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Sunday, February 24, 2019

February 16 with the T69Ds and T90s - Plus: Why I Support Whale-Watching

While whales have been around occasionally, I hadn't seen any since the end of October, and for an orcaholic like myself, full whale withdrawal was beginning to set in. I was able to get out on the water for the first time in 2019 last weekend, right towards the end of a long streak of winter weather, meaning there was still snow on the ground, transforming typical scenes like Spieden Island into something completely different.

Steller sea lions on Green Point
Spieden Island under a dusting of snow

We joined several other boats in a search for a group of transient killer whales that had been seen several hours before, and as luck would have it, they were found! It was so great to see some dorsal fins again, and even cooler with the snowy backdrop - a bucket list item for me, to see killer whales in the snow!

We recognized the T90s, but there were other whales present as well, and it wasn't until we got home and pulled out the older but more complete transient ID guide that we realized we had seen the T69Ds - new whales for me!

From left to right T69D1, T69D2, and T69D
The T69s are more often encountered on the western side of Vancouver Island, but like many other transient matrilines, have started venturing into the Salish Sea a bit over the last few years. While we were on scene, the group of 7 whales was in steady travel mode, meaning we often got to see lots of fins at the surface all together!

From left to right: T90B, T90C, T90D, T69D1, T90, and T69D

Before we left, we got some of those classic backlit blows:

And this shot of pelagic cormorants on a log was too fun not to share as well:

It was a refreshing afternoon on the water and spending some time with some killer whales was rejuvenating to the soul, but looming over the encounter was the threat of a moratorium on the viewing of Southern Residents and a permanent increase in viewing distances from 200 to 400 yards on both sides of the border, as Governor Inslee's bill based on an Orca Task Force recommendation moves through the state legislature and vessel working groups in Canada consider the same options. The scientific merits of these recommendations are dubious at best; I can and have gone into the scientific details elsewhere, but the short version is that speed matters a lot more than proximity in terms of noise levels around the whales. I want to take a moment hear to share something else, however: the fact that whale-watching changed my life.

A whale watch trip my family took in Alaska when I was 12 truly redefined the course I would take. It was the first time I saw orcas in the wild and since that day there has been no going back for me. Coming home from that trip, I did  research about other killer whale populations and learned about the Southern Residents. A couple years later we came to the San Juan Islands and it was from a boat I would meet the whales that would become my life's passion. The generation before me was influenced by seeing whales at SeaWorld. My generation has been influenced by seeing whales in the wild.

I am far from the only one who has had a life-changing experience on a whale watch trip. I know this in part from my 6 years working on a boat and seeing these moments occur for people firsthand. I also know this because many of the people in our whale community have had experiences similar to the one I did, where a boat trip to see wild whales was a transformative experience.

Last summer just before J35 and J50 put the Southern Residents in the world spotlight, 12 members of my husband’s family did a tour with Maya's Legacy including myself and my husband....We were fortunate to be one of only two boats on the water with the T124As, but Captain Jeff started talking about how they were seeing less and less of the Residents and why... Coming from me was one thing, but for them to hear what was happening to our beloved Southern Residents from their captain and to see his concern and compassion was huge. They all wanted to know what they could do to help. We never saw Residents the whole week (in early July) that we were there, but the impression was made and I know they all went back to Arizona, Florida and even Italy and told the story of the Residents' plight to their friends and family. - Susan

Some are advocating that people watch whales from shore instead of on a boat, and while some of my best-ever whale encounters have come from shore, the reality is it's not as viable of an option as it was 15 years ago. When I first started visiting the San Juans, the Southern Residents passed the west side of San Juan Island on a near-daily basis during May-September. Now it's not uncommon for weeks to go by during that time with no Southern Residents seen from Lime Kiln. It's just not realistic to ask visitors to see whales from shore when sightings have become so sporadic.

We keep hearing (in large part from people who have never been whale-watching) about how whale watch companies are owned by businessmen out to exploit an endangered species: in it for the money with little regard for the well-being of the whales. I have met many of the owners of Pacific Whale Watch Association companies and I have yet to meet one who falls into this category. They all got into it for the same reason I got into it: out of a love for the whales, the wildlife, and this entire ecosystem. Yes, they make their living at it, but they are constantly assessing moment to moment and year to year what is best for the whales.

I had a trip booked with Maya's Legacy far in advance, had friends/family in town that were going with, and the weekend we went out wound up being 4 days after J35 lost her calf. Captain Jeff told our entire boat full that they were the only orcas in the area, and that we would not be within any kind of optimum viewing distance because of the circumstances. He offered to refund the entire boat. But everyone still wanted to go out on the water regardless and wanted to hear more about what was happening.... We were only out there for a brief time, witnessing through binoculars part of J-Pod foraging near the Fraser. Jeff got emotional while we were there. Some people don't get to see that.  And I guess that’s why it infuriates me to have them vilified and thrown under the bus. Because it seems, to me, the exact opposite, in more cases than not. But because this is also how they make a living, we just hear “exploitation”. - Amanda

I have had conversations with owners, captains, and naturalists over the last 18 years, and seeing firsthand how much they care is what has made me upset about vilifying what they do, scapegoating them as the reason the whales are in the situation they are in, and calling for more restrictions simply because you advocate for any and all orca protections without taking time to become familiar with both the science and the people involved. The whale watch industry has constantly gone above and beyond what is required of them to protect the whales. Do they make mistakes? Yes. Is it a work in progress? Yes. But they are the only industry I can think of that is voluntarily making sacrifices to benefit the whales.

Part of the reason I have been outspoken on this issue is because I've read all the science and I want to advocate for what's best for the whales. My greatest fear is that we will ban or further restrict whale-watching and walk away feeling like we have done something bold to help recover the Southern Residents, when in reality we will have failed yet again to tackle the major, yet more complicated, issues they face. 

Some people have assumed I'm being paid by the whale watch industry to have this opinion, but this is not true - in fact, it is at my own personal expense that I travel to these meetings to make public comment, and it is my own free time I give to writing letters, posting debriefs of the science, and encouraging advocacy. In the interest of full disclosure I did work for a whale-watch company as a naturalist from 2005-2010. I also volunteered on Soundwatch for several summers, both of which gave me perspective. I do go out on whale-watch vessels, with people who are friends and when there is extra space available anyway; this is not in exchange for my advocacy. My opinions and my work are not being compensated for in any way; they are my own, and they are based on my experiences.

Thanks to some common sense prevailing, the vessel bills have been altered to remove the moratorium on viewing of Southern Residents. They include a go-slow zone around the whales, a permitting system on commercial whale watch vessels, and an increase to a 300 yard viewing distance on Southern Residents. Ten years ago when the first vessel regulations went into place, vessels were the focus for years, because they were the low-hanging fruit: the easiest thing to address. Since then, we have still failed to seriously address the more major risk factors of salmon abundance and contaminants. Now that we have spent months debating vessels again, my hope is that we can finally move on. If we are serious about Southern Resident killer whale recovery, this conversation can no longer be about vessels, vessels, vessels. We must put that risk factor aside and finally talk about what can be done on the big ticket issues, even if they are complex and the sacrifices painful. 

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