Is whale watching an “elitist” activity, accessible only to a fraction of families who can afford to witness cetaceans in their native environment? Many executives at SeaWorld and other industy defenders would have you think so. But a careful (though admittedly biased) look at the facts reveals that watching whales in the wild is not only preferable, it’s actually cheaper.
Take killer whales (Orcinus orca to scientists; “Shamu” to many SeaWorld patrons). In researching my book Death at SeaWorld, I compared the lives of orcas held captive in places like Orlando to those swimming free in the waters of Washington State, British Columbia, and elsewhere.
After analyzing the issue from several angles (animal welfare, public education, scientific advancement, interaction with humans) there was only one conclusion I could reach: Free is better.
Last July, I attended a reunion of leading figures from my book on beautiful San Juan Island, in northern Puget Sound. With us was a talented videographer from the Humane Society of the United States, Frank Loftus, who posed the same question I had asked: What’s better, free or wild? The results are powerful.
Where would you prefer to see orcas? San Juan Island is just one of many spectacular places in the Pacific Northwest where entire pods can easily be viewed from shore (or a boat), especially in the summer.
Here is how I describe the island in my book:
In the summer, the entire western shore of San Juan Island is patrolled almost daily by J, K and L pods, who travel up and down the coast, sometimes quite close to the cliffs, in what locals referred to as the “Westside Shuffle.” The view from this side of the island was staggering. Beyond the cove was Haro Strait, churning like a river with strings of frothy rip currents as the tidewaters raced towards the Pacific. Ten miles west across the channel, the green hills of Vancouver Island rose above the tidy homes of Victoria. To the south, across Juan de Fuca Strait, the towering stone peaks of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula glinted in the June sun, their highest summits still dusted in winter white.
The Westside has several oceanfront spots where killer whales routinely pass by several times a day in the summer, often calling at quiet coves to feast on salmon, breach from the water in thunderous splashes, or simply loll in the kelp and seemingly delight in each other’s company.
The most popular viewing place is Lime Kiln State Park, where killer whales often come within a dozen yards or so of the rocky point.
Families make a day out of it, picnicking on the cliff, hiking in nearby groves of madrona trees, and waiting for the whales to come by. The stately lighthouse has an interpretive center from May 19 to September 16, and often has naturalists from Friends of Lime Kiln Society (FOLKS) on hand to explain various natural behaviors displayed by the whales (versus the circus-style acrobatics they perform at SeaWorld).
More than 200,000 people visit each year, most of them far from elitist. They are there to learn. “The frequent sightings of our resident pods of orca whales from this unobtrusive land-based viewpoint can motivate people to change the way they live in deference to these threatened creatures,” the FOLKS website explains. “FOLKS believes that Lime Kiln Point State Park is a critical education habitat that must be protected as passionately as the whales themselves.”
I have stood on these western cliffs, marveling at the power, precision and cohesion of orca families. Once on Eagle Point, at American Camp, we watched J Pod splash, play and forage for Chinook. Instead of cheesy music blasting from Shamu Stadium, we heard the chittering of bald eagles circling above and the rustling of foxes in the underbrush at our feet.
After an hour or so, three whales swam just in front of us, and then dove. We waited for them to resurface. Atop the water, an oily slick of fish guts and goo began to bob and a hundred birds descended to feast. Down below, the whales were splurging.
But they never came back up. We looked over the cove and realized the entire pod had simply exited. One call from the matriarch of this female-dominated society (“We’re outta here. Now. That way.”) and the whole lot of them vanished.
Another sublime site to watch free orcas for free is the Westside Scenic Preserve, with 15 acres overlooking Haro Strait. If you drive by and see cars parked there, or whale boats anchored offshore, stop and get out: There are orcas about.
So how much does this cost? Paradise ain’t cheap. But it’s not as much as you’d think. Let’s say a family with two kids, seven and nine, living near Chicago wants to see orcas. San Diego and Seattle are exactly the same distance away, with comparable airfares. So let’s do the math for the rest.
A day at SeaWorld California, if bought online, costs $78 per adult and $70 per child three to nine. With parking, that’s $311 (food and souvenirs extra).
That same family can catch the Victoria Clipper from downtown Seattle for an all-day odyssey to San Juan Island, with a naturalist onboard and 2.5 hours of dedicated whale watching, for $70 per adult and $15 per child under 12, or $170. Not cheap, but cheaper.
Families, of course, don’t vacation overnight. For the sake of argument, let’s compare three days/two nights in June at SeaWorld versus San Juan Island. The average price paid for a San Diego hotel room is $135/night, and the best car deal I found was $129 for three days. SeaWorld San Diego’s ticket, however, is good for a week: The total cost, with parking, would be $735.
Conversely, a car from Seattle airport is $117 for three days, and the roundtrip ferry to San Juan is $66 (plus $20 in gas). Island lodging is expensive (though camping and other options are available). We rented a spectacular two-bedroom home on the cliff near Lime Kiln that goes for $215/night in June, plus a $75 cleaning fee. The whales visited often: Our own private shows. Total for this trip would be $708 (meals can be cooked onsite, for greater savings).
Charting a private boat cost more and, while it’s not needed to view orcas, sometimes you get a real treat, as seen in this video shot last July by Howard Garrett of the Orca Network.
Finally, if you think seeing wild orcas is less entertaining than SeaWorld, I dare you to watch these scenes from Vashon Island near Seattle, filmed last Saturday (11/24/12) and not be moved by the deep emotional response of the crowds watching from shore, for free.