Killer whales get the superstar treatment every summer off the Washington coast, where tourists fill up whale-watch boats to catch a glimpse of the majestic animals. Now, researchers are studying whether all the attention could be a bad thing.
University of Washington researcher David Bain, who has studied orcas for 20 years, and other scientists suspect boat noise might interfere with the orcas’ echolocation — the way they bounce sounds off objects to monitor their surroundings and find prey.
Bain is part of an international group of government-backed scientists working to learn why the local orca population has dropped to 83 from 98 in 1995.
Canadian scientists have already concluded that the northern resident orcas in British Columbia burn more energy when boats are present, so they must eat more to sustain themselves. If the same holds true for southern residents in Puget Sound, that would affect their survival, Bain said.
Washington’s killer whales — the southern resident population — typically spend summers chasing salmon in and around Haro Strait, the six-mile-wide passage between Vancouver, British Columbia, and the San Juan Islands. For years, their annual visit has drawn flotillas of commercial whale-watch boats from Washington and Canada.
Scientists believe marine traffic, human encroachment, faltering salmon runs and pollution are contributing to the orcas’ decline. It isn’t yet clear whether whale-watching is playing a role, but recent increases in the number of whale watchers, both on pleasure craft and commercial vessels, have heightened these concerns.
If research proves boat noise hurts the whales, Bain said, limits might be needed on hours, days or locations. But he added that the popularity of whale-watching also can help the cause of conservation.
“If whale-watch operators can get hundreds of thousands of people to rally behind whales, it can more than offset the impact they’re having,” he told The News Tribune of Tacoma.
Some activists already believe boats are detrimental to orcas.
“Protect Whales, Watch From Shore,” declares an 8-foot-long banner, one of several stretched along San Juan Island’s shore by the Orca Relief Citizens Alliance.
“Our point is: Watch whales. See what magnificent creatures they are. And do it in a safe way for the whales,” said group director Birgit Kriete.
The campaign infuriates some whale-watch tour operators. But Tom McMillen, who runs Salish Sea Charters, concedes there is sometimes a circus atmosphere on the water. He noted operators now subscribe to a paging service that tracks the animals.
“There’s no mystery. I know right where we’re going,” McMillen said one evening as he headed out to Haro Strait. “That’s neat, but it’s sad in a way. They (the whales) don’t get a break ever.”