Orca Whale Darting Begins Badly in the San Juan Islands of Washington

Our last blog entry discussed the dangers from a new study that involves dart tagging the resident orca whales in Washingtonthe same friendly orcas we enjoy watching on our kayaking tours in the San Juan Islands. Despite widespread criticism, the NOAA research team darted the first orca whale on February 20. The target was J-26 (aka “Mike”, named after deceased pioneering killer whale biologist Michael Bigg) a 21 year old who is usually found close to his 40 year old mother J-16 “Slick” and two younger sisters.

The satellite tag, sporting nasty double harpoon tips, was supposed to allow continuous tracking of J-pod killer whales (an endangered family of salmon-eating residents) to learn more about their movements, habitat use and feeding behavior. The tag only worked for 3 days instead of the planned 3 months. Now Mike is cruising our San Juan Islands kayaking tour routes with two nasty holes in his fin that served no purpose and put him at risk of infection.

Orca Whale Satellite Tagging Map of Washington Again, we must ask why all this effort and money is being spent when we already know why our orca whales in the San Juan Islands are endangered: 1) destruction of salmon spawning streams and 2) toxic pollutants that drift in from as far away as China. Why chase, harass, and harpoon our friendly whales when the problems have already been identified? Click here if you wish to read NOAA’s justification. And click here to read to the top orca biologists criticisms and an interesting debate.

The agency that approved this study is the same one that has accused kayak tours companies such as ours of threatening the whales’ health by respectfully and silently drifting across the water’s surface in their company. Meanwhile, this agency has approved for use on our San Juan Islands kayaking tour routes the following: military bombs and sonar, bulk freighters, and commercial fishing fleets whose nets steal the orcas’ already rare food supply and put them at risk of drowning.

NOAA is a “scientific” federal agency, but they seem incapable of making rational decisions when it comes to the welfare of the orca whales they are legally responsible for saving. The reality is that kayakers are an easy target to scapegoat and serve as the perfect “red herring” diversion to what really needs to get done. Restoring damaged salmon streams is hard work, costs money, and often steps on political toes. But it’s long overdue and essential to our entire ecosystem.

Unfortunately, it seems we can’t rely on our government agencies in Washington to take a stand against entrenched financial or military-industrial interests. The fishing fleet allowed by NOAA to compete with killer whales for endangered salmon right in the heart of the proposed orca sanctuary is financed by big bankers. And the weapons-makers are always clamoring to test and sell us more of their deadly wares. We can only hope that NOAA comes to its senses soon and takes real and effective action to save our orca whales. The whales can’t wait much longer.

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Blog Comments

Oh wow – I never knew this research is so dangerous. Thanks for sharing this!

Keep in mind that the dangers mentioned in this article don’t occur with every whale tagging incident. But the potential risks must be balanced against the value of any data that is collected using such invasive methods on the killer whales.

What months do you kayak to see the orcas? And what can we do to help protect them from NOAA and their stupidity? I care so much about them.

Jill – I forgot to mention that our whale watching season extends from late April through October with a peak in the middle. Please refer to our information page on kayaking with orca whales for more details on our sighting successes. Our blog has numerous articles that report our killer whale sightings on a monthly basis. We hope you can join us for a kayak tour soon!


Jill: The only thing you can do as a citizen is write to NMFS and NOAA to express your reservations about this type of invasive research. After this initial failure in late winter 2012, they restarted the project this winter and one of our resident orcas is wearing a tag now in 2013. We plan on posting another blog article soon to fill everyone in on the current operation. Thanks for getting involved!

Darting the orca whales is not a good procedure. You cannot disturb the whales to collect data and I think NOAA should retract their decision to dart them. Every animal lover should rise against this cruelty.

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