PWWA is one of the most progressive ecotourism business associations in the world. In the early 1990s, long before federal mandates, we developed a dynamic set of local whale and wildlife viewing guidelines that became a model for sustainable practices worldwide. These have been modified throughout the years to adjust for the newest and best available science. We've created no-boat foraging zones, minimized underwater noise with speed limits and sonar restrictions, and created clear corridors for Southern Resident orcas to travel. These "Best Practices" became the blueprint for NOAA Fisheries and Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada in drafting regulations to mitigate potential vessel impacts to Endangered orcas, and PWWA continues to be a critical player in these international efforts to recover the Southern Resident population.
The Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) is the international industry organization representing commercial whale watchers operating in the Pacific Northwest waters of Juan de Fuca, Haro and Georgia Straits, Puget Sound, and the Gulf and San Juan Islands - now called The Salish Sea, home to the Southern Resident killer whales known as J-, K- and L-Pods. Researchers like Ken Balcomb began studying this population in the summer of 1977, and the first whale watch companies watched Ken watch the whales. The first local whale watch associations began in the early 1980s, working out "Best Practices" around marine mammals, literally writing the first textbooks on sustainable marine ecotourism. In the early 1990s the local associations became the Whale Watch Operators Association Northwest, now representing companies on both sides of the border. Today the PWWA is beginning to work with whale watch companies from California, Oregon, Alaska and Hawai'i, sharing our collective experience amongst whales and other wildlife to help us all reduce our footprint, but for those of us here in the Pacific Northwest, to find the best way to use our extraordinary platforms - our floating classrooms - to advance the conservation and recovery of our beloved Southern Resident orcas.
PWWA members have devoted a vast part of their lives amongst the Southern Residents, comprising the largest known body of observational knowledge of these whales. One of the results of the continuous review of these observations has been the refinement of the conservation objectives and the resultant ongoing development of guidelines outlining the best practice given a certain situation when a vessel encounters various marine mammals, particularly killer whales.
One of the Association’s major objectives is to assist in the conservation of all marine species in these waters, but particularly to contribute to the protection and recovery of these resident orcas. A very large accomplishment towards this objective was the development of the original guidelines in the early 1990s. Those rudimentary guidelines have now been developed into this series of Best Practices Guidelines, the objectives of which are two-fold -- first, to minimize potential negative impacts on marine wildlife populations by maintaining normal daily and seasonal activity patterns in the short and long terms; and second, to provide the best viewing opportunities such that watchers have ability to enjoy and learn about wildlife through observation, whether for pleasure, commerce or research purposes, with the objective of sustaining all such activities.
In addition to these conservation objectives, some guidelines are intended to manage vessel traffic in order to fairly and efficiently move vessels through transition zones as well as in the viewing area. These are intended to increase viewing opportunities for all persons and further minimize the impact on the various animals.
The industry, government and non-governmental organization conservation management model employed in these waters (and initiated by the Pacific Whale Watch Association) is one of the most comprehensive self-management conservation frameworks in the world. It has been proven to be one of the most utilized conservation tools wherever charistmatic, protected megafauna are viewed, and has been presented at the Conference of the North American Committee for Environmental Cooperation (NACEC) attended by the United States, Canada and Mexico.
These Best Practices Guidelines are to be applied by all members’ vessels and those others who wish to manage their vessels responsibly while in the presence of marine wildlife. Member vessel operators are required to review and be proficient in the application of these Best Practices Guidelines.
It is worthy of note that these Best Practices Guidelines are significantly more stringent than the laws and regulations currently in effect in both Canada and the United States. Where a situation has not been addressed in these Best Practices Guidelines, it is the intention that the prevailing federal regulation of the relevant jurisdiction be observed. In Canada, that is the Fisheries Act and Species at Risk Act (SARA) in the United States that is the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and Endangered Species Act (ESA). Member vessel operators are required to be thoroughly familiar with the sets of regulations and ensure compliance at all times, in addition to complying with those PWWA Best Practices Guidelines.
(left) BC Regulations; (Right) Washington Regs.
Operation of Vessels in the Vicinity of Resident Killer Whales
1. A vessel shall approach an area of known or suspected whale activity with extreme caution.
2. A vessel within ½ mile (880 yards) of a whale is considered to be in the vicinity of whales and is required to abide by all of these Best Practices Guidelines as are relevant.
3. If a vessel operator is unaware of the whales’ location he must maintain a vigilant watch for whales at all times. Mere observation of whale watching vessels in the distance does not fulfill this responsibility as individual whales may be encountered anywhere and at any time. Maintaining a vigilant watch often includes significant speed reductions.
