Boaters Play Critical Role in Protecting Endangered Whales

Posted August 24, 2021 at 4:01 pm by

SRK­W’s J Pod — Katie Jones photo

FRIDAY HARBOR, WA. — Labor Day week­end is approach­ing, the last hur­rah for many sum­mer boaters before buck­ling down for the fall. As scores of ves­sels take to local water­ways over the hol­i­day, it’s an impor­tant time to stay vig­i­lant and keep safe on the water. San Juan County’s Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Stew­ard­ship calls on boaters to act as stew­ards of our frag­ile marine ecosys­tem by adher­ing to reg­u­la­tions and fol­low­ing Be Whale Wise boat­ing prac­tices for the safe­ty of all in the Sal­ish Sea.

The recent news about our South­ern Res­i­dent killer whales has been sober­ing. This sum­mer, we’ve marked a record length of absence for J Pod dur­ing peak sea­son — over 100 days. In July, adult male K‑21 Cap­puc­ci­no, the last sur­viv­ing male of his matri­line, was sight­ed in very poor con­di­tion and is now pre­sumed to be dead, bring­ing the res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion to just 74 whales. Remem­brances of J‑35 Tahlequah’s jour­ney with her deceased baby in 2018 were anoth­er stark reminder of the shock­ing­ly rapid changes this endan­gered pop­u­la­tion has experienced.

The South­ern Res­i­dent killer whales face three key threats to their sur­vival: lack of prey (espe­cial­ly Chi­nook salmon), tox­ic pol­lu­tion, and dis­tur­bance from ves­sels. Under these pres­sures, the whales appear to be shift­ing their pat­terns to spend more time out­side of their tra­di­tion­al for­ag­ing area in the Sal­ish Sea. In light of this, a new fed­er­al rule went into effect last month, expand­ing their pro­tect­ed crit­i­cal habi­tat to encom­pass a total pro­tect­ed area of 18,000 square miles from the Cana­di­an bor­der to Big Sur, California.

With our res­i­dent whales fac­ing so much pres­sure, fol­low­ing the marine laws and Be Whale Wise guide­lines is crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant. As you enjoy explor­ing our water­ways, you’ll be cer­tain to encounter many types of whales and oth­er marine mam­mals who like­wise must be pro­tect­ed. And though they’ve been scarce, when the res­i­dents do return to our inland waters, they’ll be accom­pa­nied by a num­ber of young calves and may need to work even hard­er to for­age togeth­er. The whales need guardians on the water to help cre­ate a safe space around them. You can be a guardian to the whales by slow­ing down, observ­ing safe­ty guide­lines in the pres­ence of whales, and using the whale warn­ing flag to alert oth­ers on the water.

Review the reg­u­la­tions and learn about best prac­tices by watch­ing our instruc­tion­al video: Boat­ing with Whales in the Sal­ish Sea — What You Need to Know, at And if you don’t have one yet, get your whale warn­ing flag at

The San Juan Coun­ty Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Stew­ard­ship works to pre­serve fresh water resources, pro­tect the marine envi­ron­ment, and coor­di­nate recy­cling and sol­id waste through­out the Coun­ty by imple­ment­ing inte­grat­ed projects and pro­grams in part­ner­ship with oth­ers. Be Whale Wise is a part­ner­ship of gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies, non­prof­its and oth­er stake­hold­ers in British Colum­bia and Wash­ing­ton state to research, imple­ment and edu­cate regard­ing laws and best ves­sel prac­tices to pro­tect the unique and frag­ile marine resources found in the area.

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