More than two dozen companies run whale watching tours in the Salish Sea, from Vancouver to Port Townsend. Over the years, these outfitters have given several million people a personal reason to care about the region’s killer whales and the marine environment. But as the orcas struggle with declining salmon runs and the toxic impacts of pollution, increased vessel traffic of all kinds — and the resulting underwater noise — is being looked at as one possible factor stressing the whales. In this installment of our series “Reflections on the Water,” KPLU environment reporter Liam Moriarty talks with Anacortes whale watch operator Shane Aggergaard, aboard his boat Island Explorer III.
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Liam Moriarty: You talk about your first close encounter with an orca; you were quite young. Tell me about that.
Shane Aggergaard: Yeah; we were fishing at Pile Point on the west side of San Juan Island, and these killer whales went right under the boat. I looked over the side of the boat, and there was that rollover – the eye contact that felt like the whale was looking right through you but it was definitely intentional. But as a small boy, leaning over the side of the boat, seeing that whale looking at me, it was something I’ll never forget. And I could see that there was no aggression. It was all curiosity.
Liam: You were how old when that happened?
Shane: I was about three. It’s one of my first memories.
Liam: Did that change you? Did that experience mark you?
Shane: I think in my direction in life, I still make a living showing people killer whales. So yeah; I would say at that point, it set a life path.
Liam: You are recent past president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, and you obviously care a great deal about these animals. As you know the southern residents have been in decline. They’re listed as endangered. One of the issues that gets raised is all these whale watch boats that are out there.
I remember when I was living out in the San Juans some years ago, that there was one summer day when there was counted more than 103 boats — most of them were private but a lot of commercial as well — around J-Pod. And people started saying,”Hey; is this having an effect?”
How do you guys fit into that?
Shane: You say whale watching – it’s kind of a slip of the tongue because it’s what we do – but it’s vessel traffic in general is how we have to look at it. It does not matter whether you’re a research boat, an oil tanker, a Washington State Ferry or a whale watching boat.
When we’re engaged in whale watching, in a parallel viewing sequence at 150 yards, the Island Explorer III, the big, mighty powerful Island Explorer III, 2000 horsepower, oh my goodness, creates less sound than the ambient sound of rain. We’ve had it tested.
Liam: Is there any indication that the whales are bothered by noise from your boats?
Shane: We haven’t seen any effects from noise. There’s the precautionary principle which a lot of people are hanging their hat on. We all love these animals, and if there is a possibility of effect, we want to find out what it is and we want to minimize that. But right now the state law says we must maintain 100 yards from southern resident killer whales.
There is a proposed rule that may up that to 200 yards. To move the viewing distance from 100 to 200 yards, to me, is the equivalent of cutting the speed limit on I-5 in half. You could make a great argument why that makes sense; less fuel burned, safety, the roads would last longer. But for the general person, it just doesn’t make any sense.
Liam: What do you think is the value to getting people out there and having them see these animals?
Shane: Part of it is that we’re dealing with people from around the world. And if they leave with more respect for the planet than they came with, we’ve done our job.
Liam: What about local folks who go on your tours?
Shane: They should leave with a respect for the water, the birds, the bait fish, the understanding of the entire food chain, the understanding that what they put on their lawns may have an effect on the killer whales.
They are going to have to vote correctly. They are going to have to put politicians in office who believe in the value of salmon enhancement. That’s to me, the biggest value that people have from going on a whale watching trip; is what they can do after they leave the whale watching trip.
Liam: These aren’t just a bunch of anonymous animals out there. I mean you recognize all these individuals, and you’ve interacted in various ways with many of these individuals. Can you describe just what that relationship is like?
Shane: It is special. One of my favorite stories is J-26. We’re on Lummi Island on an evening trip. It’s one of those really hot, warm evenings. You could skip a stone to Orcas Island. I mean, it was flat, calm. The sun was going down. And J-26, coming down with the rest of the group, and he comes up and he hits a log. I mean intentionally; he bumps it. Well, that’s interesting. I got everybody looking. I said check this out; he’s playing with a log, you know.
He pushed the log on the surface. We’re dead still in the water, and he pushed the log within 10 feet of the boat, all the way over, rolls over, looks at everybody, slaps his pec[toral] fin in the water, comes out, does about 3 breeches, and continues on his way.
That whale came up and interacted with every single person on that boat that day, and that’s something they will never, ever forget. So yeah; it is great to have a personal connection to the individual whales so you’re not just looking at killer whales doing tricks. You’re actually sharing a little window in their day. The nice thing for us is we get to do it again tomorrow and the next day and the next day.