The Soundwatch Boater Education Program
Whale Watching Education
Annually, it is estimated that more than 500,000 people go whale watching in the Salish Sea. Types of vessels include: commercial vessels, pleasure boats and kayaks.
Although ongoing scientific studies have not shown that the presence of numerous boats negatively affects resident orcas, like any wild animals, they must have enough space to forage for food, sleep, mate and play in their traditional habitat. Therefore, since 1993 on nearly a daily basis during the peak whale watching season, Soundwatch crews and volunteers have monitored boater activity near whales.
Education on the Water
When congregations of boats are encountered, Soundwatch contacts vessels that appear to be safely approachable without disturbing the whales. The Soundwatch team courteously explains the whale-watching rules and hands boaters the Be Whale Wise guidelines and federal regulations. The Be Whale Wise guidelines were created in conjunction with the U.S. and Canadian federal governments and the international Pacific Whale Watch Operators Association to assist boaters in viewing marine wildlife with minimal impact to the animals.
When the situation warrants the Soundwatch boat, L-98, remains at the correct distance from the whales and attempts to either contact every subsequent recreational boat that approaches the whales, and/or demonstrates proper wildlife viewing distances by announcing the location of the Soundwatch boat.
Under busy conditions, a bullhorn may be used to direct traffic by working with commercial whale watching boats and instructing recreational boats to follow the example of compliant commercial operators.
Commercial whale watch operators are also reminded about guidelines and alerted to special conditions over VHF radio and/or cell phone. When boaters perceive a potential violation by other boaters or commercial operators, captains will call on Soundwatch to go and speak with that boat, placing Soundwatch in the position as the "voice" for peer pressure on the water.
Soundwatch is primarily an educational program and has no enforcement power. But it may document illegal activities and provide that documentation to law enforcement agencies, such as Washignton Department of Fish & Wildlife, U.S. NOAA Fisheries or to the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, which may impose substantial fines. [You can report a suspected violation in U.S. waters to NOAA Fisheries by clicking here.]
Last year, Soundwatch was on the water from May to September and contacted more than 1,200 boats engaged in wildlife viewing. In addition to frequent testimonials from both shore-based and vessel-based observers about the effectiveness of the Soundwatch boat in improving the behavior of wildlife viewers, now there is also objective evidence that this program is working. This has been measured by two independent shore-based studies during the summers of 1999 and 2000 by comparing the number of motor vessels inside and outside the no-whale-watching zones when the Soundwatch boat is present or absent.
A component of the Soundwatch Boater Education Program is the Kayak Education and Leadership Program (K.E.L.P.). K.E.L.P. educators teach commercial and private kayakers about marine stewardship and promote the Responsible Kayaker Code to help reduce disturbances to marine wildlife by irresponsible boating practices. See the Kayakers' Code of Conduct and map. Or view a slide show of the K.E.L.P. program.
Want to Volunteer for Boater Education?
If you're interested in receiving training to become a Soundwatch volunteer, contact the Soundwatch Coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (360) 378-4710, ext. 33. Volunteers must commit to at least one day per week throughout the summer.
In addition to publishing and distributing the Be Whale Wise Guidelines, the Soundwatch program publishes educational posters and makes presentations to user groups. For example, starting in 1988 The Whale Museum began offering free "Whale Watching Workshops" for local residents and commercial operators interested in whale-watching issues in the region. In 1994, the Pacific Whale Watch Operators Association (formerly known as the Whale Watch Operators of the Northwest) for U.S. and Canadian commercial operators was formed as a result of these workshops.
Soundwatch continues to be actively involved with the Operators Association, and is currently participating with the Association,and San Juan County on improving whale-watching boater compliance.