Whale watch industry sits dockside during COVID-19 pandemic

Explorer 4, one of the boats run by regional whale watching company Island Adventures, has been docked for two months and will remain off the water at least through the end of May under current state rules. (Photo courtesy Island Adventures.)

By Kimberly Cauvel

— With the turn of the season, as the sun more often lights up area waters with a sparkle, locals and visitors alike are usually drawn to the docks to pursue a glimpse of the region’s whales. Over the past decade, upwards of 500,000 people have boarded whale watching boats in the Salish Sea each year. 

Not this year. Like much else in the time of COVID-19, searches for black-and-white orcas, speckled grays and humpbacks were interrupted in early March. Dozens of whale watching boats, from Vancouver Island to San Juan Island, from Everett to Edmonds, bob in place dockside.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA), representing 31 companies in Washington and British Columbia, says that of 675 jobs typically supported by association members, 75% are unfilled due to layoffs and cancelations of seasonal hiring.

“That’s 503 people who do not have jobs because the whale watching association is tied to the docks,” association communications director Kelley Balcomb-Bartok said. “That’s naturalists that love the whale, that’s captains that drive the boats, that’s everybody, and it’s not counting the ripple effects in the local economy.”

In a typical year, the industry brings in tens of millions of dollars to the area, most of that from visitors. “That’s people that aren’t coming to Friday Harbor, Victoria, all of the cities. They are not staying at the hotels, they are not buying gifts at the gift shops, they aren’t taking cabs,” Balcomb-Bartok said. 

Some who aren’t employed by the industry, though, see a silver lining to the whale watching hiatus for endangered southern resident orcas.

“We know that the governor’s (Southern Resident Orca) Task Force recommended a moratorium on all boat traffic near the whales, we know the governor recommended a moratorium, and all the scientists I know are of the same mind,” said Mark Anderson, a marine biologist who founded Orca Relief Citizens’ Alliance. “Their presence prevents the whales from eating and the whales are dying of starvation.” 

A lost prime season?

For the time being, tour company owners are navigating a spring without ticket sales — and hoping they aren’t anchored in place through the summer.

“We’d be losing our prime season,” said Pete Hanke of Puget Sound Express, out of Edmonds and Port Townsend.

Even if boat tours can resume over the summer, it’s unclear whether tourists will appear. International travelers have cancelled trips as far out as September because of government restrictions and airline cancelations.

Companies in Washington are government-mandated to remain closed through at least the end of May and those in British Columbia through at least the end of June.

“That’s definitely eating really deeply into everybody’s operating season,” Ocean Ecoventures owner Simon Pidcock said. His operation, which departs from Vancouver Island, ran one tour the first week of March before the COVID-19 shutdown. “I run smaller vessels with 12 passengers or less. They have mandated that we have to have social distancing of 6 feet and in a small vessel it would be impossible,” Pidcock said.

The whale watching industry is particularly hard-hit because it can’t operate year-round. “We’re a little bit like fishermen and farmers: we spend all winter long preparing for the summer season,” Island Adventures owner Shane Aggergaard said.

Alan McGillivray, Canadian president of the PWWA, said his company — Prince of Whales Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures — had planned to hire 100 seasonal staff in April. Instead, they laid off permanent workers and face uncertainty about what comes as of July 1.

“My challenge is to get all the financing in place so we can weather this storm,” McGillivray said. “It means basically I have to borrow a whole bunch of money just to survive.”

A break for at-risk southern residents

An orca breaches in the Salish Sea.
(Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Express / Bart Rulon)
See the gallery for more photos.

Advocates for more protection for endangered southern resident orcas, or killer whales, see less boat traffic as a good thing. 

“It’s the first time in three decades that (the southern residents) have been able to come up for air in the Salish Sea without having whale watching boats around them,” said Donna Sandstrom, who founded the nonprofit The Whale Trail and served on the Southern Resident Orcas Task Force.

Today there are 72 southern resident orcas in the wild, according to nonprofits that study them. That’s 25 fewer than when the population — recovering from captures for entertainment purposes — peaked at 98 in 1995, and 15 fewer than when the species gained U.S. Endangered Species Act protection in 2005. 

Scientists have said the salmon-eating southern resident orcas’ numbers keep falling because there isn’t enough of their preferred chinook salmon to sustain them, and that they are harmed by pollution that accumulates in the food chain and noise from boat traffic.

“The whales are acoustic animals and they need to be able to echolocate to find their food,” Sandstrom said. “At some point it doesn’t matter how many fish are in the sea if the orcas can’t find them.”

Tim Ragen, who retired in 2013 from a career including seven years as executive director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, likened underwater noise from whale watching boats, as well as recreational boats and shipping vessels, to fog rolling in during a flight. “Southern resident killer whales rely on sound much like we rely on sight,” he said. “I think no one would question that decreased prey availability is the primary problem, but you can’t separate that from whale watching.” 

