Years ago while travelling to the Gulf Islands via BC Ferries, I heard the captain announce the sighting of killer whales on the starboard side which sent me scrambling outside to get a clear view from the top deck. Because virtually everyone on board did the same thing, the entire ferry listed to the right for a good five minutes until these magnificent creatures disappeared from sight.
The ferry was close enough to the pod of orcas for passengers to catch a glimpse as they surfaced, but far enough away so as to not disturb their path westward in the Salish Sea.
In my view, there is hardly a bigger thrill than seeing orcas in the wild. Judging by the hundreds of thousands of tourists, residents and students that go whale watching in BC every year, many would agree. In fact, demand is so strong for this activity, there are 40 companies offering tours annually between April and October. The whale watching sector employs hundreds of people directly and thousands more indirectly while generating over $100 million for the BC economy every year.
As you likely know, the industry regularly faces operational challenges, largely consisting of interim federal government measures to either restrict whale watching or ban it altogether in certain areas (e.g. sanctuary zones). Earlier this year, in the context of protecting the endangered Southern Resident killer whales (SR), the feds had threatened additional measures such as more sanctuary zones, increasing the viewing distances for non-Southern Resident (NSRs) killer whales, and eliminating the exemption that allowed commercial whale watching operators to view NSRs from 200 metres (instead of the 400-metre barrier applied to all other vessels) provided they agree not to view endangered Southern Residents.
On the latter measure, viewing whales from a distance of 400 metres is akin to watching a fellow golfer sink a putt on the green of the same par four hole you’re about to tee off on. In other words, you can’t see much, if anything at all. Given that many other countries permit viewing orcas from 100 metres away, the proposed four-football field distance would put BC at a significant competitive disadvantage and seriously impact the whale watching sector here at home while conversely driving visitors to other destinations including neighbouring Washington State.
For the record, professional whale watchers in BC fully support protective measures that apply to the endangered Southern Resident killer whales but strongly oppose additional restrictions applied to viewing non-endangered species that are not supported by science. Moreover, operators actually help versus harm government’s objectives by collecting and reporting valuable data on all whale sightings, and by warning all vessels (e.g. ferries, cargo ships, tankers, tugs, recreational vessels) of whales in an area, intervening when renegade or ignorant boaters encroach on foraging whales, and by retrieving marine debris that can affect all forms of sea-life.
Following a concerted effort to keep the status quo by the Pacific Whale Watch Association and its member companies, TIAC, North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association, and TIABC, the feds recently confirmed there would be no increase to professional viewing distances for NSRs for at least the next 12 months. It was precisely the decision we were hoping for and sets the industry on course for a solid year.
That said, TIABC will continue to work with our whale watching members, as well as the Pacific Whale Watch Association, TIAC and other stakeholders to appeal to Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to create long-term solutions or measures that grant professional operators more confidence and security in the future of this valuable sector. More to come as the year progresses.
Last week at Mayne Island I got a tip that a pod of Bigg’s (transient) orcas was headed my way. So I walked to the end of the public dock in front of the Springwater Inn in the hopes of a sighting. I could also see on my app that a couple of whale watching boats were sailing toward neighbouring Galiano Island on the open strait. Because the whales failed to surface in Active Pass, I could only surmise that the pod had likely detoured around Mayne Island in favour of a less congested route. At that moment, I wished I was on a BC ferry or a whale watching vessel to see the orcas in their natural habitat rather than on the dock at Miner’s Bay. Maybe next time.