opposition.

The region’s resident killer whales were declared endangered in 2005, after the population dropped from nearly 100 whales to less than 80. Since then, the numbers have been slowly climbing.


Liam Moriarty started with KPLU in 1996 as our freelance correspondent in the San Juan Islands. He’s been our full-time Environment Reporter since November, 2006. In between, Liam was News Director at Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Oregon for three years and reported for a variety of radio, print and web news sources in the Northwest. He's covered a wide range of environment issues, from timber, salmon and orcas to oil spills, land use and global warming. Liam is an avid sea kayaker, cyclist and martial artist.