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Comment: Why can’t we leave whale watching to researchers?

June is Orca Month in Washington state, Oregon, B.C. and the city of Victoria. It’s time to consider some next steps in coexistence with orcas, the “minds in the waters.


June is Orca Month in Washington state, Oregon, B.C. and the city of Victoria. It’s time to consider some next steps in coexistence with orcas, the “minds in the waters.”

From a possible population high of 98 in 1995 or possibly higher in periods before they could be accurately identified and counted (thanks to Michael Bigg), the southern resident killer whales are now listed as “endangered” by the Canadian Species at Risk Registry and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The population totals 78, with 24 in J Pod, 19 in K Pod and 35 in L Pod.

We know that orcas are family bonded, are cognitively, culturally and linguistically complex, and are self-aware. Their brains have structures for emotional learning that we do not have, and extensive acoustic and cognitive structures we do not fully understand. We know that southern resident pods swim up to 156 kilometres daily in the Salish Sea and coastal waters of Washington, Oregon and California.

Early captives taken from the wild and confined in marine zoos paid for what we learned with their lives, and their families and extended clan groups paid with failing viability of the population. (Local L Pod orca Lolita Tokitae is the last living southern-resident wild captive, held since 1970 in the smallest tank in North America, the substandard Miami Seaquarium.) We might be watching extinction at work, due to increasing acoustic assaults, dwindling food supply and toxins discharged into their home.

Massive declines in salmon populations over the past 100 years have made it harder for the orcas to find food. Bodies of the males qualify as toxic waste, as they do not offload toxins in milk while nursing babies. Increasing ocean noise makes it harder for orcas to communicate with each other and to find food.

The remaining 78 southern residents are surrounded by buzzing boats any time they can be found. Can anyone say “watching” them during every daylight hour, as often as their location can be determined, for every day of their lives in the “whale watching season,” April to October, is helping them?

Put yourself in the orcas’ place. It’s as if you had neighbours who never turned off the leaf blower, lawn mower or loud music. Studies have shown behavioural changes in response to both noise and the presence of boats.

One next step in supporting the southern residents’ struggle to regain population viability is a retreat from entertaining ourselves by chasing and stressing individuals of this endangered population in the wild. We have the technology — underwater cameras and hydrophones — to see and hear them while allowing them the dignity of living their lives free from our desire to be entertained by them as they simply try to survive.

Occasionally, we can see orcas from a ferry. They can be seen from land, and organizations such as the Whale Trail have identified likely spotting places. It is time to allow only accredited researchers to have access to boat-based “whale watching,” and time to stop exploiting an endangered population as a commercial tourist attraction.


Diane McNally has followed orca research since 1968, and organizes annual City of Victoria Orca Month events.