The Port of Vancouver is slowing down vessels in Haro Strait and studying the impacts of noise and disturbance on the Southern Resident orca whales. The Canadian government is now considering a ban on whale-watching in orca foraging areas along southwest Vancouver Island, Boundary Pass and the approaches to the Fraser River southern British Columba.
Meanwhile, here in the heart of the Salish Sea, the whale-watching industry continues to be more important than the whales. If Canada puts a whale-watching ban into effect it will make the waters around the San Juan Islands an even greater Salish Sea World of destructive noise and disturbance.
Because of the gutting of federal budgets and the lack of environmental support from Wash D.C., the current petition to NOAA for a whale protection zone is gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. Maybe it’s time for broader protection. San Juan County successfully banned Jet-ski whale-watching back 1995. It was a decision challenged by commercial interests all the way to the WA Supreme Court.
In its 1998 decision, the Supreme Court decided in favor of San Juan County. Buried in the 26-page report is the sentence: “Finally, it would be an odd use of the public trust doctrine to sanction an activity that actually harms and damages the waters and wildlife of this state.” Commercial whale-watching also “harms and damages the waters and wildlife.”
The ongoing outcry about the economic impact of commercial whale-watching in San Juan County is a Pacific Whale-Watching Association marketing ploy that benefits just a few here in the county. PWWA represents less than half of the 67 whale-watching companies operating in San Juan County waters.
Their membership indicates that ten or less are based in San Juan County. Of these, it is not clear which are owned and operated by county residents. Of the PWWA membership, most are Canadian-owned and operate out of ports in 17 other locations along the coast of Washington and British Columbia. It is easy access to the waters of San Juan County that is their primary objective.
The reality is that most of the whale-watching tourists get onboard elsewhere and do not set foot on land in San Juan County. And many of the visitors who do come to San Juan Island to go commercial whale-watching simply get off the ferry, go directly to a boat, chase the whales, and then get on a ferry and go home.
In stunning contrast—close to 300,000 people annually go to Lime Kiln Whale-Watch Park to watch whales from shore. These are the on-the-ground people who contribute to the economy, and the environment, of San Juan County. And if they are lucky, they get to see the orca whales in their natural environment—free from noise and disturbance.
I was lucky when I first moved to San Juan Island. It was possible to commune regularly with the Southern Resident orcas as they foraged peacefully in kelp beds only yards from shore. I once witnessed a greeting ceremony in which two pods came together in a display of community celebration. It is a journey to the west side that I can longer make because seeing how they are harassed breaks my heart.
And yes, I have gone out whale-watching on a boat. A few years ago, I was invited to go out with a naturalist friend. We had a beautiful half-hour slowly cruising in local waters. The naturalist shared wonderful and inspiring information about our astonishing marine environment. There were about ten of us and we bonded through the beauty of it all.
Then the captain got word of where the orca whales were. We revved up and raced high-speed through the waters for about 20 minutes until Granny and her clan were visible. Truth-be-told, I wanted to avert my eyes. The high-speed chase made a mockery of our quiet reflective time together. Education and inspiration was abandoned for photo-op exploitation.
But times have changed. The SRKWs don’t have time to wait for NOAA to decide about a whale protection zone. And with Canada exploring a ban in its own waters, it does not bode well for the SJC waters of the Salish Sea. And even the marketing hype has backfired. My understanding is that there have been lawsuits filed against whale-watch companies because they did not provide the “guaranteed” whale-sighting experience.
Might it be possible for offshore whale-watching to be replaced with environmentally ethical “Save the whales marine nature tours?” The beauty of the natural world is always with us--whether the orca whales are there or not. There would be no opportunity for lawsuits, no violation of the SRKWs, and far less impact on the marine environment.
Authentic eco-tourism saves the environment and shares it at the same time. If the Southern Residents have any chance of avoiding extinction, it is up to us, here, in the heart of the Salish Sea. What can we do, and how quickly can we do it?
Most pertinent of all in today’s world, what would the youth do? I understand there is a young man in San Juan county whose senior project is to place a whale-watching ban initiative on the November ballot. From weapons to whales, it is becoming increasingly clear that our young people are exhibiting the moral clarity that the rest of us have lost to the corporatization of consciousness.
Time for us to follow their lead—or get out of their way. Time to take their future into account instead of retreating to our privileged little plots of denial and disdain.
Janet Thomas has lived on San Juan Island for 27 years. She is the San Juan Islands Coordinator for Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance and was the Superintendent of San Juan County Parks when Jet-ski-whale-watching was prevented from launching from San Juan County Park, a decision ultimately upheld by the Washington State Supreme Court. She is an author and playwright whose work has been produced in Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Honolulu and Los Angeles. Her most recent books are: "The Battle in Seattle--The Story Behind and Beyond the WTO Demonstrations" and "Day Breaks Over Dharamsala--A Memoir of Life Lost and Found."