Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program

Orca breaching in Puget Sound
Ken Rea

In spring 2019, the Washington Legislature passed Senate Bill 5577: a bill concerning the protection of Southern Resident Orca Whales from vessels, which developed a license for commercial whale watching and directed the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to administer the licensing program and develop rules for commercial viewing of Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW). (See RCW 77.65.615 and RCW 77.65.620)

Commercial whale watching licenses are being sold as of February 2021, and operators will be required to have a license to operate starting May 1, 2021 (this date was updated from March 1 by the Department via emergency rule).

We suggest waiting until later in April to purchase commercial whale watching licenses. A bill currently under consideration by the WA Legislature (ESB 5330) may modify the license structure and fees. If adopted, the commercial whale watching license fees may be waived in 2021 and 2022. 

If ESB 5330 passes, WDFW will modify the commercial whale watching license application to align with session law, and we will work with anyone who has already applied for their license to adjust their application and refund fees that no longer apply. Please check back for updates or reach out to WDFW staff if you have questions.

Purchase your license

Apply Online

Visit our online licensing system to get started. 

Apply by mail using the following printable forms: 

Mail to:
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
Attn: Commercial License Sales
P.O. Box 43154
Olympia, WA 98504-3154

Rules and regulations

The rules for commercial viewing of SRKW:

  • Include a three-month, July-September season when commercial viewing of SRKW by motorized commercial whale watching vessels may happen at closer than one-half nautical mile during two, two-hour periods daily (limit of three motorized commercial whale watching vessels per group of SRKW; zero with groups containing a calf of less than one year of age).
  • Make the voluntary ‘no-go’ zone along the west side of San Juan Island mandatory for commercial whale watching vessels year-round regardless of SRKW presence, allowing a 100-yard corridor for commercial kayak operations.
  • Only restrict commercial viewing of SRKW and do not further restrict the viewing of Bigg's killer whales, humpbacks, or other species of whales and marine mammals beyond regulations already in place.

The final rules were filed on December 23, 2020 and went into effect January 23, with the exceptions of sections 020 describing the license application process and requiring a license to operate (effective March May 1, 2021) and section 140 specifying compliance, training, and reporting requirements (effective May 1, 2021).

  • WDFW filed an emergency rule that restricts commercial viewing of SRKW to one-half nautical mile from January 1-23, 2021, which covered the gap between January 1 and the permanent rules going into effect.
  • WDFW filed an emergency rule that changed the requirement to have a commercial whale watching license in order to operate from March 1 to May 1, 2021.

For more information, visit  RCW 77.65.615RCW 77.65.620WAC Chapter 220-460 and DFW's commercial whale watching rulemaking web page

Reporting and monitoring

There are three types of reporting whale watch operators should be aware of:

  • Real-time reporting of SRKW locations to the WhaleReport Alert System
  • In-season monthly reporting of SRKW viewing activities that happen during the allowed viewing windows from July-September (a reporting system will be launched by July)
  • Reporting within 24 hours (motorized whale watching) or one week (non-motorized) of inadvertent SRKW encounters or sightings. 

WhaleReport app

Commercial operators should report all real-time SRKW sightings to the WhaleReport Alert System through the WhaleReport App. More information about the WhaleReport App is available on the Wild Whales website

In-season reporting

Monthly reporting of SRKW viewing activities that happen during allowed viewing windows, starting in July 2021. Once available, the portal for reporting will be embedded/linked here.

Inadvertent SRKW encounters

Kayak tours that encounter SRKW outside the main July-September season should report the details of the encounter below.

SRKW viewing by motorized commercial whale watch vessels at closer than one-half nautical mile is not allowed outside of the days and hours specified in WAC 220-460.

However, if a motorized commercial whale watching operator inadvertently comes across SRKW, they have three responsibilities:

  • Immediately retreat to at least one-half nautical mile.
  • Immediately report the SRKW location to the WhaleReport Alert System.
  • Within 24 hours (for motorized vessel operators), report the details of the encounter below.

