Over the last few months, Kim Merriman has seen orcas frequently from her Eld Inlet home — and she’s also seen plenty of people crowding them.
“People are excited to see the orcas, and when there’s one or two boats that’s a different story,” said Merriman, who’s lived on the inlet for 20 years. “But then there’s 10 or 15 or 20, and it gets hard for the (killer whales).”
Boaters, kayakers and paddle boarders are effectively trapping the orcas in the inlet at times, or separating them. Merriman said this problem occurs nearly every weekend when the killer whales come to visit, since many people are out on the water.
“The activity in Eld Inlet has been absolutely appalling,’’ she said.
This past Sunday, Merriman saw boats crowding and separating five orcas. People got out of boats and onto paddle boards to even closer. Kayakers paddled as fast as they could to reach where the killer whales would surface next. She said she could hear neighbors on their decks, shouting that people were too close.
BE WHALE WISE GUIDELINES
Howard Garrett, co-director of Orca Network, said people should follow the guidelines at bewhalewise.org when they see the southern resident orcas.
Be Whale Wise is a program that’s part of the Whale Museum at Friday Harbor. The guidelines state that people should never be within 200 yards of a whale or orca, and boats should go slow when within 400 yards. The orca’s pathway, 400 yards of space in front of and behind, should also remain clear.
The website of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife reinforces these guidelines, and adds that it is illegal to feed the orcas. A state law placing restrictions on boating activities near killer whales was passed in 2008 and updated in 2012.
Orca Network has stopped reporting sightings because of concerns that watchers won’t follow the rules.
Garrett said it’s a tough judgment call.
“It’s a difficult situation, a double-edged sword. People do learn a whole lot and become devoted to the (killer whales) by seeing them,” he said. “It’s important for people to see them, but we certainly don’t want to promote a lot of boat traffic to disturb them.”
Orca Network hadn’t received many reports of bad behavior up until these past few weeks, Garrett said. But lately they’ve gotten reports from Case Inlet, Budd Inlet and around Anderson Island.
He says the biggest problem is unseen acoustic disturbance. The orcas communicate, navigate and find food through use of sounds in the water. These sounds are easily covered up by sounds from boat motors. Boats can create loud, high-pitched noises, especially when traveling at high speeds. The sounds also can scare away the orcas’ prey.
That’s why it’s important to remain in idle when boating near the orcas and to stay out of the 200-yard range, Garrett said.
“It’s entirely possible for boats to behave in ways that don’t disturb the (killer whales),” he said. “Go slow, don’t accelerate, behave in a predictable way, observe the 200-yard limit.”
John Calambokidis, senior research biologist and co-founder of Cascadia Research, said that there is no way of fully knowing all the ways people disturb the orcas.
But he believes that the key lies in education. Since killer whale sightings are not as frequent here as in the San Juan Island Islands, he thinks people are likely just unaware how to act.
He says the rise in sightings is exciting news and likely due to positive changes in the last 30 years. He also pointed to the return of the Harbour Porpoise and other species.
“If all of us are able to act appropriately, there are ways we can exist in harmony,” he said. “It’s about changing people’s behavior and awareness.”
In addition to disturbing the orcas, Calambokidis says people boating too close put themselves at risk of enforcement and prosecution, since the killer whales are protected by law through the federal 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Anyone who approaches the orcas, unless they have authorization, can be prosecuted.
Thurston County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Cliff Ziesemer said federal law prohibits all people and vessels from being within 100 yards (the length of a football field) of any southern orca or feeding any southern Orca without an express exemption. The state law is more restrictive, prohibiting people from being within 200 yards.
He said if someone sees a violation, they can call 911 and law enforcement will respond and violators can be cited.
Merriman said she understands the tempting beauty of the creatures, but that people need to follow the rules.
“They’re gorgeous and we love them and we want to keep them visiting.”