Decreased ability to find prey has cascading effects. The whales burn up more energy during periods of confusion and added time searching for food. Ragen said that, combined with the pollution impacts to their health, leads to less reproduction and ultimately a lower chance of survival.

Lost data, vessel strike risks

For two months, radios usually transmitting excited reports of whale sightings boat to boat have been silent, creating a gap in spring and possibly summer data-gathering that whale watching companies have done for several years.

It also means captains of vessels that remain on the water may not know the whales are in their paths.

“Not knowing they are here is a loss to science, but ferries or shipping boats or military ships might not know they are here either, and vessel strikes on whales do happen,” Balcomb-Bartok said.

As the number of whale watching companies in the region has grown over the years, operators say they have adopted practices and technology to reduce interference with the animals.

They coordinate among themselves to prevent too many boats from gathering in one place. They notify ferry, shipping and private vessels of the presence of whales, honking and waving a flag with a whale tail encircled in red and yellow as needed, to help guide in rerouting around the animals. At times they have reported to law enforcement about boats encroaching illegally close to the creatures.

They’ve also served science. “We work really closely with several research organizations … and we do sort of a roll call of who has arrived for the season,” said marine biologist Erin Gless, lead naturalist for Island Adventures. “There are dozens and dozens (of whales) out there that we don’t know about because we’re not there. It’s frustrating that we’re losing all that research information.”

Financial impact

A 2019 report “The Whales in our Waters: The Economic Contribution of Whale Watching in San Juan County” found that boat-based whale watching brings about $80 million in spending to local businesses. About 91% of that comes from tourists.

“San Juan County is of course the epicenter of whale watching in the entire region,” Balcomb-Bartok said, adding that the industry got its start in the island county. “San Juan County itself is very, very dependent on tourism. That’s how most of the businesses and residents survive … and one of the biggest draws, if not the biggest draw specifically, is whales.”

Across Haro Strait, whale watching plays an important role in the Vancouver Island economy, as well. “We once were resource-based, much like Washington, with logging and fishing and mining, but in the last 30 to 50 years there has been a huge shift to tourism,” Pidcock said.

That tourism is seasonal. COVID-19 spreading into the Pacific Northwest in the spring was inopportune timing. “We are at the lowest point of our cash-flow cycle because in the month of April we would have started selling lots of tickets and digging ourselves out of our winter deficit,” McGillivray said.

When whale activity is slow, particularly October through February, “we still have our insurance costs, our leases for offices, our moorage. All the bills are still going out, but not a lot of revenue is coming in over the winter months.” Pidcock said.

Island Adventures, typically able to run as long as a nine-month season, saw its annual opener — March through May gray whale tours out of Everett — cut short. “I think we got like four tours under our belt when this emerged and then the stay-home order was issued,” said Gless.

In 2019, about 5,000 customers embarked on those gray whale tours. This year, just 100 eked through before the public health shutdown. Island Adventures has since been fielding requests for reservation refunds. “Not only are we not getting any income in, we are also losing income because we have to refund those folks,” Gless said.

To make matters worse, whale watching companies have found they don’t qualify for government assistance such as the Paycheck Protection Program, which requires companies to put their staff to work.

“The reality is that some just aren’t going to make it. Whether they are a small operation or have big vessels, all have their challenges,” Balcomb-Bartok said. “They say we’re all in the storm, but they are also all in their own boat, literally … and that’s unfortunate because these people put all of their lives and their love and their joy into their companies.”

Living with uncertainty

If and when whale watching has a 2020 season remains to be seen. Operators are also uncertain whether customers will come out. 

“When we do have the ability to start operating again, we will be really hoping that the local market, the ones that are able to get here just by driving, will be able to join us because that might be the only pool of passengers that are here, are local Washingtonians,” Gless said.

In the meantime, “I’m going to be doing a water taxi, sort of food delivery service to the Gulf Islands now. I’m repurposing,” said Andrew Newman, who runs White Rock Sea Tours out of Surrey. “People in the Gulf Islands are challenged by the ways the ferries run, and being even more restricted (now with COVID-19) they are kind of cut off,” he said.

Pidcock also has taken to the water passenger-free. He’s using the internet to connect community members with what they’re missing. “We’ve been doing some livestreaming on social media. People are loving that because obviously most people around the world are not able to get outside right now,” he said. “The whales are out there and they are amazing.”

Hanke of Puget Sound Express, meanwhile, is making preparations for when restrictions are lifted. Borrowing a move many grocery stores are using, plexiglass is now installed where staff and guests interact on the boats. The company also plans to limit capacity to 50% of its usual allowance on each boat, group guests by household and offer facemasks.

“We’ve got a lot of people calling. People want to go whale watching,” Hanke said. “It’s just a matter of getting a green light from the state.”

Kimberly Cauvel is an environmental journalist living in beautiful Bellingham. She was born and raised in Spokane and studied environmental science, environmental studies and journalism at Washington State University and Western Washington University.