The state of Washington is extremely fortunate to have orcas in their midst. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

I might be a little late—since it’s June 28—but I’m managing to get this one in just under the deadline. Because while I didn’t know it until now, June 2011 was officially designated as “Orca Awareness Month.”

Now, that bit of news might not have ordinarily broken through the thousands of mass communications you’re bombarded with every day if you’re a landlocked Midwesterner like me. But I happened to notice this month’s moniker because last week, I was fortunate enough to be scouting for orcas in the San Juan Islands in the state of Washington. While researching Orcinus orca for this story, I stumbled across the official proclamation from Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, signed on March 8, 2011.

Two of the clauses in the document are particularly relevant to we nature enthusiasts, whether we live near a coast or not: 1) that we have only begun to learn about the intelligence and social capabilities of orcas, and 2) that the state of Washington is “blessed to have this community of orcas in their midst, to know them as individuals and pods, and to watch them from ferries, boats and shorelines.”

Orcas are highly intelligent animals. Some researchers say that the IQ of orcas is equivalent to that of a 16-year-old human. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

In our wake

Having “orcas in their midst” is what draws most visitors to the San Juan Islands and is what helps fuel and grow the local economy.

Known as the “Southern Resident Orca Community”—or, alternatively, the “Salish Sea Orcas”—the cetaceans in the J, K and L pods that whale-watchers often witness in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands live and raise families just downstream from an increasingly urban landscape. This combination of wildlife and comfortable, citified accessibility to it calls to more and more nature travelers every year.

What follows, of course, is the downside to that “blessing”: more human traffic in an area usually means more threats to wildlife, since environmental poisons and habitat destruction typically follow in our wake. Orcas, placed on the U.S. Endangered Species List in 2005, need clean, uncontaminated water and plentiful fish to keep thriving. Unfortunately, however, both have been declining in the area.

Since the 1980s, there has been an explosion of interest in whale-watching. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

Some have suggested, though, that even more dangerous to orcas than unclean water and diminishing food supplies are the tourists, like me, who come to watch these wonders of the waves.

Watch and learn

Admittedly, since the mid 1980s, there has been an explosion of interest in whale-watching in San Juan Islands waters. In Haro Strait, for example, where both Canadian and American whale-watching boats compete for the best viewing spots, at times more than 50 vessels may follow a single group of 10 to 20 whales. While Be Whale Wise Guidelines are in place and are generally followed by commercial whale-watching vessel operators, some private recreational boat operators may not be as familiar with them and may, sometimes, disturb the orcas’ activities.

But therein lies the conundrum. The least intrusive way to study orcas and learn more about them is by watching them. That’s why continuing to permit whale-watching boats to get close enough to the orcas to really observe them is so important. Many of the captains and crew who work on whale-watching boats—including those who conduct outings for Natural Habitat Adventures’ tours—also perform research activities for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Scientific institutes, particularly in these cash-strapped times, don’t have the budgets or staff to man orca-research vessels every day. Tourist boats—especially those with naturalists on board—keep notes on which individual whales are spotted and where they are, which whales are hanging out with each other, whether there are new calves and the perceived health of the individual orcas. They report back to researchers if there are problems.

The least intrusive way to study orcas is by watching their behavior. ©Candice Gaukel Andrews

It’s a fine line that all nature travelers walk: the narrow path between wildlife viewing and wildlife wrongdoing. But when it comes to watching orcas, it would seem the benefits of viewing outweigh any wrong being done.

So, here in the Midwest, for these final two days of the month, I’ll be celebrating Orca Awareness Month. Even if there isn’t an orca to watch, for at least 2,000 miles.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,