My boating excursion in the Pacific Northwest to see endangered orcas was as thrilling as I had hopeB
ut it wasn't the best experience for the whales. Find out why and learn about the alternative: land-based whale-watching.
This Green Life
A Journal of Sorts
ORCA WATCHING October 2009
So, you want to see--and save--these endangered animals. First, do no harm.
I have mixed feelings about the story I am about to tell.It concerns a new encounter with whales
my first sincevisiting Baja with NRDC three years ago. On thatmemorable trip, not only did I have the extraordinary experience of caressing, and once kissing, gray whales in the wild; I also had thesatisfaction of helping NRDC, in my own small way, to secure their matingand birthing grounds at Laguna San Ignacio. (Read the tale athttp://thisgreenlife.org/0604.asp.)My more recent encounter—this timewith orcas (aka killer whales) off SanJuan Island in the Salish Sea—was adifferent kind of thrill involving lesscontact but greater beauty. With theirstriking, not to say, menacing, dorsalfins and perfect contrast of black andwhite patterning, orcas are simplyspectacular. On a clear afternoon inthe crisp air of the Pacific Northwest,these animals are literally brilliant inthe sun, especially when they breach,providing a near full-body view.But here's the rub.The orcas I had the privilege of visiting this summer are not a healthypopulation like the grays I saw in Baja. They are members of a small sub-group of orcas, known as Southern Resident Killer Whales, that is on theEndangered Species List. Scientists are now considering whether theyconstitute their own sub-species or perhaps (along with their NorthernResident cousins) a distinct species of their own.There are only 80 to 90 Southern Resident Killer Whales in existence.While their population has increased since the 1970s, when there were just 67, they are still a tiny band, beset by grave threats and at risk of extinction.What's more, one of those threats is thought to be whale-watching boats.Now, guess how I got close enough to view these gorgeous creatures.All I can say is, I didn't know better. Or, to be more honest, I didn't knowbetter before arriving on San Juan Island. Once there, I did seesomething on the subject in a brochure, but ignored it because it didn'taccord with what I thought I knew—or wanted to believe.My subsequent research for this piece, however, could not be ignored. I'dintended to write about threats to Southern Residents from the Navy'suse of mid-frequency sonar in training exercises in the area (which theNavy has agreed to limit for now, due to the efforts of NRDC and others),depleted salmon stocks (the orcas' food of choice) and heavycontamination of the water. Wherever I found information on thesetopics, I found references to the whale-watching boat problem as well.
, a long-timeadvisor to NRDC, posts a newThis Green Life every month.Sheryl makes her home inTribeca (NYC), where—alongwith her children, Sophie andGabby, and husband, Peter—she tries to put herenvironmental principles intopractice. No fooling.
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If you get this close by boat toan orca, you could be puttingthe animal at risk.A better view can often be hadat Lime Kiln Point State Park—with no harm done.