ANACORTES – Whale watching at its best means seeing the region’s iconic killer whales, or perhaps spotting minke, gray or humpback whales.
At worst, it means sweeping the water for hours without seeing any whales.
Despite its unpredictable nature, the prospect of seeing some of the greatest wildlife in the Pacific Northwest continues to draw boatloads of whale watchers to the area, including those who set off on excursions from Anacortes.
The Pacific Whale Watch Association estimates that its members in Washington and British Columbia take about 500,000 passengers on the water each year.
“We don’t have a course,” naturalist Erin Gless of Island Adventures Whale Watching said during a trip from Anacortes to the San Juan Islands on April 12. “There is no magical place where whales will always be. They can travel up to 100 miles in 24 hours.
Island Adventures is one of many companies that run whale watching tours in Skagit County.
During the April 12 tour, several hours were spent in the company of a lone male killer whale among the area’s transient killer whales, also known as Bigg’s whales.
While much attention has recently been paid to the dwindling population of endangered southern resident orcas in the region – which travel in family groups known as J, K and L pods – the population of transient killer whales that share the same range from Alaska to California have exploded.
Canadian media recently reported that there are about 400 transient killer whales in the Salish Sea shared by Washington and British Columbia, and 70 calves have been documented in recent years.
While these killer whales eat mammals, including seals, southern residents eat salmon.
Largely due to their reliance on salmon, the population of southern resident killer whales is at a 30-year low of 75 whales.
Southern resident killer whales typically spend much of April through September in the Salish Sea. However, according to the Friday Harbor-based nonprofit Center for Whale Research, whale presence has declined as salmon numbers in the area have plummeted.
In 2018, southern residents were documented in the region for 70 days, about a third of what is typical, according to the center’s website.
Meanwhile, Gless said transient killer whales made up the majority of Island Adventure sightings in 2018.
“In 2016, we saw a really dramatic shift between how often we would see salmon-eating orcas and mammal-eating orcas,” Gless said.
As the government, tribal and non-profit groups scramble to try to save the southern resident orcas, the fact that the transient orcas are doing well is a silver lining.
“We’re seeing more whales than ever before,” Gless said. “Whale watching is still going strong.”
While helping a whale-watching boat monitor the transient orca known as T77A on April 12, Gless shared facts about orcas in the area.
While all orcas use echolocation – the use of sound waves to locate and identify objects – transient whales do not use it to hunt seals and sea lions the way southern residents do to find food. Salmon.
“A transient hunts other marine mammals, so they are silent in their hunting and foraging because they don’t want to alert their prey to their presence,” said Tim Ragen, former executive director of US Marine Mammal. Committee.
Gless said it’s one of three main factors why, despite being exposed to the same kinds of pollution and shipping traffic, southern resident orcas are sliding towards extinction while transient orcas are thriving.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the State Department of Fish & Wildlife, and independent whale researchers, noise from ship traffic is hampering southern residents’ ability to use echolocation to find remnant salmon, especially in the lower reaches. main shipping lanes of the Salish Sea.
Their primary food source, Chinook salmon, is also in decline, particularly in Puget Sound where the species is listed as threatened.
And as whales starve themselves, their bodies metabolize their blubber, which exposes them to pollutants that were somehow locked in their blubber.
These factors were the focus of the state’s 40-member Orca Recovery Task Force, which met throughout 2018 to develop recommendations for Governor Jay Inslee and the legislature on ways to help prevent the extinction of whales.
The unique challenges facing southern residents also led the Legislature to pass bills in April aimed at increasing chinook salmon numbers and reducing water pollution.
Gless said she opposes another idea considered by the Legislative Assembly earlier this year – killing seals and sea lions that eat salmon. It’s a move that can hurt transient orcs more than it helps southern residents.
“I don’t think we should hurt one orca’s food source to maybe hopefully help another orca’s food source,” she said.
A new policy to slow boats in the presence of southern resident orcas is backed by some whale watching companies.
Gless said Island Adventures is among those supporting setting a speed limit of 7 knots, or about 8 mph, within half a mile of a southern resident.
This policy is included in a bill passed by the Legislative Assembly last month.
Gless said he’s seen close calls between high-speed boats and winding whales, and thinks setting a speed limit will reduce the problem.
“(Speed is) just a physical danger to animals, so we’re glad it’s becoming a law,” she said.
Currently, the only recourse against those endangering the whales is to obtain video that can be provided to state Department of Fish and Wildlife officers, or “fishing cops”, as evidence that a boat knowingly got too close to the whales. Boaters may also honk their horns to draw the attention of speeders.
That’s exactly what the Island Adventures crew did on a recent tour as a motorboat sped towards a lone orca. The sound of the horn brought the boat to a halt before it crossed paths with the orca.
“Once that boat knew there was an orca in the area, it slowed down, which is the right thing to do,” Gless said.
Gless said she’s relieved the state hasn’t passed a five-year moratorium on whale watching for southern residents that was considered earlier this year. The moratorium would have prevented whale watchers from helping to protect whales and inspiring others to care about the species.
“We really feel like the lifeguards on duty,” Gless said of members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. “If we’re not there to mark the location and watch the attention, that’s a disadvantage for the whales.”
Legislation now awaiting Inslee’s signature will require whale watchers to stay an additional 100 yards from southern resident orcas, making the minimum distance to observe southern residents 300 yards.
For all other whales, including the growing population of passing orcas, the minimum distance will remain at 200 meters.
Not only are transient orcas doing well, but the best time to see the largest gray and humpback whales is also now.
“A lot of people think of orcas in this area, but we’re actually one of the best places in the world to see gray whales and one of the best places in the world to see humpback whales,” Gless said.
She and John Calambokidis, a whale research biologist who co-founded the nonprofit Cascadia Research, said gray whales are typically found in the area from February to June, with the best time to see them being around March to May.
Humpback whales are typically in the area from spring through fall, with the best time to see them being April through October.
These species began to return to Washington waters in recent decades, with grays returning to the Salish Sea in the 1990s and humpback whales arriving in large numbers around 2009, Calambokidis said.
“They were common before whaling in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia, but they were hunted…in our inland waters and they wiped them out in the early 1900s,” Calambokidis said of humpback whales. “It took them a while to come back, almost 100 years, to our inland water.”
He said that in the 35 years he has studied the species, he has seen the North Pacific population increase about five times. Of the population of about 21,000 humpback whales currently in the North Pacific — many of which are federally listed as endangered — about 1,000 spend most of the year in the Salish Sea.
Gless said that in 2018, humpback whales were seen on 258 Island Adventure tours.
Calambokidis said the most recent estimate of the number of gray whales, from a study about 10 years ago, was that there were about 20,000 in the population that uses Mexico’s habitat. to Alaska.
About 250 of them stop and spend time in the Salish Sea, he said. And a small group of them head to a prime area for Anacortes whale watching ventures.
“We have increasingly documented that there are several hundred gray whales feeding in the Pacific Northwest, and even closer to home there are about a dozen whales called Sounders that come around of Whidbey and Camano Island,” Calambokidis said.
Gray whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994.
While gray, humpback, minke and orca whales can be seen in the waters of western Skagit County and around the San Juan Islands, Gless said gray whales are most common in Everett and that humpback whales are most common in Port Angeles.