STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
On the surface, it seems hard to criticize whale watching. It's different than, say, an aquarium park or, you know, a zoo, where the creatures are confined. In this case, you go out on a boat. You see majestic animals in their natural habitat. But is it harmless when the whales are endangered? In the Pacific Northwest, that question has flared up into controversy. NPR's Martin Kaste has the story.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes. So that's another one of - yep.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The afternoon sun is peeking through the clouds over Washington state's San Juan Islands, and about 20 tourists are crowding a boat railing. A guide tells them, keep your eyes open, any minute now.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And then it dives, so we'll count it out. And then it should be - oh, here we go, guys. Oh, oh, oh (laughter).
KASTE: It's a minke whale, and it flips its tail - the much anticipated money shot. Between the whales appearances, the guide fills the time with lessons about the species and the ecosystem. While in the wheelhouse, the skipper, Gabriel Wilson, is looking for the next attraction.
GABRIEL WILSON: Yeah. I was just wondering if you'd come across that humpback down south yet.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yep, we're just getting here. You know, he's moved a bit to the north.
KASTE: The whale-watching companies share sighting information over a dedicated radio channel. And there could be dozens of boats out here at once, vying for a good look. Wilson says they try to be respectful, which means going slow.
WILSON: You want to be paralleling the whale not behind it. Don't leap frog in front of it.
KASTE: And can he tell if his boat is ever bugging a whale?
WILSON: You can. If they have long dives or change directions, then maybe you just want to back off and go look for something else.
KASTE: The tour operators round here say this has become their guiding principle - respect the whales. And besides going slow, this means maintaining a certain distance.
WILSON: We have found out that if you give them their space - a hundred yards for a baleen whale humpback or minke - and now we're moving to 300 yards for resident orcas - doesn't seem to change their behaviors.
KASTE: But that last point - that new 300-yard-minimum distance for orcas - that's highly contentious. Wilson is talking about the Southern Resident killer whales. They're a distinctive population of orcas that feed on salmon here in the summer. And they're pretty much the most charismatic megafauna that these waters have to offer. They're also endangered because they can't find enough salmon. That's why the state just increased the distance to 300 yards.
SORREL NORTH: Three hundred yards is nothing underwater.
KASTE: That Sorrel North, a longtime resident of the islands who's now become a major thorn in the side of the whale-watching business. She thinks they and all other boats should back off completely.
NORTH: If you have an ecologically sensitive place - you have a threatened species - to me, it seems like what they need is to be left alone.
KASTE: And that's what North and a group of like-minded people are now trying to achieve. They're trying to get an initiative on the local county ballot to expand the protective zone around the Southern Resident killer whales to 650 yards - too far for whale watching. The effort got them sued by the industry. Brian Goodremont is owner of San Juan Safaris based here in Friday Harbor.
BRIAN GOODREMONT: I won't lie to you, Martin. It feels terrible to be told that what you do results in impact on cetaceans. It's deeply troubling for me that we're viewed that way 'cause we view ourselves as the lead conservationists in the recovery of Southern Resident killer whales.
KASTE: He points out correctly that other factors, like overfishing, dammed rivers and toxins in the water are the primary causes of the orcas decline. But those things are hard to change, so now the focus is on the whale-watching boats, even though, he says, they're not really much of a disturbance.
GOODREMONT: The acoustic output is right around 101 to 102 decibels, and scientists say that that's equivalent to a hard rainfall or it's actually quieter than a windstorm.
KASTE: But that 101-decibel level that he mentions, in practice, scientists say things get louder than that.
MARLA HOLT: If you're talking about one vessel that happens to be quieter than some of the other ones, maybe that is true (laughter). That's all I'm saying.
KASTE: NOAA Fisheries researcher Marla Holt was part of the study that Goodremont is citing. The scientists affixed sensors to the orcas, which recorded the sound of the tour boats from the orcas' perspective.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT SAILING)
KASTE: This is one of those recordings. They found that as the tour boat slowed down, they did sound quieter to the orcas. But what the study didn't tell us is how that noise is perceived by the animals. Is it just annoying, like mosquitoes, or aggravating, like leaf blowers? Holt says you have to keep in mind how much these orcas depend on the sonic environment.
HOLT: They're using sound to locate and capture salmon, and they're using sound to communicate among each other. But there's also other concerns not just how it might overlap or mask the sounds that the whales are producing but how it affects behavior.
KASTE: She says they're working on that aspect now - how sound affects behavior. But Sorrel North doesn't want to keep waiting for more science. She's pushing ahead with the effort for the 650-yard exclusion zone before, in her words, it's too late.
NORTH: I don't want to have to tell my grandchildren that the Southern Resident orca whales went extinct because humans were unwilling to make even the smallest sacrifices, such as giving them room to hunt and forage effectively when they were starving to death.
KASTE: What's sad about this dispute is that everyone on both sides of this loves these killer whales. Many of these people have lived here long enough to remember happier times. Kelley Balcomb-Bartok grew up on the islands, driving the boat for his dad, a prominent orca researcher.
KELLEY BALCOMB-BARTOK: Oh, then was a - they were thick as thieves - feeding, foraging, full bellies, resting. And then, you know, we'd spend hours with them.
KASTE: His claim to fame, which he loves telling people, is that he drove the boat for the "Free Willy" camera crew in the early '90s. Later, he left the islands for a while. He says, in retrospect, that he needed some time to grieve for the disappearing orcas. Now he's back, working as the public relations man for the Whale Watchers Association. And he admits that this dispute is gradually becoming moot because in reality the Southern Resident killer whales are becoming so much harder for tour boats like this one to find.
BALCOMB-BARTOK: Yeah, it's changed. They have to spread out. They have to travel so much farther. And so there's just - it's more of a work ethic now, you know? I'm hungry. I'd really love to stay, but I got to go.
KASTE: But he says that's why the whale watching should continue, so people can learn about what's happening. Yes, these orcas are starving, but, he says, it's better for us to watch them than to look away and let them fade away into obscurity.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
(SOUNDBITE OF IHF'S "FADE")
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