Expected tighter federal regulations protecting endangered orca populations in the San Juan Islands may soon change how and where the public enjoys whale watching.

Afternoon sunshine casts a haze over the San Juan Islands as I scan the horizon for any motion in the glassy water. A sudden “puffffttt” breaks my focus and my head snaps toward the sound just in time to catch a spout of breath and a large, dark shape rising from the water.

I stifle a squeal as the sleek, rounded head of an orca breaks the surface, tall black dorsal fin trailing behind. With a flick of its fluke, the whale is gone just as I hear another burst of breath to my right. There, three orcas rise in sync, then briskly dive again below the surface.

Orcas, also known as killer whales, capture our imagination with their beautiful black and white body pattern, charismatic family ties and active behavior. And Washington’s San Juan Islands, particularly San Juan Island, offer an exceptional and easy opportunity to glimpse whales in the wild. On any given day in the warm summer months, and likely on this Labor Day weekend, orcas — designated as Washington state’s official marine mammal — can be viewed from boat, kayak, plane, or even from shore.

But the particular orcas that make their home in the San Juan Islands, referred to as the southern resident killer whales, face a multitude of threats including pollution, declining chinook salmon (their favorite prey), and increases in noisy boat traffic. With a meager population of roughly 85 individuals, they landed on the federal endangered-species list in 2005.

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In an effort to protect the whales from the half-million visitors that come to view them each year in Washington and British Columbia, local educational nonprofits along with the U.S. and Canadian governments crafted “Be Whale Wise” guidelines to inform boaters how to watch whales with the least impact. The guidelines suggest boats slow to seven knots within 400 yards of the whales and not approach closer than 100 yards. If a whale swims within 100 yards of a boat, boaters should cut their engines. The 100-yard rule became state law in 2008, with a hefty $1,000 fine. The state further forbids boaters from deliberately putting their boat in an orca’s path.

Even stiffer federal regulations are on the horizon, with fines likely 10 to 30 times those posed by the state. As of the 2011 boating season, boats and kayaks may be banned from within 200 yards of the whales. The entire west side of San Juan Island, where the resident whales spend the majority of their time, may become off-limits to all boating, including commercial whale watching, fishing, private boats and even kayaks.

“Boaters are mad about the regulations, while whale lovers think it isn’t enough,” said Lynne Barre, marine- mammal specialist with the Northwest Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service.

Given the vulnerability of the San Juan orcas and the looming regulations, land-based whale watching makes an excellent, and affordable, alternative. And Lime Kiln Point State Park (also known as Whale Watch Park) on the western shore of San Juan Island, boasts some of the best land-based whale-watching in the world.

Watching from the park

Fog rolls through the crisp early-morning air at Lime Kiln, where visitors gather hoping to catch a glimpse of passing whales. Short trails lead through windswept stands of Douglas fir to the water’s edge, where whales pass by almost daily in summer. One trail leads to an old lighthouse that now serves as a research station. Just outside the lighthouse, a boom box broadcasts the sounds made by orcas swimming just offshore; an underwater hydrophone picks up their squeals and cries (hear it live online at www.orcasound.net).

Docents wander the park ready to answer visitors’ questions while a small interpretive center offers informative displays, including a life-size rendition of the dorsal fin of “Ruffles,” a celebrated local orca so named because his fin resembles a dully-serrated knife.

Watching from land requires patience. The morning I arrived, a small group of whales passed close by at 7 a.m. but didn’t return until evening. Being wild animals, they’ll roam where they please. In the summer, though they frequent the west side of San Juan Island to feed on chinook salmon, the three pods that comprise the southern resident orcas (known as J, K and L pods) may occupy the full range of the islands, including Canada’s neighboring Gulf Islands. In winter, they traverse greater Puget Sound and farther, venturing as far south as Monterey Bay, Calif., and as far north as B.C.’s Queen Charlotte Islands.

Given the whales’ wanderlust, many visitors take whale-watching boat tours around the San Juans that boast a 90 percent chance of glimpsing whales. Commercial operators are well-versed in the whale-watching rules and regulations.

“All of us in the business, we love the whales,” said Bill Carli, who runs Captain Carli’s Whale Watch and Wildlife Tours out of Friday Harbor. “None of us would go out and do anything to intentionally hurt them.”

Soundwatch’s edu-forcement

To learn more about how the rules are enforced with private boaters, I spent a day on the water with the Soundwatch team, an educational patrol associated with Friday Harbor’s Whale Museum.

Onboard the Soundwatch boat, radio calls reveal that many of the resident orcas are in the northern waters of the San Juans, and we spend the day there chasing down private boaters, many of whom don’t know the “Be Whale Wise” guidelines or state laws, and others who are just oblivious to the whales’ presence.

“People don’t always grasp what 100 yards is,” said Kari Koski, program director for Soundwatch. “We try to educate them and give boaters the opportunity to make the right decision.”

Our first encounter is a recreational fishermen who’s going far too fast within the 400-yard range of the orcas. John Calogero, who’s driving our boat, waves down the driver and then Bethy Johnstonbaugh, the day’s Soundwatch volunteer (one of dozens signed up for the season), hands over educational information on the whales and the current guidelines. We spot another boater who’s within safe watching distance, but we motor over just to be sure they know the guidelines.

Part of Soundwatch’s task is to collect data on how many boats are in the orcas’ region on any given day, including private vessels, commercial whale-watch boats and barges. They also record any violations they witness and, while Soundwatch cannot act as enforcement, its staff can and will report any blatant or offensive boater behavior.

Soundwatch data shows that private power boaters are the most frequent offenders, whether intentional or accidental, getting too close or going too fast near orcas. Boats in close proximity might impact the orcas’ behavior. Whales cooperatively forage, communicating while they hunt and feed, said Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, part of NOAA. “If the noise that vessels put out masked the communications and calls between the whales, that’s potentially a problem.”

The adoption of stiffer federal regulations to protect orcas rests with NOAA, which is expected to issue a decision in time for the 2011 boating season (the public- comment period is closed). No matter how the new rules fall, one thing visitors to the San Juans should remember is that land-based whale watching will always be allowed from places such as San Juan Island’s Lime Kiln Point.

“Visitors should see the whales in any way they can,” said Jenny Atkinson, executive director of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, “but always be respectful and informed.”