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Whales around Whidbey

By RICK LEVIN

Staff reporter

It’s like Moby Dick minus the harpoons.

Actually, the kind of professional whale-watching currently being practiced throughout the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound is even kinder and gentler than that. In Herman Melville’s great American novel, the mad Ahab and his ragtag crew of Nantucket whalers spend endless days upon the sea hunting down and killing the glorious marine mammals, slaughtering them starboard-side for their profitable pounds of peeled-off blubber.

These days, however, those who pursue whales are turning a different kind of profit. Their chase is hardly homicidal, being more of the tip-toe quality. There is no pound of flesh extracted on these sightseeing voyages. In fact, the condition of whale-watcher’s fiscal vitality rests in bringing absolutely no harm to these threatened creatures.

Perhaps for this reason, coupled with pressure from some conservation groups who condemn any form of whale interference, a coalition of whale-watch operators has banded together in recent years to develop what is called “Best Practices.” The phrase connotes the evolution of practical standards that will have the least possible impact on the mammals.

Shane Aggergaard, owner/operator of Island Adventure Cruises out of Anacortes, is a member of Whale Watchers Association Northwest, an organization of professional boaters, marine scientists and conservationists committed to developing and adhering to best practices. According to Aggergaard, these guidelines are self-regulated and self-regulating, receiving no official government recognition or enforcement capacity. However, those who belong to WWA are extremely serious about the the guidelines, having faith in their efficiency, safety and status as scientifically sound.

Reputable boats

belong to WWA

“Every reputable company belongs to the Whale Watchers Association,” Aggergaard said, adding that the guiding principle of WWA is “what’s best for the whales.” In this case, it’s what’s best for Northwest Washington’s three resident orca (a.k.a. killer whale) pods, J, K and L, which equal about 80 whales in all.

The guidelines are based as much in common sense as they are in scientific and observational data, having been developed over time largely through trial-and-error and on-the-water experience. The “2002 Harmonized International Be Whale Wise Guidelines for Whale Watching” read somewhat like a courtesy manual, with the rule of thumb being “Hands-off!”

For example, boaters are warned to approach whales with “extreme caution,” to reduce their speed to under 7 knots when within 400 yards of pods and to avoid getting within 100 yards of any whale.

Aggergaard claims such professional standards serve to police other recreational boaters through example. “The whales are a whole lot safer when we’re out there than when we’re not,” he said. One of the results of such practices, he adds, is that whales learn what to expect from boats in the way of movement, positioning and even ambient noise.

“Whales have gotten a real sense of predictability for the boats,” Aggergaard said.

The guidelines are not static; they are continually evolving as scientists and professional whale watchers like Aggergaard learn more about orca habits. Despite heat from conservation groups accusing whale-watching outfits of profit over protection, Aggergaard says the “little tweaks” made every year to the guidelines always benefit the whales, not the boaters.

“Everything’s become more conservative over the years,” he said, adding that best practices have garnered support from a large segment of the scientific community as well as conservation groups such as People for Puget Sound.

“People are coming from all over to study our practices,” Aggergaard said. “Our guidelines are so good and so much more specific than federal law. The education value has also gotten better and better.”

Maybe in the best of all possible worlds, the whales would be left unperturbed in a pristine state of nature, but since that most likely isn’t going to happen, Aggergaard says “best practices” means just what it says: keeping the deleterious effects to an absolute minimum.

“The easy way out is to just shut everything down, instead of doing the studies and finding out what the impact is,” he said. “The more people are aware of what’s out there, the more they want to make sure it’s there for coming generations.”

Washington’s

orca dolphins

Orcas are not whales, actually; they’re the world’s largest dolphin. Separated into “resident” and “transient” populations, the two orca types have drifted apart genetically over time and are rarely seen together. Transient orcas are the real “killer whales,” known to feed on whatever they can sink their razor-sharp teeth into, including deer. Resident orcas feed mostly on salmon.

The southern resident orcas of J, K and L pods travel up to 100 miles a day as they feed, sometime moving at speeds of 25 knots. Males grow to 30 feet and 7 tons; females are slightly smaller. They live about as long as we do. Communities of orcas are organized socially around a mature matriarch, with individuals typically remaining in the pod in which they were born.

Local resident orcas have suffered nearly a 20 percent population reduction since 1996. In a sense, whales are the harbinger of environmental conditions in the Puget Sound region. They feed at the top of the food chain, as do human beings, and thus are subject to the combined effects of PCB poisoning and toxin accretion, as well as declines in salmon population. The hazards of unregulated marine traffic is also a significant aspect of the orcas’ current situation.

On Thursday, the National Marine Fisheries Service decided not to place orcas on the list of “endangered” animals, which would have placed them under the auspices of the federal Endangered Species Act. However, many still feel the whales are in serious trouble.

“There’s a story behind each species, and that’s the story of the ecosystem,” PPS executive director Kathy Fletcher said at a Best Practices Workshop in Mount Vernon on June 19. “Orcas have declined dramatically over the past few years, and the reason why tells the story of the whole ecosystem. Orcas are among the most contaminated marine animals on earth.”

Fletcher said that along with reducing local toxin run-off and protecting marine habitats, the creation and continued implementation of best practice guidelines for whale watching are a crucial component of protecting and preserving a declining orca population.

Best practices help educate

Mike Sato, People for Puget Sound’s north sound director, says the real strength of best practice guidelines is their capacity to educate. Because you can’t have a “fish cop behind every rock,” Sato believes the guidelines achieve compliance through understanding, which he calls a very important tool in bringing about “long lasting changes in behavior so we don’t love our outdoors to death.”

It’s the experiential and behavioral aspect of the guidelines that Sato says will appeal to anyone who cares about the state of the orcas, regardless of legislation.

“Talking about guidelines on how best to enjoy the outdoors is based on the belief that most people want to do the right thing, and will do the right thing if they know what needs to be done and why it’s important to do it,” Sato said on Tuesday.

“People who spend a lot of time on the water are the most knowledgeable about the right behavior,” he added. They’re the experts. They can show by example the best ways to do things, for those who spend a weekend on the water.”

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