Last Updated May 2, 2012 Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA): Past, Present and Future

Who We Are: We are a professional group made up of both Canadian and U.S. Whale Watch tour operators located in the trans-boundary region of the Pacific Northwest in the waters of the Salish Sea.

Our Mission: We operate cooperatively in order to provide the public with opportunities to view whales and other regional wildlife. Through our on-board naturalists we teach the public about the natural history of the area’s marine mammals, their habitats and concerns for their preservation.

Our Goal: To operate in a respectful manner by utilizing Best Practices Guidelines that do not interfere with orca life processes.

Our History:

Over the last twenty years our efforts have included, but are not limited to:

  • Development of Best Practices Guidelines to view orcas and other regional wildlife. These practices have been recognized and adopted world-wide

  • Implementation of a voluntary no go zone on the west side of San Juan Island when orca whales are present. This specific area requires that our professional whale watch operators must maintain a minimum distance of 1/4 mile off shore between Eagle Point and Open Bay and to maintain a 1/2 mile off shore from Lime Kiln State Park
  • Education of millions of passengers which, throughout the years, has created strong support for orca conservation issues.  The 2008 SRKW Recovery Plan states that education and outreach are needed to enhance public awareness and educate the public on ways they can participate in conservation efforts

  • Working cooperatively with non-governmental organizations, local, state, provincial and federal agencies who regularly contribute to scientific studies and monitoring
  • Development of a go slow 7 knot viewing method. Research has shown that a slower speed and reduced engine noise around the orca does not affect their ability to echo locate their prey
  • Implementation of a spread the viewing policy. Our professional operators strive to divide viewing and go to different locations to avoid a concentration of vessels

  • Implementation of new regulations: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) was under pressure to increase the viewing distance from 100 yards to 200 yards. The main reason for this new regulation was primarily due to concerns recorded from private vessels by The Soundwatch monitoring organization – managed by The Whale Museum, Friday Harbor. NOAA cited high speed engine noise and is concerned that this noise “masks” orca sonar and impedes them from finding fish and communicating with each other

  • The PWWA members have not been operating at high speeds near orca whales for over a decade. Since we were unable to separate our viewing protocols from private boaters, we have moved to the new 200 yard viewing distance

  • One of PWWA’s worst orca tragedies came true in 2001 when six mature whales from “L pod failed to return by late summer. The recent killing of L-112 a three-year old female now brings to light a possible explanation. The possibility exists that “L pod” was in the wrong place when military training occurred.  Since certain training including submarine exercises are classified, we may never know the cause of L-112’s death. The Navy admitted in public testimony on May 1, 2012 that sophisticated monitoring equipment is not always available and used prior to training exercises.  We can only hope that more whales were not present when L-112, was killed. We await the return of “L pod” this year to confirm their status.
  • Responding to the killing of L-112, February 2012, the PWWA started a campaign “Move The Bombing Range” in concert with The Center for Whale Research to encourage the military to move the bombing range away from critical habitat. The campaign includes a Facebook page ( ) and letters written to congressional representatives from PWWA members. The PWWA members also encourage others to write to their representatives.

  • In 2010 Soundwatch reported another dramatic drop in recorded boats in proximity of the SRKW. Data shows that in the last ten years the average number of total boats around the SRKW has dropped 41% from 22 to 13.  Also in the last ten years the average number of commercial operators has dropped 45% from 11 to 6.   This may be  a direct result in policy of the PWWA “spread the viewing policy”.

  • A NOAA funded aerial survey in the summer of 2010 showed that out of 23 observations 39% had no boats present.  Additionally, there are 12 – 14 hours per day in season when no commercial whale watching boats are operating and the whales are by themselves. During the remaining six months whale watching operations are suspended and the location of the orcas is mostly unknown.

  • The PWWA provides a platform for hundreds of professional naturalists to increase their knowledge and observe wildlife behavior. These naturalists are highly educated and provide an excellent source of information for the general public regarding orca behavior and recovery. Again, directly mentioned in the Recovery Plan; education and outreach.

  • The PWWA monitors private boaters when law enforcement is not present. Soundwatch data from 2010 shows that of 1,067 incidents 84% were caused by non-commercial operators.  In fact, 64% were by private boaters, Canadian operators accounted for 10% of the incidences, and the researchers themselves accounted for 7%.  The US commercial operators only accounted for 4% of total incidences in 2010.  Our operators are in constant contact with Soundwatch (U.S) and Strait Watch (Canada). The commercial operators inform them via radio and cell phones of potential concerns that private boaters present. Our boats are frequently the only source available to know the whereabouts of the orcas so that Soundwatch and Strait Watch can perform their valuable service.

