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Guardians of the sea: The role of whale-watching vessels in B.C.

"We kind of consider ourselves to be their guardians, so to speak,” says Erin Gless with the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

Whale watching in B.C. is an industry that has been popular for decades and as it evolves so does the need to make sure endangered whales are staying safe. 

In Vancouver, a large yellow vessel is loaded with tourists and locals, all wanting to catch a glimpse of the majestic mammals. Captain Anthony Kaulfuss spends his days on the water for Prince of Whales Whale Watching and has been working for the company for 12 years.

“We've really shifted our viewing from the southern resident killer whales to the Bigg's (transient) orcas and humpbacks,” he says.

He keeps his eyes on the water while glancing at his radar to watch for the animals. 

"Obviously, the southern resident killer whales, their population isn't doing as well,” he says. “But on the flip side, we're seeing more and more Bigg's transient orcas every single year, new babies, and same with humpbacks.”

Kaulfuss explains how he still gets excited every day to see the humpback whales, which are his favourite. 

He and all other boaters have to stay back at least 200 metres from the animals. Kaulfuss likes to add a buffer. 

“I always set it to 250 (metres),” he tells Glacier Media. 

Whale-watching vessels want their clients to have a whale-watching show, but more importantly, they want the marine mammals to be safe, he adds. Kaulfuss is always ready to alert other pleasure boats or commercial traffic of any whales so they keep their distance and "manoeuvre around."

“We do that with ferries, pleasure boaters and also use the WhaleReport app, which has a large vessel notification system.”

Whale-watching vessels not only watch over the animals but also make sure other boaters know the rules; they'll be the first to point out if a boater is doing an illegal act that could harm the whales.

“We really kind of see ourselves almost as lifeguards out there on the water. We help to mark their location, we help to communicate what the proper regulations are to other boaters in the area. We kind of consider ourselves to be their guardians, so to speak,” says Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. 

The association is an advocacy group of eco-tourism professionals who work to conserve, educate and ensure whale watching is done in a responsible manner in B.C. and Washington State.

“It's really important that when we're out there on a tour, we are acting sustainably and in the best interest of the wildlife because we've been doing this for decades. And we want to be doing this for many, many decades to come,” says Gless. 

This is done by ultimately giving the whales respect and making sure they feel comfortable in the area that they’re protected in, she notes.

“Humpback whales are doing phenomenally. [They’re having] lots and lots of babies every year. We’ve had several calves already reported this season,” she says.

While Kaulfuss is operating his vessel, he finds two large humpback whales and keeps a distance from them so they can continue sleeping just below the surface. 

“Even though it's maybe not the most exciting thing when I see a whale sleeping, that's actually a good sign for me,” says Gless, suggesting the whale hasn't been disturbed by boaters.

Whale-watching vessels spend a lot of time in the water and will report whales in distress immediately, she adds. 

“These are things that we're doing on a daily basis that a lot of folks don't necessarily think about a whale-watcher job being,” she says. They'll mark the whale's location to warn others and share information with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 

Back in June, a whale-watching tour company in Campbell River took photographs of a speeding boater who came within a few metres of colliding with a humpback whale. 

“It was disrespectful and unacceptable — and a very scary moment for all of us,” ­Jenefer Smalley with Wild Waterways Adventures said of the June 29 incident near Quadra Island. “The boater could have easily been killed at that speed and the whale killed or maimed.”

Fisheries and Oceans Canada was notified of the incident, and the boat number and driver were identified after the whale-watching company's social media posts about the very close call drew widespread attention.

Meanwhile, last week, BC Ferries revealed one of their vessels had hit a humpback whale for the second time since late July.

“It’s disturbing, quite frankly. We take these things really seriously because they happen so rarely. I can’t stress that enough,” BC Ferries president Nicholas Jimenez said Aug. 31.

A total of eight humpback whales have been hit by vessels off B.C.'s coast between July 20 and Aug. 11. 

Times Colonist reported the collisions included a large catamaran ferry, a cruise ship, a pleasure boat and the previously mentioned BC Ferries incidents. 

The industry is aiding marine mammal research 

Gless understands that many people consider whale watching to just be a tourism industry but wants the public to know they do a lot more. 

“We are very heavily involved in whale research,” she says. “We communicate a lot with researchers in the area, send them our photos of whales. We spend a lot more time on the water than they do."

The Pacific Whale Watch Association, established in 1999, started with professional operators making sure there would be rules in place for their profession to be sustainable. 

"Over time, as we learn more about whales, those rules have evolved. So for example, we now give extra space to whales that have calves with them, just to give them a little bit of an extra buffer,” says Gless.

They’ve also learned about speed and its impacts on the whales.

"It's also really important to travel slowly and so that's another guideline that has evolved over time. We really emphasize now slow whale watching,” she says.

Sean MacConnachie, section head of Aquatic Ecosystem and Marine Mammal Science at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, says whale-watching vessels are the eye and ears of what is going on with marine mammals, specifically in the Salish Sea. 

"They're definitely involved in the B.C. cetaceans sighting network, which is an independent group that houses and collects data on observations of all sorts of marine mammals, mostly cetaceans,” says MacConnachie. “The entire research community is heavily reliant on that."

Whale-watching vessels that have purple flags displayed have agreed to approach only non-southern resident killer whales and will not bring any tourism vessels near the southern resident populations. 

It’s an industry MacConnachie says has evolved "to really be more diligent in their behaviour.” 

He believes that there are some groups or individual companies that aren't as diligent, but overall he thinks most of them are "pretty darn good.”

Gless notes the Pacific Whale Watch Association invented rules for whale watching before they even existed. 

“One of the things that's really nice about Vancouver is that we have a year-round whale presence, but that means that we also have to have year-round whale vigilance,” she says. “We're constantly just trying to raise awareness about the types of whales that we have in this area and what we can do to help them.”

MacConnachie says it's not just whale-watch operators who contribute to the well-being and health of the mammals.

“We all have a role to play in the conservation of marine mammals, whether it's government or an industry or recreational boaters and observers,” he says.

“We all need to work together to reduce the impacts."