British Columbia·Killers

Whale watchers say they aren't J pod's biggest problem

The endangered southern resident killer whales face a lot of threats to their survival and some professional whale watchers say they aren't one of them.

Industry players argue they protect and monitor the southern resident whales

Noise from whale watching boats can interfere with killer whales' ability to hunt, navigate and communicate with each other. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

The endangered southern resident killer whales face a lot of threats to their survival and some professional whale watchers say they aren't one of them.

Whale watching tours are often criticized for impacting orca behaviour and prioritizing profit over whale welfare. In the new CBC British Columbia podcast, Killers: J pod on the brink, host Gloria Macarenko dives deep into the elements putting B.C.'s local orca population at risk and spoke with two industry insiders who say they do more to help the resident orcas than hurt them.

Cedric Towers, owner of Vancouver Whale Watch, said the southern residents are no longer the focus of his tours, which instead seek out transient orcas and humpback whales. He said his customers rarely catch a glimpse of the local endangered population, which consists of J,K, and L pods.

"From a 98 per cent looking at southern resident killer whales constantly, we've gone to maybe 10 to 12 per cent southern residents," said Towers.

The southern resident killer whales are listed as a species at risk in Canada. (John Forde, Jennifer Steven)

In May, the federal government introduced new rules to protect southern resident killer whales off B.C.'s coast, including requiring ships to stay 400 metres away from the whales and closing some salmon fisheries

Hussein Alidina, lead specialist for ocean conservation at World Wildlife Fund Canada, said the regulations are necessary.

"There's some reports of whales being followed upwards of 18, 19 hours a day," said Alidina, who said this stress becomes a significant problem on top of the critical shortage of food the whales require for their survival.

The southern residents feast solely on chinook salmon and Towers says a lack of this fish  is the biggest threat to their survival, not whale watching.

Mike Dressler captains a whale watching vessel off the coast of Steveston, B.C. (Tamara Baluja/CBC News)

Mike Dressler, Towers colleague and captain of one of his boats, said the industry has helped the local orca pods because "we know within minutes as soon as they surface who they are, who's travelling with who, who's the baby, who's in trouble. 

Towers pointed out that a whale watcher was the first to know when resident whale J35 birthed a calf and told the appropriate agencies. 

Dressler and Towers, who is also on the board of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, consider whale watching boats to be protectors of the southern residents by creating a buffer against other vessels who disregard their well-being.

"At 400 yards, the power boaters are coming inside and running over them ... and then they make regulations to chase away, like it was the whale watching industry experts," said Dressler. "It's crazy. There's no logic to it whatsoever."

In 2017, then federal fisheries minister Dominic LeBlanc said whale watching companies had been among the strongest voices calling for the protection of the whales.

The presence of boats can alter whale behaviour and some environmentalists say commercial whale watching should be suspended. (Tamara Baluja/CBC News)

But industry critics say boat noise, be it from a whale watching boat or otherwise, interferes with orca communication and hunting capabilities. Some environmental groups have called for commercial whale watching tours to be banned, or at least suspended, to reduce boat traffic and help orcas hunting for food.

Alidina says the presence of boats in the vicinity of whales is a "significant problem" and sometimes there can be up to 40 boats following one pod of whales, altering their behaviour and interfering with their eating.

"They might be resting and they feel they, because of the disturbance around them, they can't or they might be socializing, and because of the disturbance around them, they can't," he said. 

He said commercial companies who commit to not following the southern residents pods are taking a "positive step."

Read more stories about southern resident killer whales.

Killers: J pod on the brink is a CBC British Columbia original podcast about the southern resident killer whales, hosted by Gloria Macarenko. You can get it now for free at CBC Podcasts.

With files from The Canadian Press


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