Is Offshore Whale Watching a Threat, too?

» January 6th, 2014

The following letter just came in to The Pitchfork and I found it intriguing and counterintuitive enough to post. I would love to learn more about the problems in this seemingly benign industry.


An excellent response by Dr. Rose.

On another subject, I have concerns. The present backlash against SeaWorld and other international aquaria will lead to more people participating in whale watching tours to view wild whales. Whale watching is itself an incredibly problematic industry– whales are hounded from sunup to sunset, and are deprived of the right to feed, rest, socialize and breed. There is nothing normal or natural about this kind of interaction between whale watching vessels and orca whales.

The resident orcas of SW British Columbia and the NW United States are a critically endangered species. In BC, they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, The Endangered Species Act and the Species at Risk Act, yet the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is chronically understaffed and ill-equipped to prosecute individuals and businesses who break these laws.

I just want to let people know that whale watching tours are not a reasonable alternative to places like Sea World. If you ARE looking for an alternative, please consider onshore whale watching. There is less of a guarantee that you will see whales, but when you do, I promise you it will be much more emotionally and intellectually fulfilling. An additional bonus is that you may see the whales from much closer-up (marine vessels are supposed to stay 100m from marine mammals). Please do the right thing for orcas. There are many places along the British Columbian and Washington Coast to view these animals humanely –and similarly, I’m certain there are many places across the globe where you can view them from onshore.

11 Responses to Is Offshore Whale Watching a Threat, too?

  1. Lisa LeBlanc says:

    I would think that the huge difference here would be the whale’s ability to move away from any activity they might find bothersome or offensive. I would also think that any inherent risks would be to the tiny invaders in the boat…
    Anecdotal information from the Sea of Cortez has stated that about a century ago, whales were hunted nearly to extinction. As is always hoped, the people living near the Sea of Cortez no longer hunt whales, and a tentative relationship is coming to exist between the whales – who have remarkable racial memory and very long lives when left to their own devices – and the descendants of those who killed the whales’ descendants.
    Whale migration serves biological imperatives; there is purpose in what they do. I find it difficult to believe the ‘interference’ of mere humans would cause them to deviate from their important business, and whales have been shown to actively participate in these interactions – even to allowing their offspring close encounters.
    There is a chasm of difference between the forced behaviors of captive cetaceans and being a guest in their presence.
    At least, that is my hope. It would be horrifying to learn that whatever we’ve gleaned from these magnificent, intelligent animals has been acquired only at their expense.

    • Katie J says:

      Hi Lisa,

      I think it is difficult to communicate in writing what us Gulf Islanders witness on the daily. Take this iphone picture from last summer:

      Now granted, its not the best image, but what you’re looking at here is a pod of Southern Resident orcas traveling through a body of water known as Active Pass (between Mayne and Galiano Islands). There is one way into the pass, and one way out. This pod was surrounded by 4 whale watching vessels, 7 private vessels and our ferry. In this shot, the smaller boats had begun to back off of the pod (to allow the ferry through–yep, the ferry barreled right over the pod). The point is, the orcas were completely encircled and had no escape route. This is the reality for these animals, even in more open bodies of water. They can try to escape, but the second the surface, the boats just zip over and situate themselves around/on top of them again.

      The Southern Resident orcas in the above photo are critically endangered– in fact, there are only 80 of them left. There is lots of research that shows whale watching and other marine vessels are contributing to the decline of their population ( ; ; So frankly, I see a lot of benefit in giving them the respect, space and protections that they deserve.

      I know that off-shore whale watching is not the same issue as orca in captivity, but the two issues do inform each other (especially if the public trend moves towards supporting whale watching tours).

      So here’s to a new generation of “Saving the Whales” :)

      • Elaine Brown says:

        Actually, if one is located in a high enough location, it is possible to watch whales for hours in peace and quiet for oneself and for the whales. Perhaps, this is a source for opening a bustling new business. If the location is good enough to watch whales in mutual comfort, such as a bed and breakfast, perhaps it would prosper year round.

