Orca experts and residents urge action after seeing boaters harassing orcas

VIDEO: Frustration over video showing boaters getting close to orcas

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — Orca experts and people living in the South Sound are frustrated over videos showing boaters getting dangerously close to the animals. In some cases, it appears the orcas are forced to dive deep to avoid the vessels.

Eileen Coleman shot video from her dock that depicts boats surrounding the orcas as they swam near Fox Island.

“I’ve seen it so many times now—unfortunately—that it doesn’t shock me anymore,” Gig Harbor resident Amy Bliss-Miller said. “It made me really sad. It always makes me sad and it makes me mad.”

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When Bliss-Miller heard about the orcas in the area on Tuesday, she drove down to Narrows Park on the shores of the Tacoma Narrows to watch them go by.

She shot video capturing a boat bee-lining toward them. It appears they dived to avoid the vessel.

“They’re chasing the orca and the orca dives and the people go right up to the spot where the orca just submerged,” she said.

Bliss-Miller wasn’t the only one frustrated and angered by the crowds.

“We saw the whale spouting and saw all these boats chasing them really closely,” Linda Gruvman said. She saw the harassment continue farther south in Hale Passage.

“I did see one particular boat that we thought was less than 50 feet from the whales,” she said.

Julie Poe and her husband, who live in Cromwell, also saw the boats chasing the whales and called their actions “incredibly unsafe.”

“We just sat there in shock,” she said. “We couldn’t believe it. They just kept coming. They were on both sides of them. They were behind them. They were in front of them.”

Poe said her husband believes he saw a calf amidst the approximately two dozen boats and other watercraft.

“I saw two jet skiers, and they were the ones who were probably being the most aggressive,” Julie Poe, who lives in Cromwell, said. “It’s been six days, I’m still upset about it… it was just heartbreaking.”

According to federal regulations, boats are supposed to stay 400 yards behind and in front of orcas and 300 yards to either side. For transient orcas, the regulations is 200 yards on either side, but most people can’t tell the difference between southern resident orcas and transients.

“I think more needs to be said to our legislators—more needs to be done to get more enforcement out on the water,” Executive Director of Orca Conservancy Shari Tarantino said. Tarantino said education through legislation is a badly needed part as well.

“So that when people are registering their boats and they’re signing up for their licensing to go out on the water—that there’s more information given on the marine life and what the be-whale-wise guidelines are,” she said.

In the meantime, Bliss-Miller and a friend have taken action and launched a Facebook page, Central and South Sound Wildlife Sightings and Education, to document sightings, educate people, and report violators.

She says the area is filled with people passionate about protecting and appreciating the animals.

“There’s a lot of people out here with fancy cameras with big lenses and we can see your boat name, we can see your boat registration numbers, we can see you on the boat,” she said. “You’re just ruining it for the orcas and for other people.”

To report people harassing orcas and to share video and photos of the incidents, call the NOAA enforcement hotline at 1-800-853-1964. Fines can range from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars.