Killing whales loudly, with their song

by Eric Lucas

If it’s August, whales are suffering.

I live on America’s Pacific Coast, a world-famous summertime visitor destination where hordes of ordinary, well-meaning people harass, torment and torture some of the world’s most charismatic wild creatures. The whales that ply our seas—especially the breathtaking, much-loved orcas of inland Northwest waters—wake up each morning, June through September, to the approaching howl of boat engines. They spend their days dodging a huge fleet of boats packed with googoo-eyed tourists who think they are at a Roller Derby match, an impression exacerbated by tour-boat operators who “honor” their so-called voluntary guidelines just like athletes do steroids prohibitions.

There are less than 100 Puget Sound orcas left. Holdovers from the days this inland sea wasn’t an exurban pond, they forage in waters fouled with urban runoff and toxic contaminants; they chase down remnants of our once-massive salmon runs, now reduced to trickles of minnows; they come up for air amid the whale-watch hordes to breathe clouds of engine exhaust.

And, underwater, all day, they listen to unspeakable nonstop caterwauling.

“Like a rocket ship taking off,” reports a Canadian scientific researcher who studied the noise impacts of whale-watching on the industry’s victims. He hung a hydrophone in the water and measured the decibels.

Try to imagine life, 10 hours a day, with a hundred or so helicopters buzzing a few feet overhead. That’s what it’s like for Puget Sound orcas.

This has to stop.

Till now the whole topic has been the elephant in the room that almost no-one will discuss. Several of my previous commentaries on the issue have earned me threats from tour-boat operators—they’ll sue me for interfering with their business. One dare not question the golden goose, and whale watching is, by some estimates, a billion-dollar industry in 87 countries worldwide. In Washington state and British Columbia, it is an enormously popular visitor activity that tourism officials and marine scientists privately concede is way out of hand. Publicly, none wants to upset the apple cart. It brings in well over $100 million a year along the US/Canadian Pacific border.

And I want to ban this?

Not even the hydrophone researcher agrees with that. “There’s a huge public demand for whale watching. The experience gives the average visitor a sense of the beauty and value of these animals.”
That, of course, is a spiffy argument for Las Vegas strip clubs, not to dismiss a well-meaning scientist’s hedging. But strippers are voluntary show animals; orcas are just trying to live in their home.

Fence-straddling advocates argue that greater restrictions and controls—licensing tour operators, for instance—would solve the problem. But if you have witnessed the daily frenzy on Northwest waters, restrictions seem likely to work as well as those now-infamous steroid controls in sports. Whale-watch operators already have guidelines—boats must not approach closer than 100 yards, for instance. That’s adequate? Imagine your potential enjoyment of a rocket ship taking off 100 yards away. Federal officials have proposed a new limit of 200 yards, which is pretty much like requiring frat boys to keep their beer-drinking down to one gallon a night instead of two.

Chasing is barred, too—a dreadful inconvenience that tour operators duck easily by positioning themselves in the channel ahead of the orca pods, then waiting for them to swim up. Once the whales are past, they floor the throttle on their outboards and loop around to take up new positions ahead of the whales. This is called “leapfrogging.” I’ve witnessed it myself while watching from on shore on San Juan Island. The new proposed rules would bar this, too, and I’m sure the FBI will be hauling violators in regularly.

The saddest part of all this is that the tourists who support the industry doubtless think they are harmlessly expanding their grasp of the natural world, just as Johnny, Suzy and Mom & Dad once thought it was great to walk up to specimen redwoods and hug them. Some of those trees are dead now, their roots trampled by love. The same fate awaits orcas.

It’s true that many other challenges must be solved to save these wonderful creatures: Salmon runs are disappearing. The waters are poisoned. Fixing these issues is an enormous challenge that may be beyond us.
But overlooking the noise impact of whale watching is like handing a cigarette to an advanced stage emphysema patient in a wheelchair. Yes, he’s going to die soon, anyway. No thoughtful person can abet smoking even so.

“It’s a BLAST!” say promos for whale watch operators. Yes, it is, a daily dose of sticks of dynamite tossed in the midst of Northwest orcas.

I’ve seen whales, orcas and dolphins dozens of times in my life, yet I have not once gone whale watching. It’s time for the federal governments charged with protecting these animals to step in, but that’s unlikely. So anyone with a conscience should not patronize the tour operators. Watch from shore. Quietly.

Eric Lucas is an international travel and business writer who lives in Seattle; to learn more, visit his website,

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