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Population of Orcas in San Juan Islands Plummeting

Sam Eaton

The population of orcas in the San Juan Islands is plummeting at a rate so fast, many scientists are predicting the whales could go extinct within 30 years. This threat to the orca’s survival comes at a time when they’re attracting more tourists than ever. As KUOW’S Sam Eaton reports, the killer whales’ popularity may be at odds with their future welfare.

ON ANY GIVEN DAY, BETWEEN APRIL AND SEPTEMBER, WHALE WATCH PARK ON THE WEST SIDE OF SAN JUAN ISLAND IS CROWDED WITH BINOCULAR-CARRYING TOURISTS HOPING TO CATCH A GLIMPSE OF PASSING KILLER WHALES. PEOPLE COME HERE FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD, ENAMORED WITH THESE SLEEK BLACK AND WHITE CREATURES FOR DIFFERENT REASONS. It reminds me of family, because they stick together… I just think they’re beautiful and they make you feel free, they’re just so wild and I don’t know there’s just something about them that I’m attracted to… I’ve got like 3 different kinds of Indian in my blood and it brings me back to my heritage kind of I feel and it’s kind of nice, it’s a good heart-felt feeling. SEEING THE WHALES UP CLOSE IS FOR THESE PEOPLE A REMARKABLE EXPERIENCE. BUT THAT HASN’T ALWAYS BEEN THE CASE. 15 YEARS AGO, BOAT CAPTAIN LISA LAMB WAS ONE OF THE FIRST TO BREAK INTO THE WHALE WATCHING BUSINESS. ON THE DECK OF HER RUSSIAN-BUILT HYDROFOIL, IN BETWEEN A BUSY TOUR SCHEDULE, SHE REMEMBERS THE OLD DAYS WHEN MANY CONSIDERED THE WHALES A NUISANCE. FISHERMEN WOULD EVEN SHOOT AT THE ORCA TO KEEP THEM AWAY FROM THEIR NETS. It was real different then. There’s quite a few of the older animals they have scars, lots of them… they’re packing lead. THE SHOOTING STOPPED AS THE ORCA’S IMAGE WAS TRANSFORMED BY RESEARCH AND THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY. NO LONGER SEEN AS AN AGGRESSIVE KILLER, THE WHALES BECAME STAR ATTRACTIONS IN MOVIES AND THEME PARKS. ON SAN JUAN ISLAND BUSINESSES SAW THIS AS AN OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE MONEY. WHALE WATCHING BOATS FLOURISHED. AND FRIDAY HARBOR BECAME LINED WITH TOURIST SHOPS THAT SELL NOTHING BUT WHALE MEMORABILIA. We specialize in Orca, Killer Whale paraphernalia, anything from socks to caps to sweatshirts to t-shirts, tank tops and everything in between. We have orca business card holders, Orca Christmas ornaments… (fade under) DOUG FORGIE, OWNER OF FRIDAY HARBOR SOUVENIRS AND GIFTS, PRIDES HIMSELF IN HAVING THE WIDEST SELECTION OF ORCA MERCHANDISE IN TOWN. …we have Orca shot glasses, Orca snow globes… FORGIE WAVES A HAND OVER HIS CLUTTERED SHELVES AND CALLS IT GOOD OLD AMERICAN CAPITALISM AT WORK. EVEN THOUGH HE’S CASHING IN ON THE WHALES, FORGIE SEES HIS SHOP AS A VITAL PART OF TOURISTS’ WHALE WATCHING EXPERIENCE. 60 People feel connected with the Orca after they see them in the wild, and it’s kind of like an emotional experience for them. And by us selling the Orca paraphernalia, were keeping that alive. BUT SOME FEAR THE WHOLESALE FOCUS OF SAN JUAN ISLAND TOURISM ON KILLER WHALES SENDS THE WRONG MESSAGE AT A TIME WHEN THE ANIMALS ARE STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE. UP THE STREET AT HIS CABINET-MAKING SHOP, FRIDAY HARBOR MAYOR GARY BOOTHMAN IS CONCERNED THAT PEOPLE ARE LOVING THE WHALES TO DEATH. WITH WHALE WATCH BOATS NOW OUTNUMBERING THE WHALES, HE SAYS SOMETHING IS SERIOUSLY OUT OF BALANCE. I’d like to see us back off, watch them from afar, learn from them from afar, but not have to look at them as though oh jeez let’s go out and see the whales because they’re so cute, well form their perspective they’re not cute, from their perspective they’re trying to exist and get on the way they have for millions of years and let’s hope that in a short period of time we don’t cause them to disappear. IN FRIDAY HARBOR A GROWING NUMBER OF PEOPLE WANT THE WHALE WATCHING BOATS TO BE RESTRICTED TO CERTAIN TIMES AND PLACES. THERE’S EVIDENCE THAT THEIR ENGINE NOISE IS AFFECTING THE ORCA’S ABILITY TO COMMUNICATE AND HUNT FOR FOOD. AS MAYOR, BOOTHMAN STRUGGLES WITH THESE CONCERNS. HE FEELS CAUGHT BETWEEN THE TOWN’S ECONOMIC INTERESTS AND WHAT’S BEST FOR THE WHALES. I sometimes think that we’d be better off if they were just to leave for a while, take a vacation and go someplace else and then we would learn to really recognize their value. And then they would come back and we’d say oh it’s really nice to see you, kind of like a long lost friend. BOOTHMAN SAYS SAVING PUGET SOUND’S KILLER WHALES FROM EXTINCTION IS GOING TO REQUIRE ANOTHER SHIFT IN THE WAY HUMANS PERCEIVE THEM… NOT AS ICONS OF FREEDOM OR BEAUTY, OR AS PETS, BUT AS AN INDICATOR OF THEIR ECOSYSTEM’S HEALTH. HE JUST HOPES THAT CHANGE WON’T COME TOO LATE. IN FRIDAY HARBOR, I’M SAM EATON, KUOW, 94.9, PUBLIC RADIO.