By Nadine Pinnell and Doug Sandilands
Contrary to popular belief, whale watching is not a modern phenomenon in British Columbia. First Nations peoples in B.C. have co-existed with abundant populations of whales, dolphins and porpoises for over the 10,000 years; they produced a wide variety of art and legend depicting cetaceans, and certainly would have spent time watching whales. Even early European settlers were involved in whale-watching much earlier than many people realise. In the early 1900s, tours running from Vancouver to Bowen Island took place aboard steamers operated by J.A. Cates, manager of the Terminal Steamship Company. They focused on a population of approximately 100 humpback whales inhabiting the Strait of Georgia and Howe Sound. While a whaling fleet using boats with oars and sails and hand-thrown harpoons sporadically hunted this population as early as the 1860s, the modern hunting techniques available by 1907 quickly began to decimate the population. In 1907, Captain Cates wrote his Member of Parliament in protest of the Pacific Whaling Company’s hunting of humpback whales in Howe Sound:
“ It is only natural to say that everything that lives should be allowed a certain amount of protection and I might say that by the extermination of these whales from the waters of Howe Sound it would seriously interfere with our Local Trade as during each year there are hundreds of tourists and others from all over the world who come to Vancouver and engage passage on our boats especially to see the whales in Howe Sound.”
The language of Cates’ letter is remarkable in its call for conservation and the way it echoes the sentiments of many modern day whale-watching companies, desiring protection for whales both as a matter of conscience and as a valuable resource.
A more recent example of whale-watching companies getting involved in conservation efforts comes from Robson Bight on northern Vancouver Island, where northern resident killer whales engage in beach rubbing during July and August. In the late 1970s, forestry company MacMillan Bloedel was logging the upper Tsitika watershed that drains into Robson Bight and developing plans to utilize the bight as a log dump. Meanwhile, Bill Mackay and Jim Borrowman were operating a diving charter turned whale-watching company that often visited Robson Bight to watch northern resident killer whales. Mackay and Borrowman now own and operate Mackay Whale Watching and Stubbs Island Whale Watching respectively. Beach rubbing is a phenomenon unique to northern resident killer whales, and many of the known rubbing beaches they use are near Robson Bight. Realizing that if Robson Bight became an area for log booming this activity would be severely disrupted, Borrowman, Mackay, other locals, and researchers lobbied policy makers to protect Robson Bight as an Ecological Reserve (part of the provincial parks system). In response to these efforts, BC Parks established Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve in 1982. The reserve is now a 1248-hectare marine park protected as key habitat for northern resident killer whales with a 505-hectare upland buffer zone. In 1987, with the continued support of the North Vancouver Island whale-watching and research community, the Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve developed a successful water-based education program and land-based monitoring program to mitigate the effects of disturbance and noise caused by whale-oriented boat traffic in the area. These programs continue today.
Whale watching today
Since its revival in the early 1980s, modern whale watching has become a big industry in British Columbia. More than 50 companies now offer dedicated whale-watching tours, bringing in revenues of over 10 million dollars a year in direct expenditures. As well, many other tour operators such as kayaking guides and sport fishing lodges and charters offer incidental whale-watching experiences (with fishing or other activities as the main focus of the trip).
The three main whale-watching centers in B.C. are Victoria (focusing on southern resident killer whales but occasionally or seasonally targeting gray, humpbacks, minke whales and porpoise), Tofino (focusing primarily on gray whales, but also targeting killer and humpback whales) and North Vancouver Island (focusing primarily on northern resident killer whales, but also targeting humpback and minke whales, Dall’s porpoise and Pacific white-sided dolphins). Whale watching in each of these areas has had both beneficial and detrimental impacts on cetaceans. Across B.C., whale-watching companies support photo identification research, population and acoustic studies and a variety of other research projects. Since 1980, millions of people have learned about cetaceans’ natural history, habitat, and threats on whale-watching trips. In 1998 alone, 215,000 people took a whale-watching tour in BC. Changes in attitudes towards cetaceans have been spurred to a great extent by public exposure to cetaceans provided by aquariums, the whale-watching industry and the media. Where people once regarded cetaceans as a source of products such as oil, they now see them as being intrinsically important. This change in attitudes means that there is increased public support for conservation initiatives that benefit cetaceans.
