Boats Harm Killer Whales

Many SNS Members are aware of the plight of our local resident Killer Whale (orca) pods: after something like 10-20k years living in families in local Puget Sound waters, they have been suffering severe die-offs since 1995. Because this is the only place in the world where humans and orca have a chance to interact in an intimate, long-term setting, I think it is worth paying special attention to the preservation of these large-brained animals (their brains are about 4x larger than ours). It seems reasonable to me to assume that we will eventually learn enough about their communications that we might actually learn something from them – the top predators over 75% of the planet.

Unfortunately, there are are three obvious causes of their demise: the decline of chinook salmon, their primary prey; harassment by boats; and exposure to toxins. The commercial whale watch operators have been resistant to the idea that they shoulder any responsiblity whatsoever, at a time when their contribution is the only one we can mitigate quickly.

Last week, a whale watch operator sent in a letter to our local paper with the same excuses for not changing behaviors as they’ve been using for the past decade. I wrote a response, which became an editorial in the at

and which I am including here for comment:

To the Editor:

Last week, in a letter written by whale watch operator Bill Carli, he said two things which operators have been saying for ten years. Here is the first:

“There is no scientific evidence that whale-watching boats have a negative impact on the whales.”

I am here listing a fraction of the recent scientific papers showing direct negative impacts of boats on whales:

Lusseau, D. 2004. The hidden cost of tourism: detecting long-term effects of tourism using behavioral information. Ecology and Society 9(1): 2. [online] URL:

Concurrent Technologies Corporation, Dec. 2005 Underwater Acoustic Habitat Technical Memorandum.
Contract submitted to NOAA

Williams, R, D. Lusseau and P.S. Hammond 2006. Estimating relative energetic costs of human disturbance to killer whales (Orcinus orca). Biol. Cons. 133:301-311

Williams, R, and E. Ashe 2006. Northern Resident killer whale responses to vessels varied with number of boats. NOAA Fisheries Contract.

Bain, D.E., R. Williams and D. Lusseau 2006. Effects of vessels on behavior of southern resident killer whales (Orcinus spp.) NMFS Contract Report.

Bejder, L. et. al. 2006. Decline in relatiave abundance of bottlenose dolphins exposed to long-term disturbance. Cons. Biol.

We are posting a bibliography of over 20 papers in addition to these, on our site, all showing negative impacts of boats on whales.

Knowing even the possibility that boats harm whales, how could any whale watch operator not take the personal responsibility to learn the science on this issue? Indeed, every paper ever published on the question shows only negative impacts of boats on whales.

Here is the second most-common whale watch operator statement:

“If I felt I was causing any stress or in any way being harmful to the orcas, I would quit doing whale watching tours today.”

I am challenging Bill, and his fellow operators, to be true to their word. Now you have the proof. Do you have the courage of your convictions? The science is clear: boats cause whales to swim further and faster, raising their metabolic rates (stress), requiring more food, impairing their sonar, while simultaneously making catching food much more difficult. Boats are the single covariant, along with lowered fish count, that correlates with increased orca death rates. One orca has been killed, and one injured, from direct boat strikes.

In times of low Chinook count, boat harrassment doesn’t just harm whales, it kills them.

Don’t blame toxins.

Our whales are dying with ribs showing. Toxins don’t cause adult whales to starve; boat harassment, linked with low fish count, does. Toxins cause low sperm count, as another whale watcher recently pointed out; this is the only problem our whales don’t seem to have, since we have plenty of babies. As Doug McMaster, then head of the NMFS Marine Mammal Laboratory, said to operators years ago: “this population decline is not caused by toxins.”

Will you now quit? Others have, and with honor.

I hope that every whale watch operator will consider it his or her personal responsibility to read the science on this question, and to make a personal decision about the ethics of continuing something with proven negative impact on the orca.

And for those of you who will not stop, for whatever reasons; please consider an organized reduction in days, and times of day. This isn’t about proving your lobbying power: it’s about losing our local whales.

I hope that you, Bill, and your co-operators will do the right thing. It’s time.