What to do?

Posted by Ken Campbell December 3, 2010 0 Comment 975 views

One of the local TV stations recently ran a special news report on the orca in the San Juans. I caught the tail end of it (the entire deal is online here), and I came away with a few observations. And, quite frankly, came away quite conflicted about the entire topic.

I won’t go into all the specifics, but the point of the piece is that, when it comes to the southern resident pods, we seem to be “loving them to death,” (in the breathless and dramatic idiom of the show.) Whale watching boats are singled out as the problem and the proposed solutions all share some sort of further restrictions on how commercial operators can conduct their business. Although the report didn’t specifically address non-motorized whale watchers – kayaks, for example – the possible regulatory changes may not make any distinction between paddlers and commercial sightseeing craft. Which is, I believe, a load of fertilizer.

But I don’t want to get wrapped up in the political side of the debate, even though I have my opinions. (Lord, do I have opinions!) What I will say, and what I know to be true, is that people only value what they know. Restricting access could result in less people understanding what the whales are, how they live and die, and what can be done to make their situation better. While I would agree that the commercial boats – the “pukers,” as they’re lovingly known in the business – are a disruption to the whales and are certainly one of the threats, there have to be ways to deal with the situation without completely cutting off access.

Which brings me to the point that is made several times in the story, that it’s “just as good an experience,” to watch from shore. Lime Kiln State Park, on the west side of San Juan Island, has actually been designated as a whale watching park and hundreds of observers line the rocky cliffs when the whales are about. That’s cool, it is a neat experience and I would actually prefer that to riding along with a bunch of overweight tourists and their seasick children in one of the overpriced tour boats, but to say that it’s just as good as being in the water with the orca is complete pap.

I have kayaked with the whales in Haro Strait and elsewhere, and there is nothing that compares to actually being in the same location as they are, in the same water at the same time. There is a connection that is immediate and powerful when you are presented with the reality of the orca from close range. I imagine it would be similar to the difference between somehow watching a Canadiens game from the center ice circle as opposed to seeing it from high up in section DD. It’s better than not seeing them at all, but it’s not the same thing. Far from it.

About 10 years back, Mary and I were kayaking in Johnstone Strait when we saw a whale watching helicopter – I had no idea there was such a thing – follow a family of orca, matching them move for move from the air. It was obvious that the whales, including at least one smaller juvenile, were trying to get away from the noise of the invasive whirlybird, and the feeling I got from observing the scene unfold was one of anger and hostility toward the watchers. I remember thinking that I hoped the helicopter would fall out of the sky and ditch close enough to the whales so that they could eat the occupants.

Not one of my finer moments.

I have a trip scheduled for next June to the places that were featured in the story. I’m supposed to be leading a group of kayakers through the area, with the specific purpose of having some close encounters with the same endangered whales the documentary focused on. I don’t know if it will even be legal to do that by then and quite honestly, I’m personally split on the idea of whether I still want to do it at all. The show might be right about the impacts and it might turn out to be the best thing for the orca if they are just left alone, by everybody. I am in the process of making my decision now, and conscious of the fact that it may be made for me if some more restrictive laws are enacted between now and then.

This post is going nowhere. The more I ramble, the more it seems there aren’t any good solutions.

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