The explosion of interest in whale watching since the mid-1980s has also had negative effects on cetaceans. Industry growth has been particularly dramatic in the transboundary region of Haro Strait, where both Canadian and American whale-watching boats compete for good spots to view whales. At times more than 50 vessels, both commercial and recreational, may follow asingle group of 10 to 20 whales (the dubious record is of 107 boats following a single group of killer whales in Haro Strait). While commercial whale-watching vessel operators are necessarily aware of the whale-watching guidelines and generally follow them, many private recreational vessel operators are not familiar with the guidelines, leading to significant disturbance of cetaceans due to the proximity and noise of these vessels. While the impact of whale-watching on cetaceans is orders of magnitude less than the impact of whaling, there are still many concerns that vessels are having significant impacts on species that are already at-risk due to their small population numbers as a result of whaling, habitat destruction, high levels of toxins from PCB’s, dioxins, and other pollutants, and limited food supply.
The recognition of the potential impacts of whale watching has led to the establishment of several vessel monitoring and education programs. BC Parks began protecting killer whale habitat at Robson Bight in 1987, with the establishment of a warden program for the ecological reserve. In 1993, Soundwatch, based out of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island began monitoring whale-watching activity and educating boaters on whale-watching guidelines in the Haro Strait and Juan de Fuca Strait. In 2001, the Veins of Life Watershed Society based in Victoria received funding from the Habitat Stewardship Program (HSP) for Species at Risk to operate the Marine Mammal Monitoring Program (a program similar to Soundwatch) in the transboundary region.
Recreational vessels are also used as platforms for whale watching
In 2002, the Johnstone Strait Killer Whale Interpretive Centre Society began operating a similar program called Straitwatch that is also funded by HSP. Straitwatch operates in the waters of Johnstone and Queen Charlotte Straits off Northern Vancouver Island and works closely with the Robson Bight Warden Program. While it seems intuitive that both the presence and noise of vessels would have a negative impact on the ability of cetaceans to carry out their normal life processes, there is, at present, a relatively small body of research on this topic. Several short-term studies of vessel impacts on a few species have shown interference with communication, prey detection, feeding and changes in distribution. Although few long-term studies have been undertaken, there is concern that whale watching may have long-term conservation implications. As many species of whales naturally congregate in certain areas due to favourable habitat characteristics, whale watchers tend to focus their efforts in these same areas, meaning these whales will be vulnerable to repeated disturbance in areas important to their survival which would likely result in long term conservation effects.
When whale watching was in its infancy in BC in the late 1980s, killer whale researchers made recommendations for killer whale watchers to remain a distance of 100 metres away from killer whales. This recommendation reflected their impressions of the distance at which killer whales behaviour changed based on their years of experience working in boats around these animals. The 100-meter recommendation was tested in 1995 and 1996 by Rob Williams (Williams et.al. 2002) at the Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve using an experimental vessel in cooperation with local whale-watching charter operators who agreed to stay away from animals being studied. The study attempted to identify behavioural changes in killer whales that were approached at a distance of 100 meters. The results showed that these whales traveled in an unpredictable path and changed speed indicating they were attempting to avoid the experimental vessel. The study recommended 100 metres as a minimum distance to observe whales and that a guideline of less than 100 metres would result in much higher levels of disturbance. Further, the study showed that vessels that placed themselves in the path of whales (and broke the whale-watching guidelines) resulted in much higher levels of disturbance and recommended against this practice of “leapfrogging” by whale watchers. This summer, with the support of the whale-watching operators of north Vancouver Island, another study at Robson Bight is examining the effects of multiple vessels on the behaviour of northern resident killer whales.
In the coming year Canada will very likely see the whale-watching guidelines become whale-watching regulations. This will provide clarification to whale-watching companies, pleasure craft operators and others of what is acceptable behaviour to help avoid potentially damaging interactions.