4. A vessel approaching the vicinity of whales – within ½ mile (880 yards) of a whale – is considered to be in the slow-down zone and must gradually reduce speed such that the vessel speed is no more than 7 knots at ½ mile (880 yards) off or closer. This speed transition shall also be observed when dis-engaging the vicinity of whales.
5. As the vessel approaches, the distribution of whales and the positioning of other viewing vessels should be surveyed. Communication with other member vessels is strongly encouraged at this point (on the designated marine radio frequency).
6. A vessel approaching the vicinity of whales from behind must also apply the Parallel Viewing Sequence once inside ½ mile (880 yards) of the nearest whale or within ¼ mile (440 yards) of a vessel maintaining its priority paralleling sequence. A vessel may disengage the area to reposition at any time. (See Parallel Viewing Sequence).
7. A vessel approaching the vicinity of whales from the side must apply the Parallel Viewing Sequence once inside ½ mile (880 yards) of the nearest whale or within ¼ mile (440 yards) of a vessel maintaining its priority paralleling sequence. A vessel may disengage the area to reposition at any time. (See Parallel Viewing Sequence.)
Parallel Viewing Sequence:
8. A vessel approaching the vicinity of whales from behind or from the side must apply parallel viewing sequence once inside ½ mile (880 yards) of the nearest whale or within ¼ mile (440 yards) of a vessel maintaining its priority paralleling sequence. A vessel may disengage the area to reposition at any time.
9. When approaching a whale or group of whales from behind or from the side the vessel operator must ensure his vessel moves to the outside of the nearest group of whales, and outside the vessels already accompanying these whales, and head in a direction parallel to the direction these whales are traveling, maintaining existing view angles of all vessels previously on scene.
10. Vessels in more favorable positions should limit their time in that position to fifteen minutes and then allow other vessels engaged in viewing that more favorable position.
11. Vessels should stay to the outside of the whale(s) they are watching, maintaining the vessel on the ocean (deep-water) side of the whales farthest away from shore.
12. Vessels should travel in a direction parallel to the direction the whales are traveling, maintaining a minimum distance of 100 yards (300 feet), 100 meters (328) feet, when in Canadian waters.
13. A vessel’s speed should be the same as the whale’s speed or slower. However, when traveling slower than the speed of the whales, a vessel relinquishes its priority sequence. This technique is generally used to disengage the vicinity of whales when the intention is to break away and return to port.
14. A vessel approaching the vicinity of whales from ahead must apply the Stop & Wait or Parallel Viewing Sequence once inside ½ mile (880 yards) of the nearest whale or within ¼ mile (440 yards) of a vessel maintaining its priority sequence and waiting for the whales to arrive.
Stop & Wait Viewing Sequence:
15. A vessel approaching a whale or group of whales from the side or from behind may apply the Stop & Wait Viewing Sequence but only if it does not engage in viewing, namely maintains a minimum distance of ½ mile (880 yards) from the nearest whale and the nearest whale watching vessel and moves to approach the whales from ahead (see above).
16. When approaching a whale or a group of whales from ahead the vessel operator must ensure his vessel enters the sequence of viewing vessels such that all other vessels on scene prior to his vessel will all be afforded a viewing opportunity prior to his vessel, given that the current course of the whales at the particular time predicts the whale’s most likely course.
17. Each whale in the vicinity must be allowed to pass a minimum of 1/8th mile (220 yards) before repositioning.
18. Repositioning is most relevant to vessels utilizing the Stop & Wait Viewing Sequence. To reposition a vessel must disengage the vicinity of whales by allowing each whale in the vicinity to pass a minimum of 1/8th mile (220 yards) before repositioning. The vessel then proceeds on a course perpendicular to the current course of the particular whales at a maximum speed of 7 knots until it is at lease ½ mile (880 yards) away from the nearest whale after which point it can make the speed transition to reposition. This is the minimum required buffer zone and, in addition, the vessel must be outside and behind any other vessel engaged in a similar maneuver, maintaining its current priority sequence. At this point the vessel is able to engage in viewing and able to employ either viewing sequence.
19. A vessel within ½ mile (880 yards) of a whale is considered to be in the vicinity of whales.
20. A vessel within ¼ mile (440 yards) of a whale is considered to be in the vicinity of whales and engaging in viewing.
At All Times in the Vicinity of Whales:
21. It is incumbent on the vessel operator to be able to recognize resting behavior.
22. A vessel shall not approach a resting whale from behind, leaving a minimum clearance of 1/8th mile (220 yards).
23. A vessel shall not approach a resting whale from ahead or be ahead of resting whales while in the vicinity of whales.
24. A vessel in the vicinity of a resting whale shall always employ the Parallel Viewing Sequence. The Stop & Wait Viewing Sequence shall not be utilized at anytime when whales are resting in the vicinity, unless the vessel is maneuvered in such a manner that the nearest whale passes the vessel a minimum of 200 yards (300 feet), 100 meters (328 feet) when in Canadian waters.