Annual training

As part of the commercial whale watching licensing program, WDFW will provide training for commercial operators to support reporting, and compliance monitoring procedures, including real-time reporting of SRKW sightings to the Whale Report Alert System.

Starting May 1, 2021, operators will need to complete the WDFW-provided training in order to operate. WDFW will begin offering trainings in April. Please check back for more information about the training

Here are two upcoming opportunities to participate in the development of the training:

Resources

WDFW recognizes that watchable wildlife businesses care deeply about the recovery of SRKW. These operators provide an on-the-water opportunity for people to form lasting memories and emotional connections to our state’s iconic animals. We encourage Washingtonians and visitors looking to view SRKWs to either:

  • View from shore at a broad network of locations across the region, or
  • Go aboard a professional whale watching tour that can identify what you’re seeing and maintain appropriate distances from whales.

For folks who opt to get out on the water in a private vessel, boaters are encouraged to follow Be Whale Wise guidelines and recreate responsibly to keep people and wildlife safe. 

Boaters are encouraged to watch for the Whale Warning Flag, an optional tool from the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee, that lets others know that there might be whales nearby. If you see the flag, slow down and follow guidelines.

FAQ

Do I need a license? Starting May 1, 2021, a commercial whale watching license is required for commercial whale watching motorized vessel, sailboat, and kayak operators.

What if my business does not offer "whale watching tours" but views whales and other marine mammals opportunistically? It is up to each business to determine whether its operations qualify under the rules as whale watching. However, in the authorizing legislation (2019's 2SSB 5577), sea kayak tour businesses were specifically identified within the umbrella of commercial whale watching activities. Besides the rule text linked here (WAC chapter 220-460), we recommend reading RCW 77.65.615 and RCW 77.15.815 to assess what’s best for you and your business.

What about fishing charter businesses that view marine mammals opportunistically? Incidentally viewing whales and other marine mammals while fishing or transiting (as long as you don’t change behavior to give your passengers a viewing opportunity) does not require a commercial whale watching license, but actively pursuing marine mammal viewing during fishing charters (and/or advertising and promoting viewing of marine mammals to clients) would. 

How much does a commercial whale watching license cost? The base license has a $200 annual cost, in addition to the $75 annual application fee. Additional fees vary based on vessel passenger capacity and/or number of kayaks in active rotation. Besides the primary operator, whose license comes with the base license, you will need alternate operator licenses for each other operator of your vessels and/or guide who leads kayak tours on behalf of the company. You can calculate your fees using the fee information in RCW 77.65.615.

How often should I renew my license? Commercial whale watching licenses expire at midnight on December 31st of the calendar year for which they are issued. Licenses may be renewed annually upon application and payment of the prescribed license fees.

Do I need to take a training? Yes. All motorized and nonmotorized commercial whale watching license holders and alternate operators must complete annual training from the department on marine mammals, distances on the water, impacts of whale watching on marine mammals, and southern resident killer whale-related rules and reporting. Naturalists and others who work on commercial whale watching vessels but are not license holders are encouraged to attend.

How will the rules be enforced? WDFW recognizes that commercial whale watching operators are deeply invested in the recovery of Southern Residents and take measures to support their survival seriously. WDFW Enforcement officers routinely do on-the-water patrols to help keep people — and wildlife — safe and can issue fines or criminal citations for commercial operators violating these rules. We will work with WDFW Enforcement to develop a more detailed Q&A as we start gathering your questions.

How did the department develop these rules? These rules represent a year-long process with guidance from WDFW's Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program Advisory Committee, an intergovernmental coordination group and an independent science panel. In addition to the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) process, the rules were also informed by reports summarizing the science and analyzing economic impacts on small businesses. The Commission also received input from more than 4,000 commenters on the draft rules. More information is available on our rule making web page