Whale watchers watched

It's like Moby Dick minus the harpoons.

Whale watching, a whale hunt that involves tourists with cameras and generally careful boat operators, gives the modern-day whale hunt in Puget Sound a tip-toe quality. There is no pound of flesh extracted on these sightseeing voyages. In fact, the condition of whale-watching industry's vitality rests in bringing no harm to these threatened creatures.

Perhaps for this reason, coupled with pressure from some conservation groups who condemn any form of whale interference, a coalition of whale-watch operators has banded together in recent years to develop some best practices, a familiar phrase in scientific circles. What the term connotes in this case is the evolution of standards to regulate whale watching.

Shane Aggergaard owns the Anacortes-based whale watching business Island Adventure Cruises. He's also a member of Whale Watchers Association Northwest, an organization of professional boaters, marine scientists and conservationists who developing and adhering to best practices. He's one of many people who self-regulate when chasing and watching Puget Sound whales.

Aggergaard said those who belong to WWA are serious about the the guidelines, even though no government or law enforcement agency enforces them.

"Every reputable company belongs to the Whale Watchers Association," Aggergaard said.

He said whale watching businesses want to do what is best for Puget Sound's three resident orca pods, which are made up of about 80 killer whales who frequent the waters between Whidbey Island and the San Juans.

The guidelines are based as much in common sense as they are in scientific and observational data, having been developed over time largely through trial-and-error and on-the-water experience. The number-one rule is a "hands off" policy when in proximity to whales. For example, boaters are warned to approach whales with "extreme caution," to reduce their speed to under 7 knots when within 400 yards of pods and to avoid getting within 100 yards of any whale.

Mike Sato, North Sound director for People for Puget Sound, says the real strength of best practice guidelines is their capacity to educate. Because you can't have a "fish cop behind every rock," Sato believes the guidelines achieve compliance through understanding, "so we don't love our outdoors to death."

It is the experiential and behavioral aspect of the guidelines that Sato says will appeal to anyone who cares about the state of the orcas, regardless of legislation.

"Talking about guidelines on how best to enjoy the outdoors is based on the belief that most people want to do the right thing, and will do the right thing if they know what needs to be done and why it's important to do it," Sato said.

Aggergaard said the professional standards his industry uses serve to police other recreational boaters through example.

"The whales are a whole lot safer when we're out there than when we're not," he says.

The guidelines are not static; they are continually evolving as scientists and professional whale watchers such as Aggergaard learn more about orca habits. Despite heat from conservation groups accusing whale-watching outfits of profit over protection, Aggergaard says the "little tweaks" made every year to the guidelines always benefit the whales, not the boaters.

Maybe in the best of all possible worlds, the whales would be left untouched and unbothered in a pristine state of nature, but since that most likely isn't going to happen, Aggergaard says that "best practices" means just what it says: Keeping the deleterious effects to an absolute minimum.

Watching the whales

For the past 6 years, Jeremy Pinson has been a captain and tour guide for Island Adventures, navigating the 65-foot fiberglass Island Explorer II, with its 1,600-horsepower engines, through the waters of Puget Sound in search of orcas.

Often the converted fishing boat is loaded to capacity with 102 camera-snapping sightseers -- folks from India, Denmark, Germany as well as native Washingtonians hoping to experience the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of witnessing a six-ton killer whale breach at 30 yards.

From the moment he leaves port, Pinson is on the radio and telephone, engaged with a massive and far-reaching communication network of fishing boats, tugs, tankers, ferries and other tour vessels in a search of whales.

"It's a cooperative effort," he says, monitoring an array of squawking radios. "They're always traveling."

When, after hours of searching and telephoning and radioing and peering through binoculars, Pinson finally locates a pod of whales, the excitement among the passengers is palpable. Cameras are uncapped and video cameras turned on, and little kids get hefted onto dad's shoulders.

Here is where Pinson puts best practices into action. He slows the boat, making sure not to get in between the onrushing pods and the shoreline. Then, when he gets to where he wants to be, he shuts off the engines, though the orcas are still a long way off. An anxious passenger asks how close he's going to get.

"It's up to the whales," Pinson says, a response that exemplifies the best practices philosophy. "We don't get close to the whales; they get close to us."

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