25. Whenever a vessel is upwind of and in the vicinity of a whale, engine exhaust emissions are to be minimized, either by shutting down one or more main and auxiliary engines.
26. A vessel shall limit its cumulative time in the vicinity of whales on any one tour to a maximum of 33% of the scheduled tour length. For a 3-hour this is a maximum of 1 hour spent in the vicinity of whales. Vessels should further limit the amount of time in the vicinity of whales on days when there are a large numbers of vessels with the animals. On these occasions vessels should spend more of their tour observing other marine wildlife (birds, porpoises, seals, etc.) in other locations.
27. A vessel shall not leapfrog, that is to repeatedly nameouver to intercept the course of the whales. Vessels are, however, able to disengage the vicinity of whales and subsequently re-engage the vicinity of whales.
28. When possible, all sonar, depth sounders, fish finders and other underwater transducers should be shut off whenever a vessel is in the vicinity of whales.
29. Vessels shall ensure a boat-free foraging zone for whales when they are near shore by maintaining a position seaward of the whales and not positioning within 1/8 mile (220 yards) of any shoreline when whales are in the vicinity.
30. When in U.S. waters, all vessels will maintain a minimum 200 yards boat-free path on the side of whales, and 400 yards in front of and behind whales.
31. When in Canadian waters, all vessels will maintain a 100 yards boat-free path around all whales.
Operation of Vessels in the Vicinity of Transient Killer Whales
1. All Best Practices Guidelines as they relate to resident killer whales are applicable and must be followed with the following modifications.
2. It is incumbent on the vessel operator to be able to recognize a transient killer whale.
3. The Parallel Viewing Sequence must be applied when engaged in viewing transient killer whales, when they are in transit.
4. Either the Parallel Viewing Sequence or the Modified Stop & Wait Sequence may be employed when engaged in viewing transient killer whales when they are not in transit.
5. The Modified Stop & Wait Viewing Sequence employs the techniques of the Stop & Wait Viewing Sequence for Resident Killer Whales with the following modifications: a. The minimum distance off in all cases is 1/8th mile (200 yards); b. A vessel shall not allow a transient killer whale to pass within 1/8th mile (220 yards) while engines are running; c. If engines are shut down, it is permissible to allow a transient killer whale to pass within 1/8th mile (220 yards).
Operation of Vessels in the Vicinity of Migratory Baleen Whales
1. All Best Practices Guidelines as they relate to resident killer whales are applicable and must be followed with the following modifications.
2. It is incumbent on the vessel operator to be able to recognize gray, humpback and minke whales.
3. Either the Parallel Viewing Sequence or the Stop & Wait Viewing Sequence may be employed when engaged in the viewing of baleen whales.
Operation of Vessels Around Pinnipeds
1. When approaching pinniped haul-outs, vessels should slow such that at 100 yards there is minimal wash.
2. At the fist sign of disturbance (sea lions sitting up and shifting position or harbor seals bouncing on their bellies) vessels should slowly back away.
3. Avoid loud noise or sudden rapid movements. Particular caution should be exercised during pupping season (early summer).
Operation of Vessels Around Birds
1. Caution should be exercised when approaching birds on land or on the water. Approach slowly, watch for signs of agitation and leave slowly.
2. Birds on the water should be given as wide a berth as is practical. Disturbance while fishing may be more detrimental than disturbance while resting on land. There is a great deal of variation in how different species respond to marine traffic.
3. Cormorants are particularly sensitive to disturbances when nesting although all nesting birds should be avoided. Extra caution should be exercised from nesting through fledging (beginning of May to the end of August). Vessels should approach very slowly and remain at least 100 yards from the rookeries.
4. All operators should be aware of areas designated as refuges and remain 200 yards away.
Operation of Vessels Around Porpoises
1. Operators should be able to distinguish harbor porpoises from Dall’s porpoises.
2. When harbor porpoises are encountered, vessels should either (1) disengage the area and leave them alone or (2) if they wish to observe them, either (a) reduce speed as low as possible and maintain their course to their next destination or (b) STOP with engine off or in neutral and observe. Under no circumstances should vessels attempt to engage harbor porpoises in bow-riding.
3. When Dall’s porpoises are encountered vessels should either (a) continue their course and speed or (b) STOP and observe. If the porpoises decide to bow-ride vessels should continue their course and adjust their speed accordingly. Vessels should not repeatedly drive through groups of Dall’s porpoises in order to encourage them to bow-ride. If no porpoises are interesting in bow-riding after two passes, either continue on your way or stop to observe.
