Shhh, that’s not Shamu

ERIC LUCAS lives in Seattle. He is a travel and natural history writer.

THE ORCAS OF Puget Sound are the victims of a painful irony: The more popular they become, the more miserable their lives are.

What torments these 90 or so creatures are whale-watching boats -- a buzzing, fulminating flotilla crowded with tourists who want to get as close as possible to killer whales.

How close? The boat operators have a voluntary code that is supposed to keep them 100 yards from the massive animals. Scaled down to human terms, that guideline translates to 20 yards. Would you want to be surrounded at 20 yards by dozens of boats, with 200-horsepower outboard motors at ear level, every day, five months a year?


I think it’s time for orca watching to stop.

It’s a radical idea, I know. Few activists or scientists dare go that far. But my perspective dates to a calm August morning a few years back. I was on one of the San Juan Islands, about half a mile from the waters of Haro Strait, the summer home of the Puget Sound orcas, and I heard a distinctive sound indicating their presence: the rumble of diesels and the cacophony of outboard motors.

A family -- a pod -- of about 20 whales was offshore, surrounded by about 75 boats. Some were big party boats with dozens of tourists aboard; most were Zodiacs holding 10 sightseers and powered by high-speed outboards. The boats circled and recircled the orcas throughout the animals’ half-hour passage along the island. When they disappeared from view, the sound trailed away like a departing thunderstorm.

It’s a scene repeated daily from May through September. Whale-watching boats depart by the dozens every morning from Victoria and Vancouver, Canada, and to a lesser degree from Seattle and from Friday Harbor, in the San Juans. When one tour boat finds a pod, radio chatter draws all the boats to a spot. They form a cluster around the whales -- supposedly observing the 100-yard separation -- and stay put while the whales pass. Then each boat puts pedal to the metal and fights for a new position in front of the pod, and stops again. If the pod changes course, so does the boat cluster. That’s called “leapfrogging” -- a euphemism for chasing.

Industry figures have told newspaper reporters that their activities have no effect on the whales. “From the whale’s perspective,” said one Victoria operator, “we’re just a fly on the ceiling.”

In fact, there is no scientific proof that boat noise harms whales. However, we know that orcas use a form of sonar to locate prey; they communicate among themselves with a language of whistles and tones so advanced that different families use different dialects. And we know that surrounded by boats, or with the boats overhead, orca communication is drowned out.

“It’s like a rocket ship taking off,” said Lance Barrett-Leonard, a researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium, talking about the underwater sound when an outboard accelerates near orcas. Barrett-Leonard dangles hydrophones into the water to measure the decibels. There may not be scientific proof of the damage the sound causes, but, as he says, it’s utterly obvious: “Any reasonable person would agree the noise is detrimental to these animals.”

Still, Barrett-Leonard doesn’t believe in banning whale-watching trips. “There’s a huge public demand,” he said. “And the experience gives the average visitor a sense of the beauty and value of these animals.” He calls for licensing and much more stringent restrictions than the voluntary guidelines. No outboards, for instance.

He’s right, of course, about the demand. In Washington’s Island County, the home ground of the Puget Sound orcas, whale watching is a $10-million-a-year business. In Victoria, it generates $90 million a year. And, gee, it’s fun.

Yet I hope common sense will take hold.

Puget Sound’s orcas were granted federal protection as an endangered species this spring. Their acknowledged problems are numerous: precipitous declines in salmon runs, the source of their food; catastrophic buildups of toxins in Puget Sound; and, yes, noise from shipping traffic.

Why not address those problems first, asks the whale-watching industry, and that’s not a bad point. We must protect the salmon fishery and control poisons in Puget Sound. As for shipping noise, orcas can at least avoid it by swimming away. But they cannot evade the whale-watching fleet or the dangers of turning wild animals into novelty entertainment.

As the whale-watching season heats up, I think back to the first time I saw a pod of orcas, from the shore of Puget Sound. Once again, it was sound that drew me, the odd whooshing of whales blowing when they surface. I watched them pass in almost utter silence, except for the slap of their bodies as they breached and that unmistakable exhale.

No one is going to outlaw whale watching anytime soon. But I urge anyone with a conscience to stop patronizing the tour operators and to watch from land or from scheduled ferries. The humane and responsible way to observe wildlife is from a distance, going your own way while animals go theirs. Quietly.