As tourists arrive for whale watching in Southeast Alaska, officials remind visitors to keep their distance

A pod of orcas traveled into the Wrangell Narrows in front of Petersburg the last week of April. (Photo by Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Tourist season is beginning in Southeast Alaska, which likely means around a half million people will be hoping to see whales. Residents also look forward to encounters out on the water. But sharing space with the marine giants isn’t always easy.

Mike Schwartz of Petersburg, who is 80 years old, has been around whales his whole life. As a fisherman and outdoorsman, he’s had many close encounters. Once, while watching a group of humpbacks bubble feeding, he ended up a little closer than he wanted.

“One whale started bubble feeding on the far side, and then opposite him, maybe a hundred feet, another whale started bubble feeding,” Schwartz said. “So, the two of them bubble fed all the way into a circle.

Schwartz found his boat in the middle.

“It was a little bit unsettling to realize you’re inside the bubble circle,” he said. “And what do I do now? And then all of sudden they’re there, they’re all there. And of course, the herring are all squirting out of their mouth.”

Humpback whales are common in the region, even in high-traffic areas. Orcas or killer whales show up too. Schwartz remembers traveling with his wife from Ketchikan to Petersburg when they discovered they weren’t alone.

“It was rain thick and when everything lifted we realized we were in the middle of the biggest pod of killer whales we’d ever seen,” Schwartz said. “We quit counting at 80 and they would come up right alongside the boat.”

It’s not always intuitive how to act around whales, says Suzie Teerlink, a marine mammal specialist with the Protected Resources Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“It is really difficult to interpret the behaviors because all the behaviors that you might see could be occurring for lots of different reasons,” she said.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act protects whales from harassment. Teerlink says that can mean anything that might change their natural behavior.

In 2019, NOAA issued eight on-site citations, according to the law enforcement office in Juneau. In an email, the office says they have fined a tour company nearly $9,000 for dropping off paddleboarders to approach humpback whales. They fined another company nearly $4,500 for approaching killer whales head-on in a narrow pass causing the whales to turn around and swim away.

In general, though, it can be very difficult to prove wrongdoings just from complaints. Instead, NOAA likes to focus on education.

Teerlink says when people encounter whales in the wild, they should remember that the animals are busy doing something, often feeding, nursing, resting or socializing.

“They have an agenda, they have things they need to be doing,” Teerlink said. “And it might not be visible from the surface of the water.”

She discourages people from trying to interpret whales’ behaviors. A tail slap, for example, could mean several things like a sign of distress or a form of communication within the pod.

Teerlink says they may be behaving in an interesting way but it’s not for the sake of people. They aren’t — as some people like to say — “putting on a show”.

“There isn’t a part of their biology that is driven to perform,” Teerlink said. “There isn’t a show; they’re not trying to pull in humans to, you know, participate. It isn’t for entertaining boats.”

Over 20 years ago, a rule was established in Alaska requiring whale watchers to be 100 yards from humpback whales. Teerlink says it’s a good practice for all marine mammals.

But sometimes judging proximity is hard. Whales can swim underwater and surface near a boat, something that Mike Schwartz knows all too well.

And for him, it’s often unforgettable and emotional.

“For me it’s a deeply, deeply spiritual experience,” he said. “It’s hard to put into words.”

Whales are intriguing for residents, tourists and tour guides alike. Teerlink says one thing that could benefit tour companies is signing up for the whale SENSE program. It promotes stewardship and education for responsible whale watching.

KFSK - Petersburg

KFSK is our partner station in Petersburg. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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