There may be few wildlife encounters more spectacular than catching sight of some of the ocean’s most majestic creatures from the bow of a kayak.
Sea kayakers in search of such bucket-list opportunities along U.S. coastlines may be lucky enough to glimpse endangered humpback whales wintering in the warm waters off Maui, dolphins playing in pods off the coast of Virginia Beach, Virginia, or humpback whales migrating through Monterey Bay, California.
From May to October, the inland waters of Washington state are a top kayaking destination to observe killer whales (also known as orcas) in their natural habitat. A unique population of endangered orcas, known as southern resident killer whales, makes their home in the Salish Sea and feeds primarily on chinook salmon. Each year tens of thousands of boaters, kayakers and others flock to the area around the San Juan Islands in Washington state for a chance to catch sight of the black-and-white killer whales.
It’s Taylor Shedd’s job to make sure whale enthusiasts do so responsibly.
“People have the right to see them, to engage with them, to be awed. They’re a public resource. You just have to do it responsibly,” he said.
Shedd is program director of the Soundwatch Boater Education Program with The Whale Museum located on San Juan Island. His crew and volunteers are out on the water every summer educating recreational boaters on how to observe marine wildlife in ways that don’t disrupt the animals as they swim, feed or communicate with each other.
Last year, Shedd’s program contacted more than 1,500 boaters on the water and helped educate more than 10,000 kayakers who launched from San Juan County Park.
Across the U.S., local, state and federal laws ensure that people enjoying marine wildlife don’t disturb or harm the animals. All marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, so it’s illegal to harass, feed, or otherwise disrupt their behaviors including resting, nursing, foraging or breeding.
Protecting Endangered Populations
Along the Atlantic coast, it’s illegal to come within 500 yards (the length of five football fields) of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales, which face threats from entanglements from fishing and other gear, vessel collisions and ocean noise. There are only about 450 animals left. (Meanwhile, for dolphins and porpoises, the rule is to stay at least 50 yards away.)
“Giving them space just to be whales is really important,” said Allison Rosner, a marine mammal program specialist with NOAA Fisheries’ Protected Resources in the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. “If you want to see natural behavior, you have to give animals space to behave naturally.”
“People sometimes forget that the animals are engaged in really important behaviors. People just get caught up in the excitement.”
In recent years, as the fish-eating orcas of the Pacific Northwest have struggled to reproduce (they now number just 75 animals, the lowest in more than 30 years), more efforts have focused on how to help them.
The whales are at high risk of extinction. They struggle from complex, interrelated threats: lack of their preferred prey, chemical pollution and disturbance from vessels.
Last summer, a 20-year-old whale known as J35 gave birth to a calf that died soon after. For at least 17 days, the grieving mother whale pushed, carried and kept her dead calf afloat in the water for miles. Shedd and his crew spent 12 of those days tracking the whale over 650 nautical miles and making sure boats kept their distance.
The image of the grieving mother captured worldwide attention and has prompted new legislation around vessels as well as other conservation efforts.
Noise and presence of vessels—even kayaks—can affect orca behavior. Research has shown that the southern resident killer whales spend more time traveling and less time looking for food, and they change their behavior when vessels are close by, according to NOAA Fisheries.
The Washington state legislature on April 24 approved a measure that would put new restrictions on vessels around the whales, including increasing from 200 to 300 yards the distance that boaters would have to give to killer whales. The bill is currently before Gov. Jay Inslee, who has expressed support for it.
Here are some guidelines to kayak responsibly around marine mammals:
Know Your Species
Know when whales are swimming through your area and what signs to watch out for so you can maintain a respectful—and legal—distance. “It’s up to boaters to know the species that they’re looking at,” Rosner said. For example, if you’re traveling in waters where right whales might be spotted, you need to err on the side of maximum caution. “If you’re not sure, make sure you maintain that 500-yard buffer until you figure it out.”
For the southeast U.S., NOAA provides a free ID app to help you identify whales, dolphins and other marine mammals while also learning how to watch them responsibly.
Know the Laws
Laws and regulations vary by region, state and species so check the marine mammal viewing rules. Here’s a glance at just a few. (For reference, remember that 100 yards is the distance of a football field):
- In Washington state inland waters, federal and state law requires that you stay at least 200 yards away from killer whales and 400 yards away from their path of travel. Check for updates because the state has been considering new restrictions to increase that distance to 300 yards.
- It’s illegal to get within 500 yards of North Atlantic right whales anywhere in U.S. waters, though the whales are primarily found along the Atlantic coast.
- In Hawaii and Alaska, remain at least 100 yards from humpback whales.
- Alaska Viewing Guidelines
- New England/Mid-Atlantic Viewing Guidelines
- Viewing Marine Wildlife in Hawaii
- Southeast Viewing Guidelines (pdf, 3.2MB)
- West Coast Viewing Guidelines
Get Out of Their Way
Be prepared to get out of the animals’ way not just for their safety, but for yours as well. Be sure to look in all directions. If a whale approaches close, stop paddling and let the animal pass. If you need to move around, do it from behind the whale and avoid sudden changes in directions. “There’s the misconception that the whales will get out of the way of a boat if a boat gets near them,” Rosner said. She said whales may be too focused on their natural behaviors to know that a boat is there. “With kayakers, if they notice the kayakers are there, they can change behavior, leave the area, not continue foraging. Or the kayakers could be at serious risk. We’ve had examples of whales breaching or capsizing boats. It’s a huge human safety concern.”
Don’t Chase Them
Don’t pursue the whales and don’t approach them head-on. Again, give them plenty of space and don’t ignore the rules just to get that perfect photo or video to share on Facebook. “I tell people, sit back relax and enjoy the show,” said Shedd with the Soundwatch program. “People are so elated and excited to see an orca whale in the wild. They’ve seen ‘Shamu.’ They’ve watched ‘Free Willy.’ They’re so pumped to see a whale. They want to get close. They want to get that postcard photo of the whale breaching with a sailboat and a mountain in the background on a sunny day in the Pacific Northwest.” Those photos already exist elsewhere, so instead, for the health of the animals, people should simply enjoy the experience.
Limit Your Viewing Time
Limit your viewing time to no more than 30 minutes to minimize the cumulative impact on the whales. “Be aware of your own individual impact,” Shedd said, adding that you’re not the only one who wants to get close to the whales on a given day. If there are multiple boats in the area, try to coordinate with the other boat or kayaks (by radio if possible) so everyone gets a chance to view the whales while avoiding corralling or surrounding the animals.
Read and follow the kayaker’s code of conduct, voluntary guidelines developed specific to the Pacific Northwest to help paddlers adhere to laws around whale watching. Among the recommendations: If whales are approaching within 200 yards of shore, inshore paddlers should move as close to shore as possible, ideally in kelp beds, and raft up and stop paddling until the whales have passed. If paddling in a group, kayakers should stay close together. The idea is that when rafted together, the boats look more like one boat rather than multiple obstacles.
Watch Them From Shore Instead
There are plenty of places to see marine mammals from shore. The Whale Trail publishes a guide of more than 100 sites from British Columbia to Southern California where you can watch sea mammals from shore, including Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in Monterey County. One of the best places to see whales in Washington state is from Lime Kiln Point State Park from May to September. Right whales often feed very close to shore so whale watchers can view them from land. For example, the whales can be seen in Cape Cod Bay during the winter and spring. Race Point Beach in Provincetown, Mass., is one spot. The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Sanctuary offers a top 10 list of shoreline locations to watch the whales, from Oahu to Kauai.