Shane Aggergaard owns "Island Adventures", a whale watch company in Anacortes.
"It has a big impact on the local economy. Towns like Anacortes and Friday Harbor are affected by people coming into town and the hotels," says Aggergaard. "We have 20 employees who make livable wage jobs. It is all I've ever wanted to do. There are a lot of people that count on the industry directly for their livelihood."
When the boats head out after the Orcas, there are rules they have to follow. They are supposed to stay 100 yards away from the whales at all times, slow down within 400 yards and not drive or park in the animals’ path.
"Although we've done a great outreach campaign to educate boaters on responsible viewing, we still see a number of incidents where people are on the water and either they don't know about the guidelines or they don't care about the guidelines. They’re getting too close or going too fast around the whales," says Lynne Barre with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Tour operators who guarantee customers will see whales on their trip can charge about $100 a head. Many offer refunds or free trips if they don't deliver. Some ads show boats practically on top of the whales. We decided to see for ourselves if whale watch companies are following the current state law.
We went on two undercover trips, the first to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island where we geared up and got aboard the "Western Explorer".
"How close are you able to get to the whales?” asked Q13 FOX News reporter Dana Rebik.
“At all times we will be trying to maintain a 100 yard buffer from the whales. We will not be approaching them within 100 yards," said the captain.
The captain kept that promise. We did see Orcas but never got closer than a few hundred yards. Our guide also talked about the whales’ endangered status and the importance of protecting them.
"The main goal with all of these regulations is to get to view them but not impact them in any way at all," said the captain.
Next we headed to Victoria, B.C. where we booked a trip on the "Serengeti". Enforcement officers busted the owner, “Seafun Safari”, in 2008 for being parked directly in front of an Orca and cruising much closer to the whales than the law allows.
"I've been doing this a long time. I’m the senior driver in the harbor," said our captain Tom.
Within half an hour, Tom admitted he got a ticket for getting too close to Orcas just the day before.
"So you got written up last night?” asked Rebik.
“Yeah. They keep track of how many times you contravene the regulations and then after three times they write your boss a letter,” said Tom.
“So did they surface by your boat?” asked Rebik.
"Yes, they went under and then over which sounds great, but not so much from the regulators’ standpoint and what you're supposed to be doing,” said Tom.
Then Tom spotted a group of Orcas and it was full speed ahead, along with several other tour boats. He got us close to one Orca named “Ruffles". Scientists named it for its ruffle-shaped fin.
“We’re about 40-50 meters,” said Tom. "I've had my close encounters before but it's not good when the enforcement boats are around. It's not good anytime really, but it's like how many times do you speed when the cops aren't there?" said Tom.