Sea Grant Extension helps boaters agree on unobtrusive best practices for watching whales

About 20,000 gray whales migrate past the Oregon coast each year, of which about 200 stick around for the summer to feed. They share the water with whale-watching charters, recreational boaters and commercial fishermen. Data are scarce about how proximity to the boats affects whales’ behavior and wellbeing.

Leigh Torres, who is a marine mammals specialist with Oregon Sea Grant Extension, and a graduate student studied gray whales’ feeding behavior, ecology and health along the Oregon coast, and analyzed the animals’ reactions when vessels approach. They found several statistically significant differences in whale behaviors when vessels were present versus when they were absent. For example, whales spent 8 percent less time searching for food when boats were around compared to when they weren’t. Whales were more likely to continue traveling when vessels were present, and less likely to stop and search for food. Researchers found that whales tolerated vessels if food was present. They noted, however, that whale presence does not necessarily indicate that vessels have no effect.

Torres also helped whale-watching charter boat companies, fishermen and conservationists develop voluntary guidelines for enjoying—but not disturbing—the whales. The recommendations were published in a brochure, which Oregon Sea Grant helped create. Some 8,000 copies of it were printed; about 2,000 of those have been distributed to the Oregon State Parks’ whale watching center in Depoe Bay and charter businesses in Depoe Bay, Newport and Port Orford. The recommendations were also mentioned during talks at OSG’s State of the Coast conference, the annual science day at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, and a meeting of the American Cetacean Society. Additionally, Torres and her graduate student set up a website, WatchOutForWhales.org, where users can download the brochure and also a poster with the guidelines.

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