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Originally published September 1, 2010 at 7:03 PM | Page modified September 3, 2010 at 11:43 AM

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Evolving rules in San Juans may change how visitors go whale watching

Expected tighter federal regulations protecting endangered orca populations in the San Juan Islands may soon change how and where the public enjoys whale watching.

Seattle Times staff reporter

If You Go

Whale watching in the San Juans

Many companies in the San Juan Islands offer half-day whale-watching tours on motor vessels, sailboats, Zodiacs, kayaks and even planes. Boat trips cost about $75 for adults and $50 for children; kayak trips start at about $75.

In the peak season, May through September, most outfitters have multiple daily trips that leave mid- to late morning and again in the early to midafternoon. Some offer sunset cruises and paddles, too. In April and October, many outfitters still offer weekend tours.

A selection of San Juan tour operators and rental outfits, listed alphabetically:

Captain Carli's Whale Watching boat tours, Friday Harbor; 888-221-1331 or www.carliwhalewatch.com.

Clipper Vacations, one-day Victoria Clipper whale-watching tours from Seattle (with round-trip to Friday Harbor); kids younger than 12 free with paying adult. 800-888-2535 or www.clippervacations.com.

Crystal Seas Kayaking, Friday Harbor; 877-732-7877 or www.crystalseas.com.

Discovery Seas Kayaks, Friday Harbor; 866-461-2559 or www.discoveryseakayak.com.

Friday Harbor Marine Rentals, Friday Harbor; kayak and private boat rentals, 360-378-6202 or

www.fridayharbormarine.com.

Maya's Westside Charters, Snug Harbor, San Juan Island. Whale watching year-round, 360-378-7996 or

www.mayaswhalewatch.biz.

Mitchell Bay Landing, Mitchell Bay, San Juan Island; kayak and private boat rentals, 360-378-9296 or www.mitchellbaylanding.com.

Outdoor Odysseys, Friday Harbor; sea kayak tours, 800-647-4621 or www.outdoorodysseys.com

San Juan Air Tours, Friday Harbor, scenic flights; 360-378-7717 or www.scenic-flights.com.

San Juan Excursions, Friday Harbor, whale watching and sea kayaking, 800-809-4253 or www.watchwhales.com.

San Juan Outfitters, Roche Harbor, offers kayaking and boat-based and land-based wildlife watching tours; 866-810-1483 or www.sanjuanislandoutfitters.com.

San Juan Safaris, Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor; whale watching, sea kayaking and scenic flights, 800-450-6858 or www.sanjuansafaris.com.

Sea Quest Expeditions, Friday Harbor; sea kayak tours. 888-589-4253 or www.sea-quest-kayak.com.

Western Prince Whale & Wildlife Tours, Friday Harbor; 800-757-6722 or www.orcawhalewatch.com.

LAND-BASED WHALE WATCHING

Visit Lime Kiln Point State Park (also known as Whale Watch Park), 1567 Westside Road, San Juan Island; 360-378-2044 or www.parks.wa.gov.

Find other shore-based viewing spots: www.thewhaletrail.org

MORE INFORMATION

For the most up-to-date whale-watching guidelines, see www.bewhalewise.org.

For the latest on regulations from NOAA, including a summary of public comments on proposed whale-watching rules, see www.nwr.noaa.gov/Marine-Mammals/Whales-Dolphins-Porpoise/Killer-Whales/Recovery-Implement/Orca-Vessel-Regs.cfm

Whale Museum is a good intro

At The Whale Museum (62 First St. N., Friday Harbor), visitors can immerse themselves in the culture, history and biology of orca whales.

The small museum offers everything from 3-D wall-sized illustrations of Native American orca legends to live orca-listening stations with sounds transmitted by underwater hydrophones scattered throughout the San Juan Islands.

A family tree of the southern resident orcas covers a wall. It shows the lineage and details of every individual, a picture of each orca's dorsal fin (distinct to each individual), and the orca's estimated age.

An orca skeleton hangs overhead, and photos and illustrations demonstrate the threats faced by the orcas, such as declines in their favorite food, chinook salmon.

Other photos display the whales' mating and social behavior — including a remarkable greeting ceremony that occurs every spring when the whales regroup in the San Juan Islands: They systematically line up facing one another and then, on cue, the two lines simultaneously swim to greet each other.

The Whale Museum is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; $6 general admission; $5 for ages 65+; $3 for ages 5-18 and college students with ID. 800-946-7227 or www.whalemuseum.org.

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Afternoon sunshine casts a haze over the San Juan Islands as I scan the horizon for any motion in the glassy water. A sudden "puffffttt" breaks my focus and my head snaps toward the sound just in time to catch a spout of breath and a large, dark shape rising from the water.

I stifle a squeal as the sleek, rounded head of an orca breaks the surface, tall black dorsal fin trailing behind. With a flick of its fluke, the whale is gone just as I hear another burst of breath to my right. There, three orcas rise in sync, then briskly dive again below the surface.

Orcas, also known as killer whales, capture our imagination with their beautiful black and white body pattern, charismatic family ties and active behavior. And Washington's San Juan Islands, particularly San Juan Island, offer an exceptional and easy opportunity to glimpse whales in the wild. On any given day in the warm summer months, and likely on this Labor Day weekend, orcas — designated as Washington state's official marine mammal — can be viewed from boat, kayak, plane, or even from shore.

