Eager to see wildlife, boaters push boundaries with Puget Sound orcas
As boating season heats up, so do encounters with marine wildlife.
A group of concerned citizens is eager to remind people to be respectful and follow the law, especially when it comes to Puget Sound’s orcas.
Two distinct species of orcas feed and socialize in the waters of Puget Sound: fish-eating endangered southern resident killer whales and transient, or Bigg’s, killer whales, which feed on marine mammals and are more common.
A video posted on Facebook by a local TV station on May 22 shows a dog barking on a Vashon Island beach, as a group of Bigg’s killer whales passes just a few feet from shore. It was picked up by numerous affiliated local and national networks and shared widely online.
The online comments are awestruck. This is eye candy many people enjoy seeing.
But a shore-based whale watcher who goes by Tisa Annette online and founded the "Puget Sound Orcas" Facebook group with thousands of followers, is upset about it.
Using an alias because she fears for her safety, Annette frequently confronts boaters about behavior she says endangers the whales.
In an interview with KNKX, Annette said in the wake of the recent video she's "tried to do as much damage control as possible in the comments."
“I don't know if it's lack of awareness or if it's just them trying to take advantage of the rules,” she said.
She spends hours documenting boater behavior and said those whales were forced into the shallows that day. She called it "leap-frogging" because the boaters repeatedly race to get in front of the whales.
The maneuver is legal within laws that restrict how close boaters can get, but it agitates the orcas.
"We have so many people where they do this and then they'll go, 'Oh, well, look, I cut my motor. I happened to see whales. Oops! They came near me.' That is not the case. They are intentionally trying to get in front of these whales," she said.
Assume orcas are the protected southern residents
State wildlife officials said what the video shows isn’t anything they could prosecute. But they applaud people who help enforce exclusion zone laws. The department’s enforcement officers are scattered statewide and can’t constantly monitor the waterways.
The main reason why that encounter was legal, at least under state law, said Captain Alan Meyers with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, is that the whales in question are not endangered.
To report someone violating the exclusion zones around orcas, call the NOAA Fisheries' Enforcement Hotline at 1-800-853-1964
They’re the marine mammal-eating transient orcas that were likely looking for harbor seals along shore that day, not the endangered resident ones that follow salmon runs and spend more time in the Salish Sea.
But most people can’t tell the difference when they see a big black and white dorsal fin or fluke in the water; it takes a trained eye.
“I can't have an officer sent out to write a ticket for a transient whale violation because, it's only a federal crime that we're dealing with,” he said. And a federal crime would have to be referred to officers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“But I can still go out and educate people and say, ‘Hey, if you don't know the difference, assume that it's an ESA-listed protected Southern resident killer whale and stay out, stay off the protective bubble distances.”
Small boats present a particular challenge, especially those that are motorized. Many private owners don’t educate themselves on the law, or think that because they’re small, they can’t really bother such a large and majestic creature. And the lure of these charismatic creatures can also be tempting. Orcas are the Apex predators of the Salish Sea, with complex cultures and even documented dialects.
Any vehicle, including drones, subject to restrictions
There are only 75 of the critically endangered southern residents left in the wild, including several babies whose fates are still uncertain. They often don’t live to a reproductive age because of all the threats to their survival: not enough of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon; water pollution and contaminants that cause illness; and noise from marine traffic that interferes with their ability to hunt and find food.
But there are strict regulations to protect them, especially Puget Sound’s endangered southern residents. State and federal laws create a bubble around them. And it’s not just boats that are restricted from getting too close. Meyers said these laws even apply to remote-controlled drones.
“It doesn't matter what element or what vehicle is being used, you're not able to encroach within 200 yards of transient whales within the Puget Sound. For southern resident killer whales, it's within 300 – (and) 400 laterally,” Meyers said.
“So if you're within that area of protection, then you're in violation of both state and federal laws.”
He said the fines for violations start at about $2000 and can be as high as $5000, with penalties that can include impoundment of boats and jail time.
Orca advocates ask boaters to give more space
June is Orca Action Month, organized by the Orca Salmon Alliance. Oregon Governor Kate Brown adopted the designation in 2021 and Washington Governor Jay Inslee also made it official last month.
Among the planned events, the Seattle Aquarium and Washington Environmental Council will host a virtual presentation for boaters on Friday, June 3.
The "Give Them Space" campaign is a public outreach effort to educate boaters on the role they can play in orca conservation. Boaters are invited to sign a pledge to stay 1,000 yards away from orcas, 2.5 to 5 times the legal regulations.
Additional resources for boaters and whale watchers are available at bewhalewise.org