Killer Whales

Killer whales have special protection in Canadian and U.S. waters. Be sure to educate yourself about new protections, including regulations with specific distances and recommendations for viewing killer whales.

The Salish Sea is a transboundary region overseen by Canada, the United States and Washington State. Here is a broad look at the regulations regarding operating vessels around killer whales, specifically Southern Resident killer whales or orcas. Additionally, all marine mammals are protected in Canada and the United States. Humans and vessels are required to stay 100 metres/yards away from all other marine mammals.

BeWhaleWise Guideline Graphic

United States Regulations

In the US, Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) are listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In 2019, Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee signed into law new regulations governing whale watching in the State of Washington. Key management actions include:

Mandatory measures:

  • Maintain a minimum approach distance of
    • 300 yards from SRKW on either side.
    • 400 yards out of SRKW’s path/in front and behind the whales.
  • Reduce speed to under 7 knots when within 1/2 nm of the whales.
  • Disengage engines if whales appear within 300 yards.

See RCW 77.15.740 for more information.

Breaching Orca

Canadian Regulations

In Canada, Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) are listed as Endangered under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) and managed, in part, under the Marine Mammal Regulations of Canada’s Fisheries Act. Additionally, under the Canada Shipping Act, 2001 the Minister of Transport Canada has the authority to make regulations respecting the protection of the marine environment from the impacts of navigation and shipping activities. In April 2022, the Government of Canada announced updated management measures to support the recovery of the Southern Residents, including a range of mandatory and voluntary measures designed to support prey availability and reduce physical and acoustic disturbance to SRKW. Key management actions for 2022 include:

Mandatory measures: 

  • In effect year-round, maintain a minimum approach distance of:
    • 400 metres from all killer whales in all southern BC coastal waters (see map for more details).
    • 200 metres away from all killer whales in all other Canadian Pacific waters, outside of 400 metre approach areas.
  • No recreational or commercial salmon fishing in designated closed areas located in key SRKW foraging areas (see map for more details) in:
    • The Strait of Juan de Fuca (August 1 or following the expiry of Chinook non-retention measures to October 31, 2022);
    • Swiftsure Bank (July 15 or following expiry of Chinook non-retention measures to October 31, 2022);
    • The southern Gulf Islands (May 27 to October 31, 2022); and
    • The mouth of the Fraser River (August 1 to October 31, 2022).
  • No boating or fishing in the Interim Sanctuary Zones located off the east coast of Saturna Island and south-west of North Pender Island (June 1 through November 30, 2022; see map for more details).
  • Vessel speed limited to a maximum of 10 knots when travelling in the Swiftsure Bank Seasonal Slowdown Areas (June 1 through November 30, 2022; see for more details).
  • Drones can disturb marine mammals, so are discouraged for viewing marine mammals unless appropriate permits are obtained.

Learn more about all of the 2022 management measures here.

Trans-Boundary Guidelines for the US and Canada

Apply to all whales, porpoises, dolphins, seals, sea lions, any animal hauled out and nesting birds.

  1. DO NOT APPROACH or position your vessel closer than 100 metres/yards to any other marine mammals or birds, whether on the water or on land.
  2. BE CAUTIOUSCOURTEOUS and QUIET when around areas of known or suspected marine wildlife activity, in the water or at haul-outs and bird colonies on land. Especially from May to September during breeding, nesting and seal pupping seasons.
  3. LOOK in all directions before planning your approach or departure from viewing wildlife.
  4. SLOW DOWN: reduce speed to less than 7 knots when within a half mile or 1000 metres/yards of the nearest marine mammal and reduce your engine’s noise and vessel’s wake.
  5. ALWAYS approach and depart from the side, moving parallel to their direction of the animal’s travel. If the animal(s) are approaching you, cautiously move out of the way and avoid abrupt course changes. DO NOT approach from the front or from behind.
  6. IF your vessel is not in compliance with the 100 metres/yards approach guideline (#1), place engine in neutral and allow animals to pass.
  7. PAY ATTENTION and move away, slowly and cautiously at the first sign of disturbance or agitation from any animal.
  8. STAY on the OFFSHORE side of the whales when traveling close to shore.
  9. ALWAYS avoid going through groups of porpoises or dolphins and hold course and reduce speed gradually to discourage bow or stern-riding.
  10. LIMIT your viewing time to 30 minutes or less. This will reduce the cumulative impact of all vessels and give consideration to other viewers.
  11. DO NOT disturb, swim with, move, feed or touch any marine wildlife. If you are concerned about a potentially sick, stranded animal, or entangled animal, contact your local stranding network.

The noise and close proximity of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)/drones can disturb wildlife in the water or on land. Drones can disturb marine mammals, so are discouraged for viewing marine mammals unless appropriate permits are obtained. To prevent disturbances from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV/drone) over the marine environment, operators must use extreme caution. Fly during daylight hours, keep your drone in sight and limit your viewing time to reduce the cumulative impact.

If viewing marine mammals from the air using a drone:

(1) maintain a 1,000-foot minimum altitude within a 0.5 nautical mile (approx. 3,000ft radius) of a marine mammal, and
(2) avoid flight maneuvers around marine mammals (on land or in the water), as these actions may cause stress or alter animal behavior.

Operators should note applicable US FAA regulations and Canadian Aviation Regulations for the airspace in which they are operating. Know and follow all local regulations – although these rules are technically guidelines in the US, in Canada it’s the law.