The Six-Mile Mire

Washington’s Discovery Sea Kayaks reduces impact in order to protect vital access

— This story originally ran in the Summer 2010 edition of Paddlesports Business. Last week, the federal government issued new rules to protect endangered killer whales that went into effect May 16. One of the new rules requires that all recreational vessels, including kayaks, stay twice as far away as previously required: 200 yards instead of 100. Read more from Seattle’s KING 5 News. — Eds.

By Christian Knight

When the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) threatened to close six square miles of orca sanctuary to vessels—including kayaks—it wasn’t just killer whales at risk. The owners of Washington’s San Juan Island-based Discovery Sea Kayaks faced the classic questions of resistance that have anguished martyrs and refugees alike: They could protest, either with Ghandi’s method of civil disobedience or Greenpeace’s tactic of litigation. Or, like refugees, they could pack out of the San Juan County Park, which provides the only public put-in to all 14 miles of the island’s cliff-walled, coved and calmed western shore.

But Richard Swanson, 63, and Jason Gunter, 34, have settled on an option that wasn’t available to the consciences of Ghandi or Saint Peter. Rather than fighting on or giving in, Discovery’s co-owners have decided to go along.

And by doing so, Gunter, Swanson and three other outfitters are hoping to prove to the NOAA that paddlers can change their orca-threatening ways. This, they hope, will convince NOAA to allow the kayaking association to police itself rather than ban the six outfitters from their most popular section of water.

The population of the 87-member Southern Resident orca pod has been declining, and NOAA’s biologists have cornered three culprits: over-fishing, pollution and vessels­—including sea kayaks. To a killer whale, kayaks can seem a stealthy predator. Relentless. And numerous.

When the two converge, scientists have observed variations in the orcas’ breathing patterns, their swimming patterns and in their energy expenditure. All of these suggest that kayaks, like discarded garbage, menacing whale-watching vessels and over-fishing, are stressing out the orca.

“When orca are distressed they don’t eat,” says Lynne Barre, a biologist and policy maker for the NOAA. “That’s a big problem when they go there to feed and they are already not eating enough.”

In response, Discovery Sea Kayaks formed an association with three other outfitters and partnered with San Juan County Parks, the Whale Museum and Sound Watch, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of the orca, to create stricter guidelines and a campaign to spread them.

“We see other kayak companies that break existing laws. That goes for private kayakers as well,” Swanson says. “The way to let NOAA know that we know it’s a sensitive habitat is to get involved and start the process of education. It’s our livelihoods and we see the need for it.”

Existing guidelines recommend just three common-sense responses to orca encounters: Don’t feed them, don’t harass them and don’t come within 100 yards of them. The kayaking association’s guidelines are much stricter: Don’t come within 200 yards of them; if one comes close, stop paddling, raft up, head to shore or into a bed of kelp. To spread the message, this consortium of interest groups is mandating a permit process that involves an educational video and signature to any client or paddler who puts in at San Juan County Park—a program tagged the Kayak Education Leadership Program (KELP).

“We’re just taking a look and saying there is an entry procedure,” Swanson says. “If you want to backpack into Yellowstone, you need a permit. If you want to climb in Yosemite, you need a permit. And now, if you want to paddle the west shore of San Juan Island, you need a permit. Our thing was, let’s work with the county. If NOAA closed the park, the park would be devastated. We would be devastated.”

As proof of their commitment, Discovery and three other island outfitters have donated money to the program. Of course, Swanson’s and Gunter’s motivation is two-fold: They’re concerned about the orca and they’re concerned about their business.

Discovery has moved three times since Swanson purchased the business—then run out of the back of a van—in 2003. They’ve created a retail market focused on kayaks and expanded it by adding accessories and outdoor clothing, which now accounts for 70 percent of their retail business. They offer custom-fit half-day, all-day and five-day trips. They’ve developed a reputation on the island as the go-to outfitter for higher-end excursions and, as a result, demonstrate the San Juan’s deserved status as a world-class sea kayaking destination to 1,500 clients annually.

Eighty-five percent of Discovery’s business begins at the put-in of San Juan County Park—the same put-in that could be closed as early as next season.

“There’s not really any public corridors to launch at a public park,” Gunter says. “It would alter our day-trip operations drastically.”

Of course the impact wouldn’t be limited to Discovery Sea Kayaks or even to the paddling market in general. The entire island would take the hit. Swanson cites a local economist’s prediction that the closure would cause a $4 to $10 million-tourism chill to the island of 7,000.

“In our environmental assessment, essentially, we noted these changes and that some companies would have to relocate,” Barre says. “But we didn’t believe they would go out of business.”

If closing those six square miles is, indeed, the decision, SeaQuest, the island’s high-volume kayaking outfitter, doesn’t believe anyone will actually abide by it. “I’m sure every commercial operator will be involved in a lawsuit against NOAA,” says SeaQuest owner/operator Mark Lewis, one of San Juan Island’s six paddling outfitters. “I’m sure there will be civil disobedience.”

But this is not the perspective of Discovery Sea Kayaks, who uses the orca sightings as a huge marketing hook and seeks to strike a balance.

“These animals are challenged with fighting for food,” Gunter says. “We want to see them, but from afar.”

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