Multiple sightings of a pod of orcas at the north end of Howe Sound on the weekend were mostly cause for expressions of awe and excitement. But a witness to the spectacle questioned the zeal of at least one boater's efforts to maneuver in for a closer look.
The killer whales' visit — the latest in what has been an increasingly common occurrence in recent years — occurred on Saturday (Sept. 7). Afterward, a number of people posted photos of the pod online. Witnesses said it appeared that the group numbered seven of the marine mammals, including a calf and male that was breaching.
Squamish resident Brian Klassen, who was out boating at around 9 a.m. between Darrell Bay and Watts Point, on Monday (Sept. 9) said that while watching the whales from about a kilometre away, he saw one boat that appeared to be less than 100 metres from the pod.
“Boats were chasing them and were well within the 100-metre exclusion zone," Klassen wrote in an email. "As well as putting the boats in the route these animals wanted to go, this forced the animals to turn around a couple of times and to go in the opposite direction that they were intending.
“There was one boat in particular where the orcas would go in one direction and he would cut in front of them,” Klassen told The Chief. “He did that a few times… you could hear some people yelling at him that he was too close. I don't know whether he could hear them or not.”
Another witness, Garry Broeckling, told The Chief in an email, “There was a boat harassing them, following them within 20 feet.”
While it's illegal in Canada to disturb or harass marine mammals including whales, dolphins, porpoises or seals, the rules surrounding how close is too close and what constitutes “disturbing” or “harassing” are included in a set of guidelines. Pending legislation in Ottawa would transform those guidelines into an enforceable set of rules, said Caitlin Birdsall, coordinator of the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network at the Vancouver Aquarium.
In B.C., “Be Whale Wise” guidelines advise boaters not to approach or position a vessel less than 100 metres away, to travel at seven knots per hour or less when less than 400 metres away, and to keep clear of the whales' path.
It's also advised that boaters avoid encroaching within 100 metres of the animals' line of travel. If the mammals approach, boaters should move away, or if it's not safe to do so, turn off their engine and wait, Birdsall said.
“There's definitely a push among a lot of marine conservation groups to educate boaters about these guidelines,” she said.
The owners of commercial fishing and whale-watching vessels have been fined under federal law for approaching marine mammals too closely, Birdsall said. Early this year, a Quadra Island man was fined $7,500 after an incident that occurred in the waters off the island in 2010 — the first recreational boater to face such a penalty for disturbing killer whales.
The conviction set a precedent for other potential cases in the future, Birdsall said. However, it was prosecuted under Canada's Species at Risk Act, as orcas are listed as a threatened species under the act. Conservationists want to the new legislation to extend the same protections to all marine mammals, Birdsall said.
Even before that occurs, though, “we really want to encourage all boaters to be respectful and observe these guidelines for how to watch and follow them respectfully,” she said.
For the full set of guidelines, visit www.wildwhales.org and click on “watching whales.” Harassment concerns can be reported to the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans at 1-800-465-4336. Whale and dolphin sightings can be reported by going to the Wild Whales website and clicking on “sightings network,” or by calling (toll-free) 1-866-I-SAW-ONE.