Are whale watchers too noisy for whales?
Wind whipped across my face as Eagle Wing Tours’ 60-foot power boat ‘Goldwing’ accelerated like a James Bond getaway vehicle, water shooting up in a rooster tail behind us. We were searching for some of the rarest marine mammals on the planet – 76 southern resident killer whales – found only in the waters off southern Vancouver Island and I was searching for answers on whether whale watching – an activity I love – was contributing to the decline.
Southern resident orcas are fish eaters and rely on a language of clicks and squeals to communicate and hunt. No babies have been born to this population since 2016 and scientists say without action the whales will disappear. Causing the decline is a dramatic drop in fish populations and noise disturbance from boats.
Eagle Wing Tours was British Columbia’s first carbon-neutral whale watching company and they are breaking new ground again. With their Sound Footprint Project they are the first whale-watching company in the region to voluntarily test their boats for noise emissions. Last year Eagle Wing boats ran their engines above hydrophones in Haro Strait to gather baseline data. They hope to reduce noise levels through operations or maintenance. The pilot project is being conducted by JASCO Applied Sciences in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Two boys perched on the seat in front of me craned their necks searching for whales. Given the angle of the boat I was pretty sure Captain Bane or naturalist Derek Sterling sitting beside him would first spot whales. As the chill seeped through my clothing I wondered if we would find killer whales. The company guarantees whale sightings (you keep taking trips until you see one) but finding killer whales over a vast ocean in three hours requires an understanding of whale behavior and tips from a network of whale watchers.
Watching off the starboard side I spotted the distinctive shine of sunlight bouncing off a black marine mammal. There were several boats idling nearby, watching the water. People pointed at the whale, wondering why the captain seemed to be headed the wrong direction. Sterling pointed out that the captain was trying to position the boat so when we dropped our speed away from the whales – as dictated by whale watching guidelines – we would be in a good position to watch the whales.
Vessel speed is the biggest predictor of noise levels heard by killer whales (propeller type, engine horsepower and age, or hull characteristics are also factors) so driving slow when in the presence of whales is critical.
Brett Soberg, Eagle Wing co-owner, was pleased three of his vessels had acceptable sound footprints from baseline testing. A fourth will get a new propeller to reduce noise levels. Although I was concerned the boat I rode in was too noisy, Soberg would later tell me it was their quietest boat for whales. “The noise a person is subject to is larger than what the whales hear. Sound travels through the surface of the water and up into the air.”
Captain Bane found a safe position to watch whales, throttling back the engines. The boat settled lower into the water as passengers sat up straighter in their seats. It seemed the show was about to begin.
Eyes squinted against harsh sunlight we strained to see one black dorsal fin puncture the ocean surface, then another and another. Three orcas swam one behind the other past the boat but we couldn’t see if they were hunting. “Those are transient (Bigg’s) killer whales,” Sterling explained, “They are different than the southern resident population. They eat marine mammals (not fish). You might wonder why the southern residents don’t switch to eating marine mammals if there are no fish. They can’t!”
There was silence as people pondered this surprise before Sterling explained that killer whales have a matrilineal society with males living their whole lives with their moms, sisters and their offspring.
“They can’t eat marine mammals because their mother didn’t teach them how!”
And unfortunately there aren’t enough fish to go around. A shortage of chinook salmon is a serious threat to orca survival and some people believe fish farms are contributing to salmon decline. Sterling gave us food for thought when he stressed the importance of avoiding farmed fish. “If you’re in a restaurant in New York and it doesn’t say wild salmon on the menu, you’re killing orcas by ordering salmon,” he thundered. Our fun day on the water had me thinking about becoming vegetarian as I watched three whales slip through the inky-black water.
After what seemed like fifteen minutes with the whales but our captain assured us was an hour we raced towards Race Rocks Ecological Reserve. “Having a faster boat means we have time to visit Race Rocks as well as watch whales,” Bane explained.
I watched a lumbering elephant seal earthworm his way towards the ocean, his immense size preventing graceful movement. Sea lions slumbered in piles of odiferous furry blubber. And an unexpected surprise – Ollie – Vancouver Island’s loneliest sea otter, snatched an afternoon siesta among the bull kelp.
Captain Bane turned the boat towards harbour and picked up speed, cutting off further conversation. I mulled over creatures I’d seen and the challenges they face in this patch of the Pacific. Soberg wants to tackle them all. “Although by far the biggest factor impeding the recovery of these whales is a chronic lack of chinook salmon, another factor identified by DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) is the effect of vessels and associated noise. Finding out whether our boats have any noise issues, and resolving them if they do, is critical so that we can shift the conversation back where it belongs – to improving salmon stocks and habitat.”
Thrilled at the treasures the ocean had offered me I stepped back on the dock with a new understanding of what’s happening under the water and the people above water fighting for it.
If you go:
Allow time to make a return trip with Eagle Wing Tours if your first voyage doesn’t produce whale sightings.