Pod of five Orcas simming together.
A pod of killer whales (Orcinus orca)

Killer Whale Information & Fact Sheets
WDFW Status Review
Orca Network
Center for Whale Research
Killer Whales and Boats:
Information and Guidelines
Be Whale Wise Guidelines
The Whale Trail
State and Federal Policies & Management
Washington State Laws and Regulations
[ RCW 77.15.740 ]
Federal Recovery Plan
NOAA West Coast Region Orca Website

Washington's Vessel Regulation Protecting
Southern Resident Killer Whales

Southern resident killer whales, also known as southern resident orcas, are an icon of Washington’s marine world. They are classified as an endangered species by the U.S. and Canadian federal governments and by Washington State. The population numbers 78 whales as of June 2017 and remains substantially smaller than the 98 whales recorded in 1995. Threats to the whales that have been identified include: declining abundance of chinook salmon and other salmon, exposure to toxic pollutants, and vessel noise and presence.

Killer whales rely on their highly developed vocalizations and hearing ability for navigating, finding prey, and communication. Because of this, increased underwater sound caused by boat engines may be detrimental to survival by impairing foraging and other behavior. Studies have found that some of the behavioral changes seen in response to vessel sound and disturbance include more evasive swimming paths, changes in diving rates, greater surface activity (e.g., tail and fin slapping, breaching, spy hopping), less time feeding, increased travel time, and louder vocalizing. These effects often become more pronounced the closer that boats approach.

Viewing of southern resident killer whales by private and commercial vessels has become a popular activity in Washington and British Columbia in recent decades. Most whale-watching activity occurs from May to September, when the southern residents are regularly present near the San Juan Islands and in other inner marine waters. During these months, many whales are accompanied by boats throughout the day. From 1998-2016, during the summer months, observers counted an average of 12-20 vessels within 0.5 mile of the whales during peak viewing hours (10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.; Soundwatch Boater Education Program 2016 annual report).

Prior to 2008, voluntary guidelines were used to try to address boater behavior around the southern residents. In response to concerns that whale watching may be disruptive to the whales, the Pacific Whale Watch Association developed a set of best practices guidelines in 1994 for commercial whale-watch operators to follow when viewing the whales. “Be Whale Wise” guidelines were developed soon after by government agencies, whale advocacy groups, monitoring groups, and the operators association to inform boat operators on appropriate viewing practices. In addition, two programs, the Soundwatch Boater Education Program and Straitwatch, currently work to improve boater awareness and compliance with the guidelines. While these efforts were successful in improving the viewing behavior of recreational and commercial whale watchers, infractions of the guidelines continued.

In an effort to improve boater behavior around the southern residents, the Washington Legislature passed a law (RCW 77.15.740) in 2008 placing legal restrictions on the activities of vessels near the whales. This law was updated in 2012 to correspond with current federal regulations. These regulations make it unlawful to:

WDFW Enforcement boat speeding through the water.
Marine enforcement officers from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have enforced the law since its inception. Violation of the law is a civil infraction that carries penalties of up to $1,025.
  • Approach within 200 yards of a southern resident whale;
  • Position a vessel to be in the path of a southern resident whale at any point located within 400 yards of the whale. This includes intercepting a southern resident whale by positioning a vessel so that the prevailing wind or water current carries the vessel into the path of the whale at any point located within 400 yards of the whale. Vessels are defined as including aircraft, canoes, fishing vessels, kayaks, personal watercraft, rafts, recreational vessels, tour boats, whale watching boats, vessels engaged in whale watching activities, or other small craft including power boats and sailboats;
  • Fail to disengage the transmission of a vessel that is within 200 yards of a southern resident whale; or
  • Feed a southern resident whale.

Exemptions from the law exist as follow:

  • Persons operating a federal government vessel in the course of his or her official duties, or operating a state, tribal, or local government vessel when engaged in official duties involving law enforcement, search and rescue, or public safety;
  • Persons operating a vessel in conjunction with a vessel traffic service established under 33 C.F.R. and following a traffic separation scheme, or complying with a vessel traffic service measure of direction. This also includes support vessels escorting ships in the traffic lanes, such as tug boats;
  • Engaging in an activity, including scientific research, pursuant to a permit or other authorization from the National Marine Fisheries Service and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW);
  • Persons lawfully engaging in a treaty Indian or commercial fishery that is actively setting, retrieving, or closely tending fishing gear;
  • Persons conducting vessel operations necessary to avoid an imminent and serious threat to a person, vessel, or the environment, including when necessary for overall safety of navigation and to comply with state and federal navigation requirements; or
  • Persons engaging in rescue or clean-up efforts of a beached southern resident whale overseen, coordinated, or authorized by a volunteer stranding network.

Marine enforcement officers from WDFW have enforced the law since its inception. Patrol efforts increased greatly beginning in July 2013 thanks to a federal endangered species grant awarded by the National Marine Fisheries Service. WDFW officers issued 23 citations and dozens of warnings to recreational and commercial boaters since 2015. Violation of the law is a civil infraction that carries penalties of up to $1,025.

Orca whale jumping vertically out of the water.
NOAA Fisheries

For more information or to report violators, contact:

In Washington,

  • NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement at 1-800-853-1964
  • During business hours (8 a.m. to 5 p.m.), Monday through Friday, contact the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at 1-360-902-2936
  • After hours, on weekends, and holidays, contact the local Washington State Patrol office for your area

In British Columbia,

  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada at 1-800-465-4336