Commercial Whale Watching Licensing Program

Killer whale fully breached and out of the water
Ken Rea

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is looking for public feedback on rules for recreational boaters and commercial whale watching operators intended to support endangered Southern Resident killer whale recovery. View our news release for more information, including links to two online public surveys. 

A commercial whale watching licensing program was established by the Washington State Legislature in 2019 and put into effect in 2021. This program includes an annual license and requirements that must be met by businesses and individuals who meet the state's definition of commercial whale watching (see RCW 77.65.615 section 11). 

Commercial whale watching businesses, operators, and kayak guides need to apply annually for their license(s), which includes completion of the annual required training. Rules and requirements for commercial whale watching, including requirements for the viewing of Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW), are in effect.

Please see the information below, and reach out to WDFW staff if you have questions.

Get your license

How to apply

Download the detailed instructions for using DocuSign. A summary is provided below.

Step 1: Prepare your application(s) on DocuSign and submit

Fill in the fields that are requested and submit. You will complete the attestation and signature in the next stage.

Note that under the new license structure (per ESB 5330), if you own the business and operate vessels or lead kayak tours, you need to fill out both forms.

Step 2: Find the email from DocuSign, complete the signature process, and submit

In this stage, you'll complete the attestation and signature portion of the application, and then submit it. You will be able to download a copy of your completed application.

Step 3: License delivery

Once you have completed the online training requirement and your application has been approved, WDFW will email you a paper license for 2022 (via DocuSign). Print copies of all applicable licenses and keep them on you when conducting commercial whale watching activities through the rest of the year.

Step 4: Looking forward

This fall, WDFW will be updating the WILD system to make it simpler to apply online and complete the training requirement. 

Reporting and monitoring

There are three types of reporting whale watch operators should be aware of, and there is one type of reporting for kayak guides:

  • Motorized whale watching
    • Real-time reporting of SRKW sightings to the WhaleReport app
    • In-season monthly reporting of SRKW viewing activities that happen during the allowed viewing windows from July through September
    • Reporting inadvertent SRKW encounters within 24 hours
  • Sea kayak tours
    • Reporting SRKW encounters within one week (October-June), or by the in-season reporting requirements detailed below (July-September)

Here's a paper form you can print and use to log your notes for reporting to WDFW. We suggest printing several copies and keeping them in a binder when operating. While logs must be submitted online, please also keep your personal copies available for inspection by WDFW officers.

WhaleReport app

Commercial operators should report all real-time SRKW sightings to the WhaleReport Alert System by logging them through the WhaleReport app. More information about the WhaleReport app is available on the Wild Whales website, and here's a video showing how to submit a report

In-season reporting

SRKW viewing activities that happen during allowed viewing windows (July-September, 10am-12pm or 3pm-5pm) must be submitted on this schedule:

  • All encounters during allowed viewing windows during the month of July must be submitted by August 15.
  • All encounters during allowed viewing windows during the month of August must be submitted by September 15.
  • All encounters during allowed viewing windows during the month of September must be submitted by October 15.

Please use the form below to submit copies of your logs. 

Inadvertent SRKW encounters

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 app.
  • Within 24 hours (for motorized vessel operators), report the details of the encounter below.

Kayak Tours

If SRKW are encountered on a kayak tour, the kayak guide must log and report the details of the encounter below within one week. Please retain a copy of the log. Kayak guides are encouraged, but not required, to report sightings to the WhaleReport app. 

Reporting Form

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.

Operators need to complete this WDFW-provided training in order to legally operate. You can complete this training online, at a time that is convenient for you.

Here's what you need to do to complete this requirement for 2022:

  • Read WAC 220-460 including all the subsections. 
  • Watch the three training videos (a little more than 1 hour combined).
    • Module 1: Marine mammals & identifying SRKW
    • Module 2: Impact of whale watching on marine mammals, federal regulations, guidelines, and methods for assessing distance on the water
    • Module 3: The Washington rules for commercial whale watching license-holders. 
  • Pass the quiz on the materials. You will receive an email confirmation once you have passed the quiz.

Optional: You can use the form below to provide feedback on the 2022 training so that we can improve it for 2023. Please note that this survey is anonymous. Reach out to staff directly if you have questions or if you would like a response.

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 or a whale declared vulnerable by the Department).
  • 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.
  • Have separate protocols for motorized commercial whale watching and nonmotorozed marine tours.
  • Include reporting and accountability requirements.
  • 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 full list of rules is available in WAC Chapter 220-460

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

Calves and vulnerable SRKW

During the windows where commercial whale watching operators may view SRKW at closer than 1/2 nautical mile, there is a limit of three motorized commercial whale watching vessels allowed with a single group of SRKW. However, per WAC 220-460-110(2), motorized commercial whale watching vessels are not to approach (within 1/2 nautical mile) a group of SRKW containing a calf under the age of one or a whale that the department has deemed sick or vulnerable. 

The Department is working with Sealife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research (SR3) to assess which whales meet criteria for a vulnerable designation. In June of 2022, SR3 completed a comprehensive scientific assessment of the most recent imagery of 73 SRKW to inform the vulnerable whale designations issued on June 30, 2022. The reports from SR3 are linked below.

