SAN JUAN ISLANDS, Wash. (AP) — Against the backdrop of rocky bluffs, a pod of orcas repeatedly jumped out of the emerald waters of the Puget Sound one recent sunny afternoon before splashing their massive black-and-white bodies back into the water.
Shadowing the whales were several recreational and commercial whale watching vessels that ferry people out to watch the orcas breach, which is one of nature's most impressive spectacles. But the combination of boats and whales has state and federal authorities worried, especially this summer, now that the Southern Resident pod of killer whales has four new calves.
So authorities are sending out orca patrols, asking the boats to give the sea mammals enough space.
By federal and state law, boaters are required to stay 200 yards parallel from the orcas and give them 400 yards in front. It's all part of an effort to create conditions that will help the whales restore their numbers.
"We approximately do 60 shifts per summer solely dedicated to whale protection," said Sgt. Russ Mullins of the Washington state department of Fish and Wildlife.
The Southern Resident killer whales have lost about 20 percent of their population since the 1990s. Dwindling food sources and contamination are two reasons scientists blame for their decreasing numbers. This particular group of whales, now numbering at 81, is endangered. That's why the births of four new calves were welcome news.
"It's a little bit of a baby boom," said Lynne Barre, an orca expert for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "We still have a lot work to do to get to a fully recovered population."
The patrolling officers mostly warn boaters, opting to educate skippers about the laws protecting the marine mammals. Over the past two years, officers have given about 10 tickets and 40-50 written warnings, Mullins said.
The law enforcement presence in the Puget Sound is being funded by a $1 million grant NOAA gave to the state in 2013.
Boats present a whole host of other problems for the whales. For instance, noise from motors interferes with the orcas' echolocation, which they use to find salmon to eat.
"When boats are near the whales, they can change their behavior. They feed less often. They swim in less direct patterns. They also increase these highly energetic surface-active behaviors, like breaching and tail slapping," Barre said.
Breaching, one of the main attractions for whale watchers, could be costing them too much energy, Barre said. Other research shows the orcas talk louder when boats are around.
"I wouldn't want to be in a concert all the day long going deaf," said Elizabeth Seely, coordinator of Soundwatch, an educational outreach program from the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor that sends small boats to remind boaters to give whale their space. The museum estimates that about half a million people come to these waters to watch whales every year, generating up to $50 million for the commercial whale watching industry.
While the commercial whale watching industry is growing, authorities say they've been doing a good job of self-policing. That's not an easy task, said Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which has 34 members.
"We knew you can't have whale watching if you have no whales," Harris said.
So the main focus for officers has been recreational boaters "who either don't know what the rules are, they don't know the impact they could potentially have, or they don't care," Mullins said.