Behavioural responses of male killer whales to a ‘leapfrogging’ vessel

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Rob Williams
David E. Bain
John K. B. Ford
Andrew W. Trites


The research and whalewatching communities of Johnstone Strait, British Columbia, Canada have worked closely together to identify whalewatching practices that minimise disturbance to northern resident killer whales. Local guidelines request that boaters approach whales no closer than 100m. Additionally, boaters are requested not to speed up when close to whales in order to place their boat in a whale’s predicted path: a practice known as ‘leapfrogging’. A land-based study was designed to test for behavioural responses of killer whales to an experimental vessel that leapfrogged a whale’s predicted path at distances greater than 100m. Ten male killer whales were repeatedly approached and the animals responded on average by adopting paths that were significantly less smooth and less straight than during preceding, control conditions. This adoption of a less ‘predictable’ path is consistent with animals attempting to evade the approaching boat, which may have negative energetic consequences for killer whales. The results support local consensus that leapfrogging is a disruptive style of whalewatching, and should be discouraged. Similarly, as the experimental boat increased speed to overtake the whale’s path, the source level of engine noise increased by 14dB. Assuming a standard spherical transmission loss model, the fast-moving boat would need to be 500m from the whale for the received sound level to be the same as that received from a slow-moving boat at 100m. Whalewatching guidelines should therefore encourage boaters to slow down around whales, and not to resume full speed while whales are within 500m.

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