Experts and enthusiasts agree, whether on water or on land: it’s difficult to describe the feeling people get in the presence of orcas.
“I wish you could bottle what happens when people see whales,” said Donna Sandstrom, while passing out binoculars to passersby in West Seattle. “The sheer joy and the awe is always moving.”
Sandstrom founded the Seattle-based nonprofit The Whale Trail, in partnership with several state and regional agencies and organizations, in 2008. It includes more than 100 sites for whale watching from British Columbia to California, aimed at building community and stewardship around orcas and other marine life.
For Sandstrom, watching from shore is the least invasive way to admire the iconic killer whales, especially the Southern Resident population that’s teetering on the edge of extinction. And it’s free.
“You’re not impacting them,” she said, stressing their reliance on echolocation to find food. “You’re giving them the best chance to do what they need to do, which is hear each other.”
Still, many people associate the breathtaking experience with whale watching boats, a prolific industry in the Pacific Northwest that’s been under heavy scrutiny in recent months.
Jeff Friedman, U.S. president for the Pacific Whale Watch Association, says his industry is misunderstood. That indescribable feeling he’s witnessed as a captain for Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching in Friday Harbor creates lifelong advocates for the survival of endangered orcas.
“A lot of those advocates are created on those whale watching boats,” said Friedman, following a whale watching trip last month. “Those people are forever changed, and those people will be advocates for those whales for the rest of their lives.”
SAVING THE SPECIES
A deep bench of stakeholders are working statewide and over the Canadian border to save the dwindling population of Southern Resident orcas, whose numbers have dropped to 75 across three pods. The rate of successful births is suffering, and experts are cautiously optimistic about the odds of survival for the most recent calf born to the L pod — nicknamed Lucky — as well as the unborn calves from two pregnant females, one each in J and K pods.
“They are as important to our psyche, to our culture, to our soul as Mount Rainier is,” Sandstrom said of the Southern Residents. “For many of us, they’re the reason we’re here.”
But to guarantee the species stays here in perpetuity, scientists stress that drastic steps must be taken now. And not everyone agrees on what those immediate steps should be.
Among the most controversial items proposed by the orca recovery task force, convened last year by Gov. Jay Inslee, was a de facto ban on whale watching. The proposal has since been stripped from the long list of recommendations.
Lawmakers are still considering a bill — one of many moving through the Legislature — to limit the boats’ distance and speed around the whales, among other regulations. It would increase the required distance between boats and the whales: 300 yards alongside the orcas and 400 yards in front of or behind them. Additionally, it would create a “go-slow zone” of 7 knots when boats travel within half a nautical mile of the whales, among other vessel-specific mandates.
The proposal is still moving through the Legislature. Proponents are optimistic, as budget proposals in both the House and Senate have allocated funding.
Sandstrom and Friedman both served on the task force.
Friedman says a hyper-focus on vessels is misguided. He says the emphasis should be salmon recovery.
“These whales are facing chronic malnutrition because they aren’t getting enough food,” Friedman said. “We can do everything in the world for them, but if they don’t have enough to eat they’re not going to make it.”
While Sandstrom agrees, she also says it’s important to reduce noise created by vessel traffic — including whale watching boats — so the endangered orcas can hear one another as they hunt for food while it remains scarce.
“In the short term, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume,” Sandstrom said. “They need every best chance to find what food is there.”
WAYS TO WATCH
Orcas are always on the move, so finding them on the shore or on the water is a fluid process.
Because the whales travel roughly 50 to 100 miles per day, Friedman said, locating them can be challenging.
“It’s kind of like looking for your friend in downtown Chicago on Saturday night,” Friedman told passengers before a Maya’s Legacy tour last month. “You don’t know where they are, but you know where they like to eat, what bars they go to, so you just start going to those places and sometimes you may run into them, sometimes you don’t.”
