Submitted by San Juan County
This summer a Whale Warning Flag program will be implemented throughout the San Juan Islands.
San Juan County staff, the Marine Resources Committee, Soundwatch, Pacific Whale Watch Association, local Whale researchers, law enforcement and interested citizen whale stewards are teaming up on a study that will pilot the use of a whale warning flag throughout the county. The flag serves as a safety notification to other boaters on the water that whales are around.
Whale Warning Flags are available at Public Works, located at 915 Spring St. in Friday Harbor. If you are unable to collect a flag, contact County Marine Program Coordinator Frances Robertson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The flag was first introduced around Northern Vancouver Island by the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association as a means of addressing the growing number of hazardous interactions between boats and humpback whales. This summer the same flag design will be used in a bid to promote and strengthen a consistent message of safe boater behavior around whales throughout British Columbia and Washington waters.
This year 500 flags will be provided to trained boat captains, including whale watch, research and enforcement boats, as well as committed “whale steward” citizens and organizations with boats. Larger flags will be flown from land-based sites on the west side of San Juan Island such as the San Juan County Park, Lime Kiln Point State Park and the San Juan County Land Bank.
Flags will only be raised if whales are within 0.65 miles (1 km) of a boat or land-based site and will be taken down as soon as the boat or whales have moved out of the area.
The flag operates like a diver-down flag. It notifies boaters that whales are in the area letting them know they should slow down and proceed with caution so they can comply with the “Be Whale Wise” guidelines and the laws.
The pilot study is also asking boaters to turn off their sonars, such as fish finders and depth sounders, while the whales are around to further reduce extra sounds.
For those on land wanting to launch, like kayakers and paddlers, the land flags give additional warning that they should delay launching until the flag has been lowered.
SJC staff and MRC are teaming up with Soundwatch and local Southern resident killer whale expert Deborah Giles, Ph.D., to collect data on boater compliance levels and boater awareness through public surveys. Participate in the first survey at https://goo.gl/forms/0qrNJME2riUl9mF82.
This data will allow the team to study whether the flag program helps improve boater awareness and behavior in waters frequented by whales.
With recreational boaters, whale watchers and fishers visiting the area from throughout Puget Sound, British Columbia, Canada and beyond, during May to September, county residents are in a unique position to lead the way in encouraging behavior modification to help reduce the stress and impact of boater presence on the water on the endangered Southern resident killer whales. Remember, if you see a whale warning flag or you “See a blow, go slow.”