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Embracing Responsible Tourism

a girl riding a wave on a surfboard in the water

It was late morning on September 23rd, and I was one of the Island Packer’s naturalists/crew, working with Captain Joe Honsey on the Island Adventure. We were heading to Santa Rosa Island and then continuing on with a wildlife cruise along the shoreline of San Miguel Island when we heard on the marine radio a couple of captains from other tour companies talking about orcas, or killer whales along the northside of Santa Cruz Island. The killer whales were two well-known matriarch families, the CA140s, Emma and her family, and the CA27s and they were hunting common dolphins. The boat companies kept us updated as we hoped to cross paths with the killer whales on our way home.

Island Packer’s other boat, the Islander, witnessed all this action around 2:30pm with a successful hunt of a common dolphin. By the time I arrived onboard the Island Adventure with over 120 eager passengers ready to witness a National Geographic moment, we had another incredible surprise, over 20+ humpback whales converged to harass the killer whales. At first, we thought it looked like the killer whales were being aggressive towards some of the younger humpbacks but then we noticed the adult humpbacks trumpeting, tail thrashing and lunging quickly in the direction of the killer whales. There was lots of feeding seabirds in the area so we wondered if the killer whales were finishing the third common dolphin they managed to hunt during the previous six hours. To our amazement, the humpback whales managed to cause the orcas to flee to the northwest, directly into the wind and swell which made it difficult for us to follow. But we did manage to witness all this action for over 45 minutes. We all knew we just experienced a once in a lifetime opportunity of seeing nature at its best.

The Island Packers crew compiled our pictures, videos and stories and shared it all with CA Killer Whale lead research biologist, Alisa Schulman-Janiger. She was thrilled to learn of this amazing display and added our encounter into her database of well-documented but extremely rare behavior between killer whales and humpback whales.

Over the past 10 years, of the 100+ interactions between humpback whales and killer whales around the world, researcher have found that not only do humpbacks aggressively protect their own calves from killer whales, they also tend to rush to the aid of other distraught species like seals, sea lions, dolphins and other larger baleen whales. But why? This is just one of many unanswered questions in the world of whales. And why its one of many reasons working for Island Packers is such an exhilarating opportunity to document and witness some unbelievable whale behavior. There is no doubt this area is so special for whales and whale watching passengers alike.

And it is just one of many reasons why the Santa Barbara Channel is worthy of its prestigious international recognition as a Whale Heritage Area (WHA). This unique and productive marine environment showcases an abundance of marine wildlife, including 27 different species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), which accounts for about one third of the cetaceans found around the world.

After applying and compiling all the needed information for over 2.5 years, we are thrilled to share that on October 20, 2023, the World Cetacean Alliance and the World Animal Protection announced the designation of the 9th WHA in the world, and only the 2nd designation in the United States, the Santa Barbara Channel Whale Heritage Area (SBCWHA).

This designation highlights the region’s commitment to promoting responsible ecotourism, providing more ocean educational opportunities, supporting ongoing research and conservation efforts, and honoring the timeless cultural connection we have with whales.

Together these two organizations have launched a new global program, Wildlife Heritage Areas, as the larger initiative to support a coalition of responsible travel businesses with wildlife conservation. Whales and dolphins are some of the most loved animals in the world. They inspire awe and wonder, fostering a sense of connection with our wild oceans. By highlighting these iconic species, Island Packers along with 30+ other organizations and business are working together to