Kayaking Technique Forum

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Orcas: Are we loving them to death?

I just got back from a three-day whale watching trip off San Juan Island that I led for my kayak club. I’ve done this trip several years in a row and it’s always a big thrill. While I was anchored at the edge of a kelp bed, a full-grown male emerged about 30 feet away with bull kelp streaming off his six-foot high dorsal fin. What a sight!

But will the whales still be there in another 25 or 30 years? Maybe not. In the past six years, the combined population of J, K, and L pods has dropped from 99 to 78 members. No one is sure if the declining numbers represent normal fluctuations in the population or signs that the species is becoming endangered. The recent deaths (seven this year) might be caused by declining salmon runs (these pods are strictly fish-eating), pollution, or interference from whale watchers. If the last factor, interference from whale watchers, is contributing to the whales’ demise, then kayakers bear a big part of the responsibility.

A couple years ago, a whale researcher made a presentation at one of our club’s monthly meetings. I was shocked to learn that the whales are actually MORE affected by the presence of kayakers than the presence of motorboats. A group of kayakers descending upon the pod will often cause the pod to alter their course while a group of motor boats won’t. However, if the kayakers stop and raft up, the whales don’t seem to mind.

To me, it’s common sense to give the whales some space. But it’s also the law. According to the Marine Mammal Act, you should try to give the whales a MINIMUM of 100 yards of room. It’s also my understanding that you shouldn’t be “underway” alongside a moving whale. (I’m no expert on the Act, so if someone has a more detailed list of rules, please post them.)

During this year’s visit, I saw many kayakers flagrantly violating the Marine Mammal Act. A dozen of them at a time would paddle headlong into the whales’ path, and on at least one occasion, the whales seemed to dive deep to get away from the crowds. On another morning, I awoke to watch the pod stream by with a triple kayak paddling along right within the pod! They did this for over a mile!

I’d like to point out that there were several commercial groups also out there and the kayak guides did a wonderful job of corralling their customers and giving the whales adequate space. Moreover, the whales will often come quite close to you if you stay rafted up in a group. Several women in my group were rafted up a good 250 yards back from the whales’ path and a mother and calf ended up passing directly under their boats while chasing salmon! It was a huge thrill for the paddlers.

Please pass the word along to your paddling buddies, if you encounter whales while you’re out boating, give them some space. Any energy they expend trying to avoid you is energy wasted. And they might need that energy simply to survive. John

PS- For those of you who look for ulterior motives in all my postings please note: I do not know any whales personally nor will I benefit financially from their survival in any way.