It’s undeniable that whale watching is the highest grossing tourist attraction in the San Juan Islands, with an estimated 500,000 visitors taking part of this activity each year. Its utmost popularity has spurned numerous sets of continuously evolving rules and regulations to address different ecological and environmental concerns about whale watching in San Juan Islands.
Yet, what sets San Juan Islands apart from other tourist destinations is both the predictable summer presence of a community of Orca whales and a commitment to give the whale watching visitors a vivid experience that would spur them to into action to help protect local biodiversity.
The mass appeal of whale watching
Much like the safaris in Africa, whale watching offers a glimpse of marine life in real time. Its popularity is, ironically, bolstered by the fact that animals like whales are becoming endangered due to modern urbanization and industrialization. Because of this, whale watching has become a commercial success across the globe as people clamor for a chance to see whales up-close before they may truly become extinct.
Whale watching actually requires little to no action from its visitors, other than following rules and guidelins before sailing to the sea. For a multimillion-dollar activity, it is interesting that there is no guarantee that you will be fortunate enough to see the whales in action. You are in the wild and nobody controls the appearance of wild whales.
Unlike those found in water parks, whales in the wild don’t know how to perform any tricks on call. Since it is known upfront that all the whales will do is just swim, breathe, and behave naturally (with the occasional whale song in between), what induces people to sit quietly on either land or boat, and wait patiently for a slow-breathing mammal with killer instincts? It has to be unadulterated curiosity.
Whale watching is certainly a novel and exciting idea since huge sea mammals are basically enigmas to us all. Despite the fact that whales are not as friendly nor as entertaining as dolphins, their regal bearing and peaceful nature endears whales to their captive audience.
Killer whales or orcas, in particular, are considered oddly charismatic despite of its predatory nature. Experts agree that the fascination humans have with whales is the sole fact that they are so relatable. In a sense, both people and whales have predatory instincts. Orcas are highly social. They have their own culture, know how to communicate with one another, are protective of their young, and have almost the same lifespan as humans.
The Whale Connection: How whale watching affects tourism in San Juan Islands
It’s hard to give the exact number of visitors San Juan Islands have that were solely drawn by whale watching. After all, there are far too many activities that tourists can do on the islands before, during, or after they watch these giants of the sea. According to the local government, the number of visitors double during the summer months compared to the number who visit off-season.
Over half-a-million people come to San Juan Islands just to ride a private chartered boat and whale watch in the Salish Sea. However, this number does not include those who opt to do some land-based whale watching. Because of this, the San Juan Islands continues to polish their rules and regulations of whale watching. Specific programs like the ‘Be Whale Wise’ aims to teach visitors the importance of staying at least 200 yards away when whale watching aboard a vessel.
Although the “killer” orca whales do not eat humans, it is not advisable to attempt swimming with such large a powerful creatures, not to mention that their waters are very chilly. Actually, different orca whales have evolved to focus on a particular type of salmon. If the salmon die from river pollution, these orca will die, too, as they search for a dwindling food supply.
Despite the stringent rules, around 83.4% of survey respondents want to visit the islands to appreciate its rich wildlife. San Juan Islands even take it a notch higher in surveys because they ban jet skis and favor quieter sea vessels like sailboats and kayaks to avoid stressing whale and visitor alike. Aside from preventing noise pollution, the government is also rather strict with people who constantly harass the whales and other sea creatures by interfering with their foraging patterns, getting in the way of their swim path, or trying to feed or pet them. These are wild creatures. They are not looking for a hand out.
Man’s fascination with whales becomes moneymaker, ChristianScienceMonitor.com
Be Whale Wise: Stay 200 Yards Away, BeWhaleWise.org