As tourists arrive for whale watching in Southeast Alaska, authorities remind visitors to keep their distance

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A pod of orcas traveled to the Wrangell Narrows off Petersburg the last week of April. (Photo by Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

The tourist season begins in Southeast Alaska, which probably means that about half a million people are hoping to see whales. Residents also look forward to encounters on the water. But sharing space with marine giants isn’t always easy.

Mike Schwartz of Petersburg, 80, has been around whales all his life. As a fisherman and outdoor enthusiast, he had many close encounters. Once, while watching a pod of humpback whales feeding, he found himself a little closer than he wanted.

“One whale started bubble-feeding on the other side, and then in front of it, maybe a hundred feet away, another whale started bubble-feeding,” Schwartz said. “So the two bubbles fed all the way in a circle.

Schwartz found his boat in the middle.

“It was a little unsettling to realize that you’re inside the circle of the bubble,” he said. “And what do I do now?” And then all of a sudden they’re there, they’re all there. And of course, the herrings all squirt out of their mouths.

Humpback whales are common in the area, even in high traffic areas. Orcas or killer whales also appear. Schwartz remembers traveling with his wife from Ketchikan to Petersburg when they discovered they weren’t alone.

“It was raining heavily and when it all came up we realized we were in the middle of the biggest pod of killer whales we had ever seen,” Schwartz said. “We stopped counting at 80 and they were coming right alongside the boat.”

Knowing how to act around whales isn’t always intuitive, says Suzie Teerlink, a marine mammal specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Protected Resources Division.

“It’s really hard to interpret the behaviors because all the behaviors you might see could be happening for so many different reasons,” she said.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act protects whales from harassment. Teerlink says that could mean anything that would change their natural behavior.

In 2019, NOAA issued eight on-site citations, according to the Juneau Law Enforcement Office. In an email, the bureau says it fined a travel company nearly $9,000 for dropping off paddleboarders to approach humpback whales. They fined another company nearly $4,500 for approaching the killer whales head-on in a narrow passage, causing them to turn around and swim away.

In general, however, it can be very difficult to prove wrongdoing from complaints alone. Instead, NOAA likes to focus on education.

Teerlink says when people encounter whales in the wild, they should remember that the animals are busy doing something, often feeding, nursing, resting or socializing.

“They have a program, they have things to do,” Teerlink said. “And it might not be visible from the surface of the water.”

It discourages people from trying to interpret the behaviors of whales. A tail flick, for example, can mean several things like a sign of distress or a form of communication within the pod.

Teerlink says they may be behaving in an interesting way, but it’s not for the good of people. They are not — as some like to say — “putting on a show”.

“There’s not a part of their biology that’s performance-driven,” Teerlink said. “There is no show; they’re not trying to entice humans to, you know, participate. It’s not to entertain the boats.

More than 20 years ago, a rule was established in Alaska requiring whale watchers to be 100 yards from humpback whales. Teerlink says it’s good practice for all marine mammals.

But sometimes judging closeness is difficult. Whales can swim underwater and surface near a boat, something Mike Schwartz knows only too well.

And for him, it is often unforgettable and moving.

“For me, it’s a deeply, deeply spiritual experience,” he said. “It’s hard to put into words.”

Whales intrigue residents, tourists and tour guides alike. Teerlink says one thing that tour operators could benefit from is signing up for the SENSE whale program. It promotes stewardship and education for responsible whale watching.

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