    Direct political action and funding by the PWWA:

  • Up-listing (raising to ‘endangered’) of the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW)
  • Neah Bay rescue tug
  • Increased oil spill preparation

  • U.S. and Canadian on-the-water education via The Whale Museum’s Soundwatch (San Juan island) and Straight Watch (Canada)

  • Orca Network, The Center for Whale Research and The Whale Museum
  • Anti-hunting of gray whales at Neah Bay
  • San Juan County and Washington State law enforcement legislation for orca protection
  • Wild salmon restoration
  • Anti-tagging for SRKW for research purposes

  • Affiliation with the Passenger Vessel Association
  • “Move The Bombing Range” campaign

Endangered: It is important to point out that the Southern Resident Killer (SRKW) Whale up-listing to endangered status was allowed because SRKW are a genetically and culturally unique group of whales. The reality is that the orca whale’s population has often fluctuated during the last 35 year population study. Scientists continue their research to understand, however, these fluctuations do not seem to be impacted by vessel numbers. To the contrary, the whales that spend the most time with the PWWA fleet within Puget Sound are in J-pod. J-pod appears to have the most stable population amongst the SRKW community, while L-pod, who is the least observed of the SRKW community, has the most fluctuation.

Orca’s Prey: SRKW eat approximately 80% Chinook salmon and 15% Chum salmon. The latest information coming from the scientific community (NOAA researcher) suggests that they pursue Chinook because it is a deep water fish and cannot see the orca coming the way other types of salmon can in shallower waters. Orca can use their sonar very effectively in these deep (up to 150 meters), dark waters.  Current research also suggests that the SRKW are highly specialized at capturing Chinook salmon, specifically from the Fraser River, and may not be able to adapt quickly to changes in the availability of prey.  However, most researchers believe resident orca eat Chinook because of its high nutritional value for energy expended. Recent conclusions by both Canadian and U.S scientists directly tie years of poor Chinook salmon runs to SRKW mortality.

Historical Note: According to Washington State Fish and Game records, during the heyday of commercial fishing over four thousand fishing boats were on the water of the Salish Sea day and night. Still, our orcas returned to hunt, even though they were shot at and seal bombed. On any 4th of July, which is the most popular boating time for our region, the number of vessels on the water near orca whales pales in comparison to the past. It was only about 40 years ago that approximately 13 Southern Residents were killed and 45 were captured and put into captivity. It is remarkable that they were able to bounce back at all from such a travesty.

Economic Impact: The thirty plus companies that make their living respectfully watching whales in the Salish Sea are a major cornerstone to our northwest tourism sector. In San Juan County alone the main reason to visit is its’ natural beauty and whale watching. In January of 2011 SeaDoc’s Chief Scientist estimated that watchable wildlife in the state of Washington accounts for a total economic output of $1.78 billion and generates or maintains nearly 22,000 jobs.  These jobs directly include captains, naturalists, office staff and more. The indirect effect is seen in things like boat building, boat repair, port fees, moorage, fuel and more. Then add the major partnerships with hotels, motels, vacation rentals, B & B’s, airlines, restaurants and more. The indirect effect is significant, plus whale watching is non-consumptive and sustainable. Editorial

Comment: Whether driven by altruism, enlightened self-interest, or both, the members of the PWWA are symbiotically connected to the Salish Sea and the wildlife that live there. We actively support conservation issues that directly impact our livelihood. We embrace all objective thought, new science and input to cooperatively preserve and protect the waters of the Salish Sea. PWWA is an example of responsible capitalism. We are non-consumptive. We give back and provide our communities with economic stability through sustainable tourism. We have educated millions of passengers on the need to preserve habitat and protect resident orcas. Our organization feels that much of the boat related concerns have been polarizing and misguided.  The popularity of whale watching helps to ensure that public opinion will never again allow the killing and capturing of orca whales. Every concern raised about commercial and private boats could have been solved years ago if one law enforcement vessel would have been funded for five months each year during the whale watching season. Tens of thousands of dollars were spent on research that did not improve the orcas prey or habitat. This money could have been put towards real issues such as Chinook salmon restoration and removing toxins from our waters. Due to the lack of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon, we could likely be at the orcas population carrying capacity. Until more Chinook salmon thrive in our streams, we may not see our orca population dramatically rise. Join our efforts to restore our wild salmon stocks. *SRKW Southern Resident Killer Whales, the resident orca whales.

Thank you for your interest.

Members of the Pacific Whale Watch Operators