Article by Ellen Hartlmeier:
Lately there has been a lot of talk in the various newsmedia about how whale-watching and too much boat traffic could harm the Orca Whales of British Columbia. The question has come up…and I quote “Are we loving these whales to death?” These days, it is easy to spot the location of the whales by the amount of boats that are in the area. These reports mostly focus on the 3 pods of the Southern Resident Community, which have been rapidly declining over the last few years.
But an incident in Johnstone Strait on the evening of September 1, made it even clearer, how important it is to regulate whale-watching in all areas of the province even more and impose heavy penalties on those who violate the rules.
The following incident was recorded live on www.orca-live.net which is a website that broadcasts live video and audio from Johnstone Strait around the clock.
95 viewers from around the world witnessed with horror a float plane flying in low and then landing amidst a pod of Orcas (the I11 family). The plane then taxied into view with the whales and stayed alongside them without keeping the required distance of 100 m. It stayed around for about 10 minutes and then took off without taking note of the whales. As it was speeding up, the tall dorsal fin of a male orca could be seen right next to it. A female orca surfaced right in front of the plane’s pontoons as they had barely cleared the water.
The incident sparked an outrage among the viewers and created a large discussion after it had happened. The plane was a blue and white Canadian Plane and the registration number was noted as C-FMXR. When whale-watching by plane, the minimum height should be 1000 ft. Not ever should a plane be flying lower than this, and to land amidst a group of whales is highly illegal.
From July to late October, the Northern Resident Orcas make these waters on the Northeast Coast of Vancouver Island their home. 17 family groups consisting of about 220 whales have been using this area for centuries to hunt for salmon, and use the rubbing beaches in the protected Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve. Often superpods can be seen when several or all the families meet to socialize.
The Orca Whales that we are privileged to see in these waters, are our natural heritage that need to be protected. These whales have been around for centuries, but never has there been so much pressure on them from varied sources as there is now. Orcas have a very sophisticated communication system and they rely on that ability to find food and communicate with their family members.
Whale-watching is a huge industry in British Columbia and nothing compares to the thrill of seeing these beautiful creatures in their natural habitat. But before you go out there, make sure to choose one of the many reputable companies, that will observe the proper rules and have trained naturalists on board. There are many good companies out there, and a lot of them contribute part of their earnings to research. It is in their best interest, that these whales are guaranteed a healthy and safe environment.
If you are out on the water in your own recreational boat, and happen to come across orcas, make sure you know the rules of whale-watching. Approach no closer than 100 m and idle at their speed, or better, cut the engines. Do never approach from the front or rear, but from the side. Do not speed past the whales and wait in their path. Do not come between the whales and the shoreline, and don’t crowd them against the shoreline. Do not disturb a group of resting whales. If the behavior of the whales changes all of a suddenly changing direction suddenly or speeding up, the whales might feel disturbed and should be left alone. When leaving the whales, don’t start your motor until the whales are more than 150 m away, and don’t accelerate until they are more than 300 m away.