Sandstrom, on a crisp winter day, stressed to a group of viewers in West Seattle that orcas use the whole of Puget Sound. So, people can even see the whales in urban areas, not just the waters of the San Juan Islands where most people think to go whale watching.
“This is really important habitat to them,” she said from the shores of Seattle’s Alki Beach.
When viewing from land, Sandstrom says regular watchers start looking for the Southern Resident orcas from October to February. They make a habit of showing up frequently in December, she said.
“Sometimes their timing is so spooky, it makes you wonder,” Sandstrom quipped. For example, one pod serendipitously appeared during a Welcome the Orcas event hosted by The Whale Trail this past December. “When we picked that day we had no idea we’d have K pod to actually welcome.”
In recent years, though, sightings of the endangered Southern Resident orcas have dropped rapidly. In fact last May, for the first time on record, there were zero sightings. And Friedman’s association says the population makes up only 15 percent of the total sightings on whale watching boats.
On two separate trips over the past several months, one by boat and another from land, KNKX Public Radio observed Southern Resident orcas just once — from the shore.
Watching from the 12-passenger boat last month, patrons with Maya’s Legacy saw several families of transient killer whales — mammal eaters who are seen much more often, in part because of their growing numbers.
The so-called Bigg’s transients are in the ninth year of a baby boom, Friedman said, and the transient population has more young whales than the entire adult population of Southern Residents.
“We’re learning so much about the different families because we’re seeing them so often,” he said of the transients, following the recent whale watch. Among one of the families observed that day was Tumbo, a young male living with a spinal deformity who can’t swim as fast or hunt. Tumbo’s pod takes care of him, including hunting for his food while he floats at the surface.
“With most species, they will let that member of the family go. With killer whales, they will not let that happen,” Friedman said. “It’s one of the deepest, most heartwarming, sad and yet touching experiences to watch that kind of behavior in another species. It’s hard to put into words.”
‘IT’S NOT TOO LATE’
While Sandstrom and Friedman disagree on the means, they agree on the end: the Southern Resident orcas need our help and they need it fast.
“We know each whale’s story,” Sandstrom said of the endangered whales, who are identified by individual names and numbers. “We have this deep sense of connection, but we also have a responsibility to protect them.”
After living in the Salish Sea for thousands of years, captures in the ’60s and ’70s depleted the population to a low of 71. After the state stepped in decades ago, the whales bounced back to a high of 98. But a combination of human impacts have led to a near-all-time low once more.
“In one human generation, we’ve brought these whales to the edge of extinction,” Sandstrom said. “It’s not too late, but it does mean (we need) all hands on deck right now.”
Friedman says the whale watching industry plays a vital role in modeling good behavior on the water, as well as assisting researchers working to learn more in an attempt to save the species.
“We’re always trying to do the right thing out there,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who does this as a career who is driven by money.”
Friedman added that many of the proposed regulations discussed by the task force, especially the mandatory go-slow zone, were already supported and voluntarily advised by the Pacific Whale Watch Association. He said the association takes a proactive approach to revising guidelines, with the whales’ best interest at the forefront, and they look forward to working with the state to formalize those standards.
And the energy to get it done is stronger than ever.
“We’ve never had a point in time when so many people are dialed in and so many people care about the individuals in this population,” Friedman said. “If we allow this population to go extinct, it will be the first time that a population went extinct and we knew every individual’s name.”
UPDATE, May 1: By the end of this year's legislative session, state lawmakers passed a suite of four laws to help Puget Sound's endangered Southern Resident orcas. The new laws follow recommendations from Gov. Jay Inslee’s orca recovery task force. The laws address vessel noise and disturbance, toxics in the water, salmon habitat and oil-spill prevention.
An early proposal for a de facto ban on Southern Resident orca whale watching did not make the cut. Instead, the new regulations require all boats to maintain a distance of 300 yards from the endangered whales. They also create a speed limit around them and introduce a new licensing system for all commercial whale watch boats.