Sunday, August 24, 2008

Southern Resident Orcas are an Endangered Species: It Bears Repeating

Howard Garrett once wrote an inspiring article detailing the lifestyle & history of the southern resident community of orca whales. It's worth the read if you're looking for an intimate overview of the whales and want to appreciate the riddled history of these magnificent creatures and the various plights facing their continued survival in the wild. Experiencing these creatures is wondrous but we need to understand that the same whales who bring us such joy are also struggling to survive, day in and day out.

In May 2003, NOAA Fisheries Service designated the Southern Resident killer whales as "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). By November of 2005, the agency had listed the southern resident killer whales as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act. The agency cited (in varying degrees) availability of prey, pollution and effects from vessels and sound as major threats to the whales’ health- all of which could be contributing to the population's decline.  And all the while, the majestic families of black-and-white orcas, known as the Southern Resident Community, have continued to disappear from their home waters. Just this month, reports suggest that great-great-great-grandma Lummi – the oldest member of the local orca population – has been missing since December and is presumed dead.  And according to an interview with Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research in the Kitsap Sun, there is news of yet another potentially missing whale, Aurora- a six year old L Pod male. Aurora is the brother of the legendary Luna, the supremely social orca whale who was eventually killed by a boat's propeller in Canada,  2006.

On June 12th of this year, a new State law was passed to provide further protection for these animals, an enforceable law aimed at enhancing the Whale Watching Guidelines already in place.  The new law establishes mandatory rules for boaters and paddlers, including a requirement that vessels stay at least 100 yards away from southern resident orca whales. Boaters who violate the new state law can also face significant fines, thus providing NOAA & the Department of Fish and Wildlife with enforcement tools to better protect the endangered Southern resident whales.

Education seems to be the key word at this juncture. Behaviors of the numerous vessels vary significantly, but when watching them from shore- sometimes you just have to wonder what people are thinking. Two of four baseline behavior examples from yesterday- three years after the orcas were placed on the endangered species list...

We watched these two head from the south, cross in front of the whales to get "a perfect" position- hope they got the great shot they were after (even if at the whales' expense):

And this group pulled directly in front of the whales after having come between the pod and the shoreline...amazing the whales were not injured or the boat, for that matter.

All in all, the private boaters were out in hoards yesterday. But thankfully, so was NOAA- and this is how the story ends...
We all have the OBLIGATION to familiarize ourselves with the regulations before encountering the whales in the wild. I, like everyone else, enjoy the encounters we have with the whales- but also want the whales to thrive and continue their travels through the islands. With salmon recovery plans underway and pollution initiatives becoming realized- it's now up to us to look at our own behavior and how we can impact their survival.  Kudos to NOAA for their prompt and aggressive enforcement efforts yesterday- it's time well spent in the quest to save the species.


1. BE CAUTIOUS and COURTEOUS: approach areas of known or suspected marine wildlife activity with extreme caution. Look in all directions before planning your approach or departure.

2. SLOW DOWN: reduce speed to less than 7 knots when within 400 metres/yards of the nearest whale. Avoid abrupt course changes.

3. KEEP CLEAR of the whales’ path. If whales are approaching you, cautiously move out of the way.

4. DO NOT APPROACH whales from the front or from behind. Always approach and depart whales from the side, moving in a direction parallel to the direction of the whales.

5. DO NOT APPROACH or position your vessel closer than 100 metres/yards to any whale.

6. If your vessel is not in compliance with the 100 metres/yards approach guideline (#5), place engine in neutral and allow whales to pass.

7. STAY on the OFFSHORE side of the whales when they are traveling close to shore.

8. LIMIT your viewing time to a recommended maximum of 30 minutes. This will minimize the cumulative impact of many vessels and give consideration to other viewers.

9. DO NOT swim with, touch or feed marine wildlife.

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