4. When more than one vessel is with the same group of Dall’s porpoises that are actively bow-riding, they should communicate and/or have one of the vessels parallel at a safe distance so that passengers can observe the bow-riding on the other vessel.
Race Rocks Proposed Marine Protection Area
1. Race Rocks will likely be designated as Canada’s first Marine Protected Area. It has been chosen as a prototype for the creation of other Marine Protected Areas across Canada.
2. The Pacific Whale Watch Association has worked collaboratively with all stakeholders and the Canadian Government in the development of these Best Practices Guidelines for the Race Rocks Marine Protected Area, which apply equally to all vessels, whether commercial or private, whether intending to view wildlife of otherwise transiting the area.
3. Race Rocks is recognized as an area which can be utilized to educate viewers on the richness of the biodiversity of the Pacific Northwest coastline to assist in the raising of public awareness for the benefit of resident wildlife species.
4. Vessels will allow for a speed transition by slowing their approach to Race Rocks such that speed at 1/8th mile (220 yards) from any rock or landmass is reduced to minimal wake and wash, relative to the condition of the sea state at the particular time. This Go Slow Zone extends 1/8th mile (220 yards) around every rock and landmass in the Race Rocks area.
5. Vessels in the Go Slow Zone will remain as close to mid-channel as is practicable between the major rock outcroppings know as North Race Rock, West Race Rock and Helicopter Rock.
6. While in the Go Slow Zone vessels will transit the area with the current whenever conditions are suitable to do so.
7. Vessels exiting he area will allow for a speed transition.
8. Vessels will remain outside all of the Go Slow Zone whenever Resident, Transient or Off Shore Killer Whales are present in the Go Slow Zone.
Lime Kiln Light House San Juan Island Special Operating Area
1. Vessels will remain a minimum of ½ mile (880 yards) from the light beacon of the Light House at Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island when whales are in the vicinity.
West Side of San Juan Island Special Operating Area
1. Vessels will remain a minimum of ¼ mile (440 yards) from the main shoreline of the west side of San Juan Island when between the southern most point of Henry Island in the north and the north side of Pile Point in the south when whales are in the vicinity.
1. Vessels engaged in viewing or in the vicinity of whales will monitor the Marine VHF Radio frequency designated from time to time by this Association, in addition to those frequencies required to be monitored by regulation.
2. Radio transmissions should be courteous, helpful, to the point, use appropriate language and be brief. Passengers in other vessels and in dispatch offices are able to hear transmissions.
3. Brevity of radio transmissions is particularly important when discussing location and travel patterns of the whales. This is in order to minimize the broadcasting of the whales’ location.
1. PWWA members will ensure that the services of an appropriately educated, trained and experienced naturalist or biologist are available to passengers aboard their vessels at all time.
2. PWWA members will ensure that passengers aboard their vessels are informed of these Best Practices Guidelines and how they relate to marine wildlife viewing and species conservation.
3. Operators are encouraged to maintain a logbook of sightings of all types of creatures including birds, cetaceans, pinnipeds and other animals of interest and make it available to researchers.
1. A vessel with a hydrophone down should fly the hydrophone down flag (letter ‘R’ in the international system).
2. Any vessel flying the hydrophone down flag should monitor the designated marine VHF frequency.
3. Vessels approaching a stationary vessel flying the hydrophone down flag should establish communications and move to a position likely suitable to the stationary vessel as quickly as possible and shut down the engines at the earliest time.
4. A vessel dis-engaging the vicinity of whales should communicate its intention to do so to any vessel engaged in the viewing with a hydrophone down prior to the commencement of its dis-engagement to ensure minimal interference.
1. PWWA should ensure their vessels are always operated in a manner respectful of other vessels and their passengers.
2. A vessel should not take a course between another vessel and the animals its passengers are observing or between another vessel and shoreline.
3. A vessel should not accelerate or pass near other vessels.
4. Loudspeakers and public address systems should not be used near shore, especially in inhabited residential areas, or when boats are closely grouped.
5. A complaint of the actions of another member’s vessel should not be voiced over the VHF radio. These discussions should be in person, by telephone or by using a courtesy reminder after the incident.
Research and Education
1. PWWA members support local whale watch research by providing written records of sighting information to bona fide research groups and through PWWA-approved financial support to research activity.
2. PWWA members should not address non-compliance of the Best Practice Guidelines or of legislative non-compliance except in the most extreme of cases. Compliance enforcement is not the role of PWWA nor do PWWA member have any legislative authority to take any action whatsoever. If unavoidable, courteous and educational approaches should be taken and then only in the most flagrant violations. Report flagrant violations to the competent authority or the relevant jurisdiction.
If you see any discrepancies or have any comments or suggestions, please contact the Pacific Whale Watch Association.