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Skinny orcas bring emergency order for whale-watchers to keep distance

SEATTLE — In an effort to protect skinny, pregnant and endangered killer whales this summer, commercial whale-watching boats are under an emergency order to stay a half nautical mile away from southern resident orcas.

Other boaters during the Fourth of July holiday weekend are also urged to be extra careful out on the water so as not to disturb any whales — particularly the local southern residents.

A killer whale expert with the state told KIRO 7 on Friday that at last count, there were only 73 southern resident orcas left.

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Twelve of the orcas were determined to be too skinny for their age.

“Those whales have a much higher likelihood of dying in the next several months,” said Julie Watson, orca policy leader with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The good news is that several of the orcas are pregnant, but it is a very vulnerable time for them, as female orcas in particular will give up combing for food when boats come within 400 yards. That means boat proximity is very concerning for pregnant or nursing mothers caring for their calves.

“Whales often give up on trying to forage when boats are nearby,” Watson said. “So we’re trying to give them as much space as possible.”

Photos provided by WDFW showed orca J27 from 2018 to 2022. You can see the adult male orca is much thinner now.

On Thursday, WDFW issued an emergency order requiring commercial whale-watching boats to stay at least a half nautical mile away from southern residents orcas — which equals .57 miles, or 1012.7 yards.

All other boaters are urged to do the same, though the law requires you to stay 400 yards away from their path and 300 yards away from them on either side.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association reminds you: Whales can be hard to spot.

“They spend a lot of time under the surface,” said Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.”So while you’re operating, make sure you’re always scanning for what we call their ‘spout’ — when they come up to the surface and breathe.” Gless said that in order to spot a “spout,” people should “look for their fins, look for splashing,” and look for “a lot of birds in the area.”

The group “Be Whale Aware” shares this video with additional guidelines, like what to do if you suddenly see a whale close by.

“If a whale approaches you, turn off your engine and depth sounders completely, and allow the whale to pass,” the video says.

If you’re hoping to whale watch, other whales that are not endangered have guidelines that allow for closer viewing.

Boaters should stay at least 100 yards — or a football field — away from humpbacks, gray whales and minke whales.

For other killer whales (referred to as transient whales) that eat mammals instead of salmon, you should stay at least 200 yards away.

However, if you can’t tell the difference between the killer whales, your best bet is to stay at a distance.

Watson said it’s best to “give them extra space” so that the “southern resident orca population that’s really struggling” will be better able to “find food and hear.”

Getting too close to a southern resident orca could net a boater a fine of $300 to $3,000.

You can report violations to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Enforcement at 877-933-9847 or online at BeWhaleWise.org.