Ferries slowing down to save endangered orcas

PUGET SOUND, Wash. -- Some ferry trips across the Puget Sound could take a little longer than usual but it's for a good cause: They're slowing down and steering clear of whales in the water.

Responsible for the most sailings by a single industry in the Puget Sound, there's no denying the noise impact Washington State ferries have on the endangered southern resident orcas. Because of direction from Washington's governor and his orca task force, the state is now studying how to minimize that noise.

On Wednesday between Seattle and Bainbridge, a research vessel dropped a hydrophone 550 feet to the depths of Puget Sound. For the next week, Washington State Ferries will take its trips near the buoy to measure the noise for each type of ferry.

After they collect the data, they'll move the experiment to Port Townsend and Anacortes until each type of ferry in the fleet is measured.

"The study is going to give us that data so our captains know what their speed change or their deviation from course will allow them to do to help out that whale in terms of noise," said Kevin Bartoy, WSF's environmental stewardship director.

"We can alter our course going to and from Seattle, which will inconvience some folks but I'm sure they'll understand," WSF Capt. Russell Fee added.

The critically-endangered southern residents use acoustics to hunt for salmon. With less productive salmon runs, quieter waters help them target what little salmon there is.

Using a new app, WSF will have more direct access to sightings data around the Sound. The crowdsourced "Whale Report" app will alert commercial mariners to the presence of whales within 10 nautical miles of the vessel.

State ferries have adopted even more strict whale-approach guidelines than the state law mandates. WSF said it is policy to stay about a quarter-nautical mile away from all types of whales, which is about the length of five football fields.