Current

List of calves younger than one year old:

  • J59, born February, 2022
  • K45, born April 2022

List of whales designated as sick or vulnerable by WDFW by emergency rule

  • J27 - designated vulnerable on 6/30/22 (poor body condition)*
  • J36 - designated vulnerable on 6/30/22 (poor body condition)
  • J44 - designated vulnerable on 6/30/22 (poor body condition)
  • J49 - designated vulnerable on 6/30/22 (poor body condition)
  • J56 - designated vulnerable on 6/30/22 (poor body condition)
  • L54 - designated vulnerable on 6/30/22 (poor body condition)
  • L83 - designated vulnerable on 6/30/22 (poor body condition)
  • L90 - designated vulnerable on 6/30/22 (poor body condition)
  • L94 - designated vulnerable on 6/30/22 (poor body condition)
  • L110 - designated vulnerable on 6/30/22 (poor body condition)
  • L116 - designated vulnerable on 6/30/22 (poor body condition)
  • L117 - designated vulnerable on 6/30/22 (poor body condition)
  • L72 - designated vulnerable on 6/30/22 (late-stage pregnancy)**

* "Poor body condition" means the whale is in the lowest 20%, when compared to other whales of its age and sex at similar times of the year. Classification in "poor body condition" is linked to a 2-3 times higher risk of mortality (Stewart et al., 2021). Please see here for the memo from SR3 that informed this designation.

** Late-stage pregnancy means that a whale is in the last months of a ~17 month gestation period. Female whales are more likely to stop foraging in the presence of boats (Holt et al., 2021), and as pregnant whales approach giving birth, their food consumption needs increase (Kriete, 1994).  Please see here for the memo from SR3 that informed this designation.

Note: SR3 also completed an analysis of constrained growth in SRKW under the age of 10. Two whales were identified that showed constrained growth, but neither has been designated vulnerable at this time. You can view that memo here.

Archive

Expired: List of calves that were under one year old at some point since the launch of the commercial whale watching licensing program in 2021:

  • J57, born September 2020
  • J58, born September 2020
  • L125, born February 2021

Expired: List of whales designated as sick or vulnerable by WDFW by emergency rule

  • K21 - designated vulnerable on 7/30/21 (emaciated, dire condition)
  • J56 - designated vulnerable on 9/2/21 (poor body condition)
  • J36 - designated vulnerable on 9/13/21 (late-stage pregnancy)
  • J37 - designated vulnerable on 9/13/21 (late-stage pregnancy)
  • J19 - designated vulnerable on 9/13/21 (late-stage pregnancy)

History

History of the License

In spring 2019, the Washington Legislature passed Senate Bill 5577: a bill concerning the protection of Southern Resident Orca Whales from vessels, which established 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)

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

  • WDFW filed an emergency rule that restricted 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

The Department began selling annual commercial whale watching licenses in February 2021, and operators were required to have a license to operate starting May 1, 2021 (this date was updated from March 1 by WDFW via emergency rule).

In spring 2021, the Washington Legislature passed a bill (ESB 5330) that modified the license structure and fees and waived the commercial whale watching license fees in 2021 and 2022. The Governor signed the legislation, and it took effect on May 12, 2021. WDFW modified the commercial whale watching license application to align with the new law and worked with applicants to adjust to the updated application process.

WDFW Enforcement began checking for licenses in the field in June of 2021. 

Annual commercial whale watching licenses are required for all commercial whale watching businesses, operators, and kayak guides, and the rules related to commercial whale watching and viewing of SRKW are in effect. 

Other Highlights

Per WAC 220-460-140, all motorized vessels used for commercial whale watching—not just those that meet the Coast Guard requirements—must be fitted with an Automatic Identification System (AIS) unit (class A or B). AIS must be maintained and kept in operation at any time the vessel is conducting commercial whale watching activities. WDFW offered a cost-share grant program in fall of 2021 (application period: September 14- December 22, 2021) to offset the costs for operators who purchased AIS due to the requirements of Washington's commercial whale watching licensing program.

Adaptive Management

The Department will complete an analysis and report to the governor and the legislature on the effectiveness of and any recommendations for changes to the whale watching rules, license fee structure, and approach distance rules by November 30, 2022, and every two years thereafter until 2026.

FAQ

Do I need a license? As of May 1, 2021, a commercial whale watching license is required for commercial whale watching businesses including motorized, sailing, and sea kayak tour operations. Licenses are also required for vessel operators and kayak guides.

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. Please be aware that unlawfully engaging in commercial whale watching is defined as a crime in RCW 77.15.815.

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 business license has a $200 annual cost, in addition to the $75 annual application fee. Additional fees vary based on motorized vessel passenger capacity, if applicable. Besides the business license, each operator of a commercial whale watching vessel is required to get an operator license, which costs $100 plus a $75 application fee. Each guide who leads kayak tours on behalf of a sea kayak tour company is required to get a kayak guide license, which costs $25 plus a $25 application fee. You can calculate your fees using the fee information in RCW 77.65.615.

The license fees defined in RCW 77.65.615 have been waived for 2021 and 2022. Commercial whale watching licenses are required, but they are currently available at no cost to businesses, operators, and kayak guides.

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 applicable license fees.

Do I need to take a training? Yes. All business, operator, and kayak guide license holders 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. Please reach out to WDFW Enforcement or Department staff with questions.

How did the department develop the rules for commercial whale watching of SRKW? 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

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.