But the particular orcas that make their home in the San Juan Islands, referred to as the southern resident killer whales, face a multitude of threats including pollution, declining chinook salmon (their favorite prey), and increases in noisy boat traffic. With a meager population of roughly 85 individuals, they landed on the federal endangered-species list in 2005.

In an effort to protect the whales from the half-million visitors that come to view them each year in Washington and British Columbia, local educational nonprofits along with the U.S. and Canadian governments crafted "Be Whale Wise" guidelines to inform boaters how to watch whales with the least impact. The guidelines suggest boats slow to seven knots within 400 yards of the whales and not approach closer than 100 yards. If a whale swims within 100 yards of a boat, boaters should cut their engines. The 100-yard rule became state law in 2008, with a hefty $1,000 fine. The state further forbids boaters from deliberately putting their boat in an orca's path.

Even stiffer federal regulations are on the horizon, with fines likely 10 to 30 times those posed by the state. As of the 2011 boating season, boats and kayaks may be banned from within 200 yards of the whales. The entire west side of San Juan Island, where the resident whales spend the majority of their time, may become off-limits to all boating, including commercial whale watching, fishing, private boats and even kayaks.

"Boaters are mad about the regulations, while whale lovers think it isn't enough," said Lynne Barre, marine- mammal specialist with the Northwest Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service.

Given the vulnerability of the San Juan orcas and the looming regulations, land-based whale watching makes an excellent, and affordable, alternative. And Lime Kiln Point State Park (also known as Whale Watch Park) on the western shore of San Juan Island, boasts some of the best land-based whale-watching in the world.

Watching from the park

Fog rolls through the crisp early-morning air at Lime Kiln, where visitors gather hoping to catch a glimpse of passing whales. Short trails lead through windswept stands of Douglas fir to the water's edge, where whales pass by almost daily in summer. One trail leads to an old lighthouse that now serves as a research station. Just outside the lighthouse, a boom box broadcasts the sounds made by orcas swimming just offshore; an underwater hydrophone picks up their squeals and cries (hear it live online at www.orcasound.net).

Docents wander the park ready to answer visitors' questions while a small interpretive center offers informative displays, including a life-size rendition of the dorsal fin of "Ruffles," a celebrated local orca so named because his fin resembles a dully-serrated knife.

Watching from land requires patience. The morning I arrived, a small group of whales passed close by at 7 a.m. but didn't return until evening. Being wild animals, they'll roam where they please. In the summer, though they frequent the west side of San Juan Island to feed on chinook salmon, the three pods that comprise the southern resident orcas (known as J, K and L pods) may occupy the full range of the islands, including Canada's neighboring Gulf Islands. In winter, they traverse greater Puget Sound and farther, venturing as far south as Monterey Bay, Calif., and as far north as B.C.'s Queen Charlotte Islands.

Given the whales' wanderlust, many visitors take whale-watching boat tours around the San Juans that boast a 90 percent chance of glimpsing whales. Commercial operators are well-versed in the whale-watching rules and regulations.

"All of us in the business, we love the whales," said Bill Carli, who runs Captain Carli's Whale Watch and Wildlife Tours out of Friday Harbor. "None of us would go out and do anything to intentionally hurt them."

Soundwatch's edu-forcement

To learn more about how the rules are enforced with private boaters, I spent a day on the water with the Soundwatch team, an educational patrol associated with Friday Harbor's Whale Museum.

Onboard the Soundwatch boat, radio calls reveal that many of the resident orcas are in the northern waters of the San Juans, and we spend the day there chasing down private boaters, many of whom don't know the "Be Whale Wise" guidelines or state laws, and others who are just oblivious to the whales' presence.

"People don't always grasp what 100 yards is," said Kari Koski, program director for Soundwatch. "We try to educate them and give boaters the opportunity to make the right decision."

Our first encounter is a recreational fishermen who's going far too fast within the 400-yard range of the orcas. John Calogero, who's driving our boat, waves down the driver and then Bethy Johnstonbaugh, the day's Soundwatch volunteer (one of dozens signed up for the season), hands over educational information on the whales and the current guidelines. We spot another boater who's within safe watching distance, but we motor over just to be sure they know the guidelines.

Part of Soundwatch's task is to collect data on how many boats are in the orcas' region on any given day, including private vessels, commercial whale-watch boats and barges. They also record any violations they witness and, while Soundwatch cannot act as enforcement, its staff can and will report any blatant or offensive boater behavior.

Soundwatch data shows that private power boaters are the most frequent offenders, whether intentional or accidental, getting too close or going too fast near orcas. Boats in close proximity might impact the orcas' behavior. Whales cooperatively forage, communicating while they hunt and feed, said Brad Hanson, a wildlife biologist with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, part of NOAA. "If the noise that vessels put out masked the communications and calls between the whales, that's potentially a problem."

The adoption of stiffer federal regulations to protect orcas rests with NOAA, which is expected to issue a decision in time for the 2011 boating season (the public- comment period is closed). No matter how the new rules fall, one thing visitors to the San Juans should remember is that land-based whale watching will always be allowed from places such as San Juan Island's Lime Kiln Point.

"Visitors should see the whales in any way they can," said Jenny Atkinson, executive director of the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor, "but always be respectful and informed."

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