Memorial Day weekend kicks off the boating season in western Washington, and this summer thousands of people will flock to the San Juan Islands for a glimpse of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.
The viewing experience will be a lot different this year, and could change even more with new research now underway. Scientists have already spent years studying the behavior and health of Puget Sound Orcas. Some of that data led to new restrictions on boats in their native waters after research showed engine noise has a negative impact on the Orcas’ ability to hunt and communicate. Whale watch operators impacted by the new rules are still skeptical.
"I don’t think we’re harming the whales. I think we’re mitigating the noise and are very respectful," said whale watch operator Bill Wright.
Activists agree with the government’s decision to keep boats farther away from the Orcas during summer months, but scientist Birgit Kriete thinks it doesn’t go far enough. She would like to see a five year moratorium on whale watching because she believes boat noise is doing more damage than we realize.
"Since the number of boats increased so tremendously, the whales changed their sounds," said Dr. Kriete. "They increased the volume and the length of the sound. Both have increased."
Kriete said those louder and longer calls use up more energy, and since the whales are already having a hard time finding food because of the dwindling number of Chinook salmon, she worries this is only adding to the risk of starvation.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is about to begin a new study on the impact of boat noise.
"We have a tagging project starting soon. There are some suction cup tags our science center will put on the whales and it will record the sound level that the whales are hearing," said National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Lynn Barre. "That will give us a better indication not only what sounds the boats make but how the whales are receiving that sound."
Barre said data could be used to seek even stronger protections for the endangered Orcas.