News

Airplane photographed buzzing orcas on west side of San Juan Island; photo sent to authorities

A plane was photographed flying close to the water over an area where orcas were swimming, midday July 10 at Lime Kiln Point State Park.

Soundwatch coordinator Kari Koski estimates the plane flew, at its lowest point, 20 to 30 feet above the water.

“This was dangerous for a couple of reasons,” Koski said. The pilot ignored NOAA and Federal Aviation Administration flight rules: Aircraft must fly at least 1,000 feet above the water when killer whales are present.

“It was also just a blatant disregard for the animals. The plane had the potential to land on the water.”

Koski said the plane endangered boats and kayaks on the water that day. “People were very worried,” she said.

Koski said many people got photos of the plane’s registration; a photo by Andrew Lees has been forwarded to authorities.

The plane’s owner could face charges for violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Aerial and boat harassment can be reported to 1-800-853-1964. If possible, record the plane’s ID number or the boat’s name.

Witnesses of the July 10 incident told of what they saw in letters to The Journal or online comments on SanJuanJournal.com.

"It was not only much too close to the whales but also a danger to boaters and those on shore," Barbara Fry wrote in a letter to the editor in the July 21 Journal. "Luckily, some people who were also there managed to get photographs of the plane, good enough to capture the ID number on the side.

"I’m writing to inform others that if they see either aerial harassment or boat harassment of the whales, the number to call is 1-800-853-1964. If possible, write down the ID number of the plane (in the U.S., it starts with the letter “N”), or the name of the boat. When in doubt, contact The Whale Museum, Soundwatch program, at www.whale-museum.org."

An islander, writing under the name "alongtimeislander," wrote on SanJuanJournal.com, "I saw a picture of the plane in question ... It wasn't a matter of it flying a bit low (the law requires planes to stay at least 1,000 feet above whales). This plane was scary low, as in less than 30 feet over the water. So low that a slight miscalculation by the pilot could have resulted in a crash that could have killed whales and innocent people along shore.

"This guy should lose his license at the least."

— This version clarifies height requirements in paragraph 2 to read: "Aircraft must fly at least 1,000 feet above the water when killer whales are present."

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