A pod of orcas was harassed by up to 30 boaters Tuesday evening as the orcas swam through the Tacoma Narrows and past Fox Island, according to numerous observers who witnessed the floating spectacle.
One person on a personal watercraft drove circles around the six orcas, according to witnesses.
Angry residents took to social media to complain about the flotilla of harassers.
“I’ve never seen people being so aggressive,” said Gig Harbor resident Christine Groenendaal.
Boat noise and proximity can have detrimental effects on orcas, wildlife experts say.
On Tuesday, boaters caught up with the orca pod as it swam through the Tacoma Narrows around 5:30 p.m., said Gig Harbor resident Amy Bliss-Miller. She watched from Tacoma Narrows Park.
“They were surrounded by boats,” she said of the orcas. “There were seven boats, kind of in a horseshoe shape and the orcas were in the middle, 50 feet away.”
Bliss-Miller figures the boaters were so close, “Because they’re getting their dumb Facebook video or whatever they’re trying to do.”
Not all of the boaters were breaking distance regulations, witnesses said.
Linda Graham Gruvman and her husband, Gary, live on Hale Passage, across from Fox Island. On Tuesday, she was looking out at the water.
“Suddenly, I saw 15 boats all just coming from every direction,” Graham Gruvman said. “They were chasing the whales. They wanted to get close. They probably wanted to take pictures, you know, with their phones.”
In her 20 years at that location, she’s only seen orcas about six times. But she’s never seen anything like Tuesday’s fleet.
“I and my husband estimated one of [the boats] was probably less than 50 feet away [from an orca],” she said. “There was also a Jet Ski that looked like it was trying to go right over the whales.”
By the time the orcas reached the Fox Island bridge, Groenendaal counted 30 boats and assorted watercraft following them and leapfrogging ahead to get in front of them.
Orcas are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Michael Milstein, a spokesman for NOAA, said the agency doesn’t comment on law enforcement matters and referred a reporter to the agency’s “BeWhaleWise” web page.
The coronavirus-related mothballing of the region’s whale-watching fleet may be a contributing factor in increased pressure to view whales, said Shari Tarantino, president of Seattle based nonprofit Orca Conservancy.
Some companies have returned to service with social distancing and other safety factors in place.
“We actually are pretty supportive of them and actually work with them because we kind of look at it as, it’s better to have a bunch of people on one boat that are kind of getting a scientific education about what’s going on in the environment,” Tarantino said.
The orcas that swam past Fox Island on Tuesday are a group of transients known as T46, according to Tarantino. Boaters can approach transients within 200 yards.
Social media and even some websites dedicated to orcas provide real-time sighting information. That could have contributed to Tuesday’s waterborne melee, Taratino said.
Bliss-Miller said she’s seen boaters back off from whales when a state Department of Fish and Wildlife boat comes on the scene.
“They know they’re breaking the rules,” she said of the whale chasers. “I don’t think they care about the whales very much. They want to be able to post something on social media. They want to be able to look cool with an orca dorsal fin in the background of their picture.”
In turn, Bliss-Miller said, the whales can’t communicate with each other well and feed properly.
“If we don’t treat them with respect and try to maintain our distance and give them peace, we’re not going to have them here to enjoy,” she said.