Luxury yacht encounter with whales upsets islanders

DFO has opened a preliminary investigation into what happened Thursday evening off the east side of Quadra Island

Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been fielding complaints from several upset Quadra Islanders who witnessed a luxury yacht disturb a pod of orcas – some of them reportedly babies.

Leri Davies, spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans, said the department has opened a preliminary investigation into what happened Thursday evening off the east side of Quadra Island.

“Several complaints were launched about this one incident,” Davies said Monday afternoon from the department’s Vancouver office. “We’re trying to narrow down what happened and then determine if there is enough evidence to pursue a formal investigation.”

Quadra resident Gary Falck, who witnessed the incident from his home, said he was one of the witnesses who alerted Fisheries and Oceans.

Falck said at around 7:45 p.m. Thursday evening, his neighbour called him to tell him there was a pod of about five to seven whales (two to three juveniles) heading south down the back side of Quadra.

“I started taking pictures of them because they had little babies,” Falck said. “The next thing I see a boat beelining it from Cortes/Marina Island way. He’s coming at a high speed, he’s within 20 to 30 feet of them – a big, 80-foot yacht.”

Falck said the boat was close enough that he was able to take down the name of the yacht – the Amnesia IV – which is based out of Vancouver.

“He basically was so close we thought he may run aground,” Falck said. “He actually forced the whales in closer (to shore) than they normally are when they come by here.”

Falck said the yacht, which he claims was closer to the whales than the boat’s dinghy was to the yacht, allegedly followed alongside the whales with its engine running for about 15-20 minutes in front of his home and then went out of sight.

He said his neighbours to the south, however, saw the boat continue to follow the whales for another 10-15 minutes until they disappeared from sight.

Falck said the whales seemed distressed and one particular orca who appeared to be the alpha male, tried to rescue his family.

“The whales appeared rather distraught,” Falck said. “One actually turned around, it appeared to be trying to lead the pod away from the boat. It was a little disturbing for those of us who watched them. I can see if you’re trying to get pictures but go down, sit there and turn your engine off and hope they come over to you, but don’t do (what they did), that’s really bad.”

Falck said when he reported the incident to Fisheries and Oceans, he was asked if he would be willing to testify in court, should it come to that. Falck agreed without hesitation.

Falck said the incident was reminiscent of the Carl Petersen case three years ago but worse in his view.

In the Petersen incident, the Quadra Island man was fined $7,500 after being convicted of disturbing marine mammals and harassing a threatened species. Petersen was out on his boat trying to get a photo of some killer whales for a friend and got as close as 15-25 metres behind the whales.

According to whale watching guidelines, boaters are expected to remain at least 100 metres away from orcas laterally.

The maximum fine for offenders is $100,00 under the Marine Mammal Regulations and $250,000 under the Species At Risk Act.

Under the Act it is illegal to harass a member of a wildlife species that is listed as endangered or threatened. B.C.’s two resident killer whale populations are listed as endangered (southern residents) and threatened (northern residents) under the Act.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada encourages anyone who witnesses an incident to call the 24-hour Observe, Record, Report line at 1-800-465-4336.