Follow-up to suspected boat collision with orca

Given the excitement of the moment, including comments over the radio, some people still believe that L-90, a 19-year-old female orca named Ballena, was struck by a boat off the west side of San Juan Island on Friday.

An experienced driver for the Prince of Whales whale-watching company was mentioned as a likely witness.

I talked to a spokeswoman for the company who told me that nobody she knows has any pictures. The only interviews granted by staff were with enforcement officers for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Sgt. Russ Mullins, one of the WDFW officers who patrols that area, said he has investigated the incident. As best as he can tell, no collision occurred.

“Nobody witnessed an actual strike,” he told me. “It was a close call perhaps, but we do not have vessel-related injuries on this animal.”

Here are some of the details that Sgt. Mullins reported:

The boat reportedly involved in the incident was a slow-moving liveaboard passing through the area. The speed was about 7 knots. Mullins does not know why some news reports mentioned a high-speed boat, except for the possible assumption that only a fast-moving boat was likely to strike a killer whale.

A witness on the Prince of Whales boat told officers that the orca in question and possibly others surfaced some 20 feet off the bow the boat, which then stopped for a short time before leaving the area.

The whale was acting sluggish, barely moving and logging on the surface for quite some time. That behavior led people in the area to believe a collision had occurred. Comments to that effect went out over the radio.

“I heard the transmission,” Mullins said. “The close proximity, combined with the unusual behavior of the whale, led some people to think it had been struck. We assume the worst. As primary law enforcement for the area we have a responsibility to respond…”

Another patrol boat quickly tracked down the suspect vessel.

“We talked to the skipper, who was very concerned,” Mullins said. “He did not appear to be the kind of person who would strike a whale and knowingly leave.”

Mullins said he stayed with the group of whales for 10 hours, including part of Saturday. During that time, they passed the town of Friday Harbor, where they became as active as he’s ever seen them.

Experts familiar with the orcas assured him that the whale had been acting strangely even before Friday’s incident and that nothing had changed See my Water Ways entry from Friday and Erin Heydenreich’s further explanation later that day.

Technically, the driver of the boat was in violation of the protective zone around the whales, 100 yards under state law and 200 yards under federal law. That applies even when the whales catch up to a boat going the same direction, but officers have discretion to consider the conditions.

Mullins said his department plans to issue a written warning to the driver of the boat and refer all the information to officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“This guy’s biggest mistake is not being aware of his surroundings,” the sergeant said, “but when the whales were within his view, he took appropriate action.”

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