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Boater charged with violating orca protection law

A naturalist with Prince of Whales took these photos of a Bayliner that got too close to an orca May 24, between 1:15-2 p.m., in Haro Strait slightly north of Lime Kiln Lighthouse. The boater has been charged with violating state law related to protection of the Southern resident killer whales. -  Marie O
A naturalist with Prince of Whales took these photos of a Bayliner that got too close to an orca May 24, between 1:15-2 p.m., in Haro Strait slightly north of Lime Kiln Lighthouse. The boater has been charged with violating state law related to protection of the Southern resident killer whales.
— image credit: Marie O'Shaughnessy

The skipper of a Bayliner photographed getting too close to an orca off the west side of San Juan Island in May has been charged with violating the state law related to protecting Southern resident killer whales.

Specifically, the skipper is charged with approaching within 300 feet of an orca, according to the San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. The penalty is a fine of $1,025.

Charging documents identify the boater as Walter R. Osick Jr., 39, of Mukilteo.

The case was investigated by state Fish and Wildlife Officer C. Rosenberger, who forwarded his incident report to the county prosecutor.

According to court documents, Osick told Rosenberger he couldn't stop his boat in the whales' presence because the water was choppy and he was low on fuel. However, photographs taken by a naturalist on another boat apparently show Osick pointing at the whales and stopping to take a picture. Another picture "clearly shows the defendant was on plane, with his transmission engaged well within 300 feet of the orca."

Sgt. Russ Mullins of the state Fish and Wildlife Department said it's the fourth such citation issued 2008, when the state Legislature adopted a law making it illegal to "approach or cause a vessel to approach a southern orca whale within 300 feet." It is also illegal to "intercept, feed, or fail to disengage the transmission of a vessel within 300 feet of a southern orca whale."

The three earlier citations were issued last summer for violations committed in Whatcom County.

Mullins said the latest citation was also forwarded to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for possible prosecution.

A naturalist with Prince of Whales whale-watch charters took photos of the Bayliner on May 24, between 1:15-2 p.m., in Haro Strait slightly north of Lime Kiln Lighthouse.

"I was on the Ocean Magic, more than 100 metres away from the animals. It took Capt. Tyler to sound the horn several times to get this guy to slow down and stop," naturalist Marie O'Shaughnessy wrote to Orca Network at the time. "I just couldn't believe my eyes with what was going on. He almost ran over an orca. Ruffles and Granny were close by."

O'Shaughnessy said another pleasure craft in the area was "doing much the same traveling north, but he stopped well in advance of the orca."

Capt. Jim Maya of Westside Charters said he witnessed the boat's behavior, and called it "one of the most appalling examples of harassment I've ever seen. And he kept it up long after seeing the orcas. He kept motoring beside and behind them, often within 20 yards, while pointing at them. He kept it up from Andrews Bay to the Limekiln Light. Many of the whale watch captains would have intervened, but we are restricted from going into this area while orca are present."

The photos were e-mailed to numerous recipients, and Maya called on the boating community to "help the sheriff" find the boater.

The Southern resident killer whales are listed as endangered by the U.S. and Canada. The population of the three pods is estimated to be 85. According to the Center for Whale Research, threats to the whales include diminished salmon runs, pollution and vessel impacts.

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