Kayakers too often come too close to the critically endangered pods of whales known as southern residents in Puget Sound.

Share story

Kayakers are encroaching on orca whales, new research shows.

A paper published recently in the scientific Journal PlosOne finds kayakers are a fast-growing segment of the $50 million whale-watch industry, which brings at least 500,000 people out every year to the trans boundary waters of the Salish Sea, according to estimates by the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.

Most incidents of getting too close to the charismatic orca whales are down among commercial whale-watch vessels. But some types of violations by kayakers, with or without guides, are growing, according to analysis in the paper of data compiled by the Soundwatch Boater Education Program, run by the Whale Museum since 1993.

The goal of the volunteer-run program is to reduce vessel disturbance of southern- resident killer whales and other marine wildlife with public education about federal and state laws that require boaters to keep their distance — at least 200 yards away.

“What we have seen is kayak incidents are increasing because they are a lower priority, from an enforcement standpoint, because there are so many other things going on the water that need to be addressed,” said Elizabeth Seely, lead author on the paper, former program coordinator for Soundwatch, and a consultant to the museum. “Some kayakers are not abiding by the laws, paddling out to the killer whales to get closer to them; it is really upsetting to see. And they don’t have any consequences for it.”

Big, multipassenger, motorized boats are just part of the whale-watching action in the Salish Sea. Small rented commercial vessels such as kayaks, canoes and paddleboards in 2015 were the touring choice for 12,230 people from San Jan County Park alone. Between 2012 and 2015, the number of kayakers booked with commercial whale-watching companies increased by 30 percent, according to the paper.

Seely said the Whale Museum has worked with NOAA Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for years to distribute information about the regulations. Yet the encroachments continue, which to her points to a need for more enforcement.

“It is something you learn as a kid. Unless you get in trouble for it, you are going to keep doing it,” she said.

Interrupting the feeding, travel and socialization of the endangered orcas matters, whether by a motorized or nonmotorized boat, said Shawn Larson, another author on the paper, and also a consultant to the museum.

Whatever activity the whales are in the middle of, they are likely startled out of it when suddenly surfacing amid a bunch of humans on the water. “These whales are acclimated to people, but not people right on top of them,” Larson said.

But to some, the southern residents have much bigger problems.

“This distracts from what killer whales are really facing,” said Brian Goodremont, owner of San Juan Safaris and San Juan Outfitters. He said tour operators have developed their own guidelines more strict than federal regulations. “I wouldn’t say it’s a non-issue but really kayakers and whale watch operators are tired of being picked on.”

He and others said the real issue facing the whales isn’t whale watchers, but lack of food.

“From the standpoint of someone who kayaks with wildlife we want to see as few violations as possible,” said Jason Gunter, an owner of Discovery Sea Kayaks, another touring company on San Juan Island. “As to how is it impacting the animals compared to other impacts being forced upon them, it’s probably a pretty minimal impact. It is not like a tanker, it is not like a lack of food. These animals have been around boats a long time.”

The whales in the J, K and L pods are called southern residents, and are a critically endangered, distinct population of orca whales down to only 76 members. Reducing stress on the whales is important to their survival, multiple research findings have documented.

Ken Balcomb of the nonprofit Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor said so depleted are salmon runs in the orcas’ home waters that the whales are going elsewhere, Balcomb said.

“They just aren’t coming around very much, and when they do, it is in little small smattering groups, rather than pods. All indications are that they are having to really spread out and hunt hard to find a fish, and that is what they really need: fish,” Balcomb said.

According to data compiled by the center, the J pod whales, which historically spend more time in their core summer habitat than either K or L pod whales, spent only 22 days in their core summer habitat, including the west side of San Juan Island, from June to September of 2017. That compared with 66 days in the same period in 2016.

Appearances by whales from all three pods totaled only 36 days in the southern residents’ core summer habitat in 2017, compared with 75 in 2016.

Balcomb said meanwhile transient orcas — which eat marine mammals — are booming in population, and often seen.

The threats identified as suppressing the southern residents, including toxics and vessel traffic, don’t seem to affect the transients — and Balcomb isolates food as the main issue for the southern residents, which eat only fish, overwhelmingly salmon, and preferentially chinook.

The center has documented in its population surveys more than 250 transient whales utilizing the same waters as the southern residents. The increase in the transient population tracks with the growth in the seal population because of federal protection against hunting.

“We started this study in 1975, and there were probably half a dozen encounters (with transient orcas),” Balcomb said. “They are here now because the seals are here, and they have rebuilt, they are cranking out babies every two years.

“It’s a food-rich environment, they keep eating these marshmallows (the seals) and are doing just great.”

That is despite much higher levels of toxins in their bodies, particularly older males, because of eating marine mammals higher up on the food chain, Balcomb said.

“They are toxic-waste sites, swimming around,” he said of the transients.

Seely said she supports legislation introduced by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas, that would devote $500,000 in the state budget to an enforcement vessel on the water in the orcas’ prime summer habitat during the whale-watch season.

Enforcement is a key difference in how frequently boaters of any kind violate the regulations intended to prevent harassment of killer whales, researchers found in their paper.

Ranker isn’t surprised.

“Get a blue light going around out there on the water, and people will pay attention,” Ranker said.