There’s a lot of talk about the Southern Resident orcas at this year’s Superpod, and much of the focus is on their top threat: prey depletion. While on the island, WDC is also examining the other threats to this critically endangered population, including vessel noise and harassment. I spent a day out on the water yesterday with The Whale Museum’s Soundwatch program, which works to prevent vessel disturbance to marine wildlife and collects important data on the interactions between the Southern Residents and surrounding boats.
Many of the issues with harassment stem from a lack of knowledge about the boating regulations for these endangered whales – it is illegal to approach or be under motor within 200 yards or park in the path of the whales, among other guidelines. A lot of recreational boaters don’t know that these laws exist, and when they see a group of orcas, they understandably get really excited and want to move in for a closer look. What they don’t know, though, can hurt the whales – and Soundwatch is working on making sure every boater knows how to whale watch responsibly.
Orcas rely on their vocalization and echolocation skills to navigate, communicate, and forage. Underwater noise can impair these skills, and harassment by vessels – including kayaks! – can disrupt their natural behaviors and interrupt foraging. It would be like someone coming up and putting a hand right between you and that bite of dinner you were about to take, while yelling in your ear!
The data Soundwatch collects helps to protect the Southern Residents and educates the public about the endangered status of these whales and the threats to their recovery. Soundwatch delivers material to over 2,000 recreational boaters and kayakers each year; in addition to recording the number, activity, and type of boats around the orcas, and the corresponding behavior of the whales. The group is staffed largely by volunteers, and they work hard out there! I was able to witness firsthand the chaos of keeping track of the whales, the boats coming and going, and the diligent recording of information – surveys every half hour for as long as there are whales and boats around. Soundwatch has a tough job, but their work in educating the public and protecting the Southern Residents is priceless, and I’m glad I got to be a Soundwatcher for a day!