Seven whale watching companies in Juneau are the first in the state to participate in a voluntary stewardship program that challenges them to go above and beyond federal and state viewing guidelines. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has brought the East Coast program Whale SENSE to Alaska.
It’s a windy day at Statter Harbor in Juneau, where Dolphin Jet Boat Tours stage trips. A new orange Whale SENSE flag adorns each vessel, “so that other boats on the water can see that we’re a member of Whale SENSE and then they know that we’re well trained and carefully observing all the guidelines and protecting the whales,” says Kathleen Turley, port captain for Dolphin. She’s been with the company for 12 years and does everything from maintaining the boats to being an on-board naturalist.
Each tour begins with an educational Whale SENSE talk.
“We’re informing the passengers about the stewardship aspect of the whales, that we’re not just here to see the whales, we’re here to protect them,” Turley says.
Federal regulations include a hard rule requiring that vessels keep 100 yards away from a humpback whale. Beyond that distance, the rule is to be “slow” and “safe.” Whale SENSE is more specific and has a tiered set of speed guidelines that start one mile from a whale.
“Basically it’s what we do anyway because you don’t want to just roar up on a whale or leave rapidly or anything like that. I think it’s helpful for new captains especially that haven’t been doing this for a long time,” Turley says.
Other guidelines include additional training and coordinating location and viewing times with other vessels. Program participants go through on-board evaluations. Juneau companies Alaska Galore Tours, Allen Marine Tours, Gastineau Guiding, Juneau Whale Watching Tours, Orca Enterprises and Rum Runner Charters are all part of Whale SENSE.
In return, NOAA and Whale SENSE advertise participating companies on their websites. And the companies know they’re taking the extra step to be more responsible.
For the most part Suzie Teerlink says the industry in Juneau does a good job of respecting the whales. Teerlink is a doctoral student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She’s been studying Juneau humpback whales and the whale watching industry.
“Even though companies generally are following the regulations, because of the growth of the industry and the number of vessels on the water, there was just need for more,” Teerlink says.
In the early 1990s, Teerlink says there were no whale watching boats in Juneau. Now, she estimates there are about 35. She’s heard operators complain of overcrowding. She calculates the industry generates in Juneau between $20 and $25 million a year.
NOAA Fisheries marine mammal specialist Aleria Jensen coordinates Whale SENSE Alaska. Worldwide, she says whale watching is a multibillion dollar industry.
“How are we going to make our little piece of that industry in Juneau sustainable? Because we’re on the map as a whale watching destination, we’re probably one of the top destinations and it’s thrilling that we can offer this experience to visitors but we need to do it right and we need to be really careful about how we behave around them,” Jensen says.
Jensen doesn’t see the growth of the whale watching industry leveling off anytime soon. She says the humpback whale population in the North Pacific is growing at a rate of 5 to 7 percent each year, and with more whales come more vessels to watch them.