Understanding Whale Watching from Kayaks on San Juan Island

Image from Be Whale Wise

Often when guest show up for a kayak tour they do not know about regulations and guidelines  kayak operators follow while whales are in the area. So I hope this post will help clarify what you can expect when you arrive for your kayak tour.

First off it is important to note the Southern Resident Killer Whale’s (SRKWs) are listed on the endangered species list. With the listing many of the previous guidelines became laws.

Historically all kayak operators voluntarily maintained 100 yards from killer whales. The 100 yards over time became state and federal law. When the SRKWs were listed as endangered the 100 yards was pushed back to 200 yards and 400 yards from the travel path of the whales. Defining the travel path can be one of the more difficult things to do. The travel path is the area forward of the animal and behind the animal. So think of drawing a straight line from head to tail and extend the line out 400 yards forward and behind the animal. The 200 yard wording defines the distance we have to maintain from the left and right side of the animals. Reading this may make it seem impossible to ever achieve any of this while in a kayak.

So I’d like to break it down into real world application. As a kayak guides we take a cautious stance to operating around the killer whales. If we know whales are in the area we will maintain a position near shore and always to the inshore side of the animals. If the animals are traveling 400 yards are more from the shore we are free to move and paddle the inshore area as long as we maintain legal distance from the whales. If we happen to be offshore and we see the whales approaching we will immediately move towards shore. We are free to move as long as we are 400 yards or more from the animals path. If we are not able to clear the path before the animals are within 400 yards we will stop paddling and raft the kayaks together and wait for the whales to clear the area. We will never paddle or position ourselves to “accidentally” be caught in the travel path of the animals.

In our minds when we arrive and see whales, immediately we are going to assess the situation to see if the whales are even far enough from shore for us to launch kayaks. While traveling the shoreline and whales approach within 200 yards, guides will seek areas away from headlands to raft kayaks and enjoy viewing the animals. If the animals approach us when we are off of headlands and rafted inshore there is little we can do at this point. We have done all we can do and will maintain a rafted position until the animals clear the area.

So what does all this mean to you when you join a kayak tour. Firstly, all guide operating from San Juan Co Park have completed the Kayak Education Leadership Program (KELP). This is a required certification by San Juan Co Parks. When you arrive your guide or certified office staff will inform you of all the laws and regulations kayaking around wildlife. Note that all laws and regulations are put in place to protect the wildlife and prevent disturbances that could interfere with the daily life of the animals. Protection is key to sustaining a future for all the animals we encounter. Whale encounters from kayaks are a special experience and respecting their space should be an obvious priority of any visitor.

My goal is to inform potential guest who believe we are going to pursue the animals and try to be as close as possible to the whales, simply is not how we operate. Close encounters with killer whales can happen when we have exhausted all options to maintain distance and the whale continue to approach. We ask you to understand and learn from your guide the pressures the animals face and that recovery of the animals is a slow process. We do understand the desire and the amazement of encountering killer whales in the wild. We will always provide you with an wonderful San Juan Island kayak tour experience with or without a whale encounter.

Discovery Sea Kayaks are members of the San Juan Island Kayak Association (SJIKA). SJIKA was involved in the process creating guidelines for commercial kayakers. These guidelines have been endorsed by the Whale Museum and federal agencies involved with the recovery of SRKWs. The guidelines go beyond the minimum standards and promote the well being of all the wildlife in the region.

I hope this information will help future kayakers visiting San Juan Island understand how commercial companies operate. We do encounter whales but do our best to do so in a noninvasive manner.

Below is a copy of the SJIKA Guidlines

Wildlife Viewing Guidelines for the San Juan Island Kayak Association

As members of the San Juan Island Kayak Association (SJIKA), we adhere to and promote the below best practice guidelines for wildlife and whale interactions in our region.
1. Commercial kayak tours shall follow all local, state, and federal laws and guidelines governing     behavior around killer whales and other wildlife.
2. Commercial kayak tours will not intentionally position themselves or paddle into the path of killer whales.

3. When killer whales are approaching, commercial kayak tours will make their way to the nearest shore, to avoid the potential path of killer whales.

4. When killer whales are present and at least 200 yards offshore, commercial kayak tours will operate within 100 yards of shore to avoid the potential path of killer whales.

5. When killer whales are present, commercial kayak tours will stop paddling and raft up as close to shore as possible.  Commercial kayak tours will avoid headlands when deciding where to raft up, in order to avoid being in the potential path of killer whales.

6. If commercial kayak tours, while following all SJIKA guidelines find themselves within 200 yards of killer whales, they shall immediately raft up and stop paddling until the whales have passed.

7. When commercial kayak tours are stopped at public beaches, they shall not launch with the intention of placing themselves in the path or within 200 yards of killer whales.  The best practice in this situation would be to view the whales from shore.

8. Commercial kayak tours shall avoid haul out areas for seals and other marine mammals whenever possible.  Tours shall make wide arcs of 100 yards or greater to avoid disturbing these marine mammals.

9. Commercial kayak tours shall maintain 100 yards or greater from bird nesting sites.

10. Commercial kayak tours will stay 200 yards or greater from all wildlife refuges.

11. There are sensitive times of the year for harbor seals and nesting birds.  During these times, tours will use extra caution and increase viewing distances appropriate to the animals.

12. When approaching wildlife areas, guides shall place themselves as the closest kayak to the wildlife to assure proper distances are maintained.

13. All commercial kayak tours shall educate their guests on SJIKA guidelines prior to launching.

14. SJIKA member kayak tour companies agree to visibly identify themselves as members of the SJIKA, so that they may be identified as setting a standard for wildlife viewing.