What you need to know before going to see killer whales

What you need to know before going to see killer whales

Marine mammal ecotourism has become a worldwide fad. Its beginnings date back to 1955, when a fisherman began taking clients to see whales for $1.

In recent years, this practice has blossomed into an industry that earns billions of dollars annually. For example, in 2008, 13 million people participated in marine mammal ecotourism, bringing in $2.1 billion in revenue.

On the other hand, over the last fifty years the value of commercial whaling has plummeted. Increasingly, people would rather watch whales than eat them. This might seem to be a success for conservation, but it has a double standard because, poorly managed, this tourism poses a risk to cetacean populations. A clear example is the case of the resident killer whales of the Salish Sea, located on the west coast of America, right on the border between Canada and the United States.

Prior to the 1980s, whale watching in the Salish Sea was practically non-existent, but an industry began to emerge, centered mainly on orca whale watching. Today, it has become one of the most popular places in the world for this activity, as, due to the regular presence of killer whales between May and October, the success rate for sightings is 90%.


The resident killer whales of the Salish Sea

The Salish Sea is home to three different types of killer whales that, although they are the same species, neither interbreed nor socialize. Of the three types, the least frequently sighted is the one known as the sea killer whale, because they live far from the coast. They are also known to hunt sharks. The second type are transient killer whales, so called because they do not stay in specific places, but travel long distances. They usually live in small groups of about three individuals and feed mainly on seals and porpoises.

Finally, resident killer whales are the most studied and sighted of the three, as they live close to the coasts and stay all year round in the same areas eating fish. These killer whales are unique from a social point of view, because they live in highly structured matrilineal societies and because neither sex leaves their natal group. These pods are so cohesive that they share a unique dialect.

In the mid-1980s, resident killer whales became the star attraction of the recreational and commercial whale watching industry. However, in the late 1990s alarm bells went off when their population suffered a major population decline from which they did not seem to recover. In fact, in August 2011 there were only 88 resident killer whales left in the Salish Sea.
Most research suggests that their decline had three main causes: the presence in the water of contaminants released by humans, the reduction in the amount of available prey and the disturbance caused by boats, many of them dedicated to the sighting of the killer whales themselves.

Many cetacean species rely on sound, both to communicate through vocalizations and to forage and navigate through echolocation. Noise from ships can overlap with the frequencies used by these animals, thus hindering their communication and movements. The ultimate consequence is that they reproduce less and less and their populations are reduced to the brink of extinction.


The regulation of marine mammal ecotourism

In the face of this scientific evidence, in 2002 the Pacific Whale Watchers Association (PWWA), together with government agencies and NGOs in Canada and the USA, developed voluntary Be Whale Wise guidelines. These were aimed at both recreational and commercial boaters, and included indications such as minimum approach distance, limits on the number of boats and speed restrictions.

Today, whale watching companies are, in general terms, quite knowledgeable about how they should behave so as not to disturb the whales, but not all make the same efforts. As customers, we have the power to encourage compliance with the guidelines by going with the most conscientious companies.
One example to follow is Eagle Wing Tour, the first marine ecotourism company in Victoria Island, Canada, to voluntarily test its vessels for noise emission levels. The World Cetacean Alliance has recognized that this company operates with the highest international standards of care for local wildlife. In addition, in 2023 it received Biosphere certification for its sustainability efforts.



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