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‘If the whales go away, we go away, and we don’t want that either’

Changing whale populations calls for stricter rules and regulations for boaters

Jeff Drovdahl, a captain with San Juan Cruises based out of Bellingham, Wash., explains in June 2019 how whale watching has changed over the years, and how changing whale populations call for stricter rules and regulations for boaters.
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Jeff Drovdahl, a captain with San Juan Cruises based out of Bellingham, Wash., explains in June 2019 how whale watching has changed over the years, and how changing whale populations call for stricter rules and regulations for boaters.

It’s been two months since a whale-watching bill passed that increases the level of separation between boaters and resident orcas, and Jeff Drovdahl, a captain for San Juan Cruises, hopes it will encourage boaters to be more cautious on the water.

Drovdahl estimates he works nearly 60 hours per week on whale-watching boats based out of the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.

There isn’t an exact route or expectation for every day. “These whales can move 150 to 200 miles in a 24-hour period,” Drovdahl told The Bellingham Herald. “We have to get out every morning and find them again.”

To do that, crews rely on other whale watching companies, boats and personal connections that report their sightings each day. However, what they’re seeing is changing.

Drovdahl’s worked in the whale-watching industry for 11 years, seven as a captain. He said that where he used to see resident orcas, which feed on salmon and travel in larger groups, every day, he now sees more and more transient orcas, which feed on sea mammals and travel in smaller groups over much larger areas, and humpback whales. The changes in populations often mean new wildlife-watching rules.

According to a Washington state bill that was signed into law May 2019, boats must maintain a 300-yard horizontal viewing distance from killer whales in the resident J, K and L Pods and 200 yards from transient orcas. While in Canada, that distance is 400 yards, or a quarter of a mile, for resident orcas according to a press release from Transport Canada.

Breaking the Washington regulations carries a $500 fine, which is why Drovdahl says it’s important that whale-watching boats set a good example for private boaters.

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A boat observes a group of transient orcas in the Strait of Georgia, west of Birch Bay, on June 29. Lacey Young The Bellingham Herald

Other organizations such as the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which consists of more than 30 whale-watching companies and ecotourism businesses across Washington and British Columbia, set local whale and wildlife-viewing guidelines as well.

Drovdahl says he feels pretty happy with the current whale-watching laws, but captains are working on new ways of notifying other boats in the area that they’re watching whales.

“You think it’d be obvious, but it’s not,” Drovdahl said. “(And) private boaters (often) don’t even see the whales until they’re right on top of them.”

To avoid situations like those, enforcement boats from organizations such as the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA, or volunteers spreading whale watching awareness, often gravitate toward the viewing zones.

“The concern is just making sure that everyone’s giving the whales the space they need to survive and thrive,” Drovdahl said.

Which is why he suggests minimizing your presence on the water by quieting down engines and often staying even further away from the whales than the laws suggest.

“If the whales go away, we go away, and we don’t want that either,” Drovdahl said. “We love the whales.”

Drovdahl’s comment on the separation between boaters and resident orcas was corrected July 10, 2019.

Lacey Young is a visual journalist who interned at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, NASA’S Goddard Space Flight Center and Minnesota Public Radio. She’s a University of Montana graduate and life-long Washingtonian.
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