No More Kayaking with Orca Whales?!

Amazingly enough, the National Marine Fisheries Service has a plan to ban kayaking on the west side of San Juan Island in the heart of the orca whale watching zone. Without the backing of any scientific studies that show kayaking with killer whales has any negative effect on the orcas, NMFS was planning to shut down kayaking on the west side of San Juan Island this year. Fortunately, they have delayed a decision as they are finally starting to understand the true facts now.

There is still time to let them know what you think about this crazy idea before they make any rules for 2011. The deadline for sending them your comments on their proposed plan is January 15, 2010 – just a couple of days from now. We have submitted our suggestions for creating a more sensible orca management plan which you can read below. Feel free to use them in your email to orca.plan@noaa.gov if you wish.

1. I support your proposal to require motorized vessels (kayaks exempt) to stay 200 yards away from orcas.

2. I support your proposal that motorized vessels keep clear a 400 yard right-of-way ahead of the killer whale’s path. It should be recognized that kayaks closeness to the water often limits their ability to spot killer whales, and their slow speed, combined with winds & currents, can make it difficult to quickly clear the way; therefor kayaks should keep a 200 yard right-of-away ahead of the orca whales path.

3. I recommend that the orcas’ critical foraging area on the west side of San Juan Island be better protected. I do not support your proposed blanket “no-go zone” as currently designed. Reductions in vessel-whale interactions can be achieved by giving right-of-way to the whales. This unique whale watching area should be regulated in the following ways:

A. Create a “slow zone” with a speed limit of 7 knots extending from Kellet Bluff to Cattle Point within half-mile of shore throughout the year.

B. Create a “whale right-of-way zone” for motorized vessels (kayaks exempt) when killer whales are present between May 1 and Sept 30 extending from Battleship Island to Eagle Point. Vessels should be required to move offshore by 1/4 mile when orca whales are present within 1/4 mile of a vessel and when the vessel and whales are within 1/4 mile from shore.

C. Create an “no-go zone for motors” for motorized vessels (kayaks exempt) from Edwards Point to San Juan County Park to be in effect year-round. This “no-go zone for motors” would extend out to 1/2 mile offshore. This area would be a kayak and human-powered craft-only zone, all other restrictions applying. Absolutely no exemptions for recreational or commercial fishing.

D. SoundWatch / The Whale Museum has devised an excellent code of conduct for kayakers called K.E.L.P. which they use to educate kayak users on the beaches on the west side of San Juan Island. This educational effort should be supported and continued.

Blog Comments

Due to overwhelming public input that supports sea kayaking with killer whales to continue in a respectful and low-impact manner, NMFS will be reconsidering their plans and delaying any new rules until 2011.

Hopefully, this will give them time to properly analyze the situation and come to the realization that kayaks pose no harm to orca whales and the true threats come from high-powered naval sonar, decimated salmon stocks, and environmental toxins such as PCBs.

It would be ironic indeed if kayakers were prevented from sharing the orca whale waters since kayakers are stout conservationists to the core and raised some of the first alarms as to the possibility of our whales disappearing from the San Juan Islands!

A few years back while paddling the west side of San Juan Island, in the same area that is being considered for a no-go zone, this happened.

I was sitting quietly observing the orcas swimming around the area with what seemed to be no regard to the presence of myself or my paddling partner. I happened to notice a female and her baby swimming about fifty yards in front of me from right to left. As they continued their tour, they made a circle around and then headed directly toward me swimming on the surface the whole time. When they where about ten yards away from me they submerged, turned on thier side and swam directly under my cockpit looking up at me the whole time, and then resurfaced about ten yards beyond my kayak. How exciting was that? The mother was purposely bringing her baby to check me out and may even telling it to be mindful not to harm me.

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