It’s Killer Whale-Watching Season, but Where Are Their Bodyguards?

Canadian austerity measures have kept whale protection group Straitwatch off the water.
The whale protection group that usually protects orcas from their spectators hasn't yet received enough government funding to operate this season. (Photo: Carlos Davila/Getty)
May 7, 2013· 3 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Seagoing vessels and killer whales have never been the best of friends. In recent years, an unknown number of wild orcas have been chased, harassed, surrounded, and, worse, deformed, or even killed by passing boats and their whirring propellers. Working to reduce such incidents is the Canadian nonprofit Straitwatch, which acts as a bodyguard for the orcas, educating boaters and helping them maintain a safe distance from the whales in British Columbia. But now, Straitwatch faces a crippling cut in government funding, for the second year in a row.

Normally, Straitwatch, based in Victoria, B.C., patrols the narrow and busy waterways between Vancouver Island, the San Juan Islands in Washington State, and mainland North America, while a group called Sound Watch covers the U.S. side of the border.

The whales in this area belong to a close-knit community of orca pods, known collectively as the Southern Resident population. "Resident" orcas of the northwest, the most widely studied and well-known killer whales in the world, are highly social and gregarious marine mammals. Divided into matriarchal groups known as "matrilines," each family is a cohesive unit, with offspring and adult males staying close by the mother’s side.

Killer whale watching has become extraordinarily popular in these waters, and for good reason. Every year from about May to September, orcas belonging to the Southern Resident community, composed of the J, K, and L pods, converge around Puget Sound, and the adjacent Haro, Rosario, and Juan de Fuca Straits, to socialize, mate, and forage for their favorite food, Chinook salmon.

There are only 84 Southern Resident killer whales left in the oceanThere are only 84 Southern Resident killer whales left in the ocean, and the population has been put on endangered species lists in both Canada and the United States.

"We need to act now to protect these incredible animals," Leah Thorpe of Straitwatch tells TakePart. "Every day that Straitwatch is out on the water, we help to relieve some of the pressure on these whales. Our data has consistently shown that the greatest number of incidents are caused by private boaters, many of whom are unaware of the guidelines and how to follow them. Every boater that we contact is a boater who leaves more educated about the whales and how to best view them without causing unnecessary disturbances."

Most commercial whale-watching companies in the area are careful and observant of the distances by which they must stay away from the orcas. But private boaters are more likely to disturb and endanger the whales by coming too close, or going too fast. Straitwatch tells boaters to stay 100 meters away from whales, records registration numbers of every boat they contact, and reports repeat offenders for possible prosecution.

This season, that may not happen. The group is still waiting to learn about this year's funding from Environment Canada (the equivalent of the U.S. EPA). "We decided to ask for quite a bit less than normal, in the hopes of having a greater chance of approval," Thorpe explains. The requested amount was $98,000, to run a partial monitoring and education program of just two to four days a week, which would still be an improvement over last year, when they were denied taxpayer funding for the first time since their founding in 2003.

Monitoring the orca population and educating the public about distance guidelines is part of Canada's official Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Strategy, as mandated under the country's Species at Risk Act of 2002. "We are listed in the Act as the group that provides monitoring and education" on issues concerning orcas and boaters," Thorpe says. "Cutting our funding does seem to go against that strategy."

Even though the group asked for less than half of last year's request, there is no guarantee they will prevail. Austerity measures have hit Canada as in other nations, and wildlife conservation and the environment are often among the programs on the chopping block.

"We also know that approval comes later and later each year,” Thorpe says. “Making it very difficult for us to hire and train staff in order to be out on the water in time." Grants are supposed to be announced by April 1, but this April, like last one, came and went without word from Environment Canada. Meanwhile, whale-watching season is already underway.

"Project proposals are currently being reviewed. Each application submitted is evaluated against its efforts in meeting national and regional program priorities," Laura Lauzon, spokesperson for Environment Canada, tells TakePart. "Funding under the Habitat Stewardship Program will be available to successful applications whose approved projects address priority recovery needs of species at risk."

So what now? "That's a great question," Thorpe says. "We definitely don't have the funding to put a program on the water, though we are still working hard to find another way. We are working hard to fundraise. Normally we are out on the water by mid-May. But we also need to hire and certify staff, and that should have all been in place by now."

Each Southern Resident orca encounters, on average, 76 "incidents" with boats every day. An incident is defined as an interaction with a vessel that is contrary to Canadian guidelines. Mostly, the orcas will dive underwater to avoid boats. To date, there have only been a handful of serious incidents where whales were struck and mangled by vessels, "but we worry about the accumulated impact of so many vessels out there," Thorpe says. "If there are a lot of boats, it can have a substantial impact."

Last year, the group was only able to make contact with 274 vessels, compared to the 631 boats contacted in 2011. The absence of the organization on the water has already led to record numbers of reportable incidents between boats and orcas.

So what can ordinary citizens do to make sure that Straitwatch gets its monitors out onto the waters frequented by this iconic and endangered species? "Call Environment Canada and let them know you are watching," Thorpe says. "It absolutely does not matter if you live in the United States."

After all, these famous and endangered killer whales belong to both countries equally. We all have a responsibility to make sure they live in peace with boaters.