  2. Ann Parkin says:

    Although orcas are predator, not prey, animals, I wonder if this is related to the phenomenon of stress caused by “stalking” that is observed in some land animals. You addressed this issue previously:

  3. Mountain says:

    To compare with crimes of the human world, offshore whale watching seems like harassment or stalking, while SeaWorld is slavery. They’re both harmful, but one is significantly more harmful than the other. I won’t participate in any offshore whale watching, but I would definitely prioritize ending confinement of whales before I worry about offshore whale watching.

  4. Elaine Brown says:

    Many years ago, I once was visiting at a private home in Rosarita Beach, Mexico where we sat at our leisure in a lovely living room high on a cliff looking out over a cove and watched the whales go by all weekend. It was spectacular and the whales only knew that joyous feelings were bouncing to them from off the cliffside. We were comfortable; we ate, drank, stayed warm, and enjoyed all the comforts of home.

    Sure beat being out in the wind on a cold, bouncing boat.

  5. Ellen K says:

    Agreed with Mountain re priorities, but I have witnessed the phenomenon Dr Rose writes of, which did strike us as harassment/stalking. We were on a kayak tour off San Juan Island in 2012, and spotted an orca pod appear nearby. It was astonishing and dismaying to watch the speed with which whale watching boats and all manner of powerboats (10ish) zoomed in to encircle them, some maintaining the legal respectful distance, but many clearly as close as they could get. The orcas moved quickly away, the whole tourist fleet hot on their flukes, and my heart sank for them.
    Were the watchers moved by the experience of seeing the orcas? Doubtless. But to what end? I imagine every one of them docking and later going out for salmon dinners.

  6. mynamefluffy says:

    The experience of whale watching offshore is different than walking into a theme park, and my guess is that a good percentage of people won’t want to bother and might end up going to a museum or a ballgame instead. Many want the Disney experience. But any increase in traffic which might occur might have to be better managed. The reason so many climbers died on Mt. Everest in 1996 is, in part, because there was a traffic jam – too many people trying to get up the mountain at the same time. That, in combination with other factors, added up to a disaster. It never should have been allowed. That mountain (and other places) needs better management of traffic and limitations of how many people can be there at once. When it comes to wild places and protection of natural habitats and species, not everyone gets to go and see whatever they want whenever they want it. It’s a hard reality that many won’t want to accept, but if people really care about saving the planet and all who live on it, they will be willing to meter their activities. And for those who don’t, we’ll need better management and enforcement. ~Linda

  7. Katie J says:

    Hi James,

    I’m so pleased to see my comment caught your attention (just sorry I didn’t see it sooner). To provide some context, I grew up on a remote island called Saturna (in the Southern Gulf Islands of BC, Canada). Saturna Island is very important to the story of orca in captivity because it was here, in 1964, that the first orca was live-captured for display (

    East Point, Saturna (where Moby Doll was harpooned) is an important place to the resident orca whales. Off East Point is a nutrient upwelling, which makes the waters extremely productive and attracts all kinds of marine life (including the Chinook salmon that the resident orcas favour).

    The prevalence of off-shore whale watching vessels (as well as private vessels) makes it very difficult for the resident orcas to do what they come to Saturna to do: feed, socialize, rub their stomachs on the sandstone reefs (to slough off old skin and parasites…mmm). On an average summer day, a pod of resident orcas will be followed by a dozen, maybe two dozen vessels….all. day. long. The noise pollution (and emissions) from this legion of boats takes a toll on these amazing animals ( ; ;

    With a basic Google search, any one of us could find dozens of research papers that demonstrate whale watching vessels are a threat to endangered orcas. And yet the industry fails to receive the criticism and scrutiny it is due. We are literally loving these animals to death, and so few people seem to know or care.

    To clarify, I am not a scientist. I am just a young, enthusiastic environmentalist who cares deeply about the fate of our resident orcas. Thank you so much for taking the time to read my comment (and for main paging it!). I really appreciate the work you are doing bringing the issue of orcas in captivity to light. Keep fighting the good fight and don’t forget to SAVE THE WHALES :)

    -Katie J., Saturna Island, BC

    P.S. East Point, Saturna Island:

  8. Elaine Brown says:

    Wow, Katie, what great information. Is there a possibility that whale watching could take place from a comfortable hotel or restaurant there? I was able to whale watch from a private home on a cliff many years ago and it was wonderful for me and for the whales.

    If not, what can we do to find a solution to ending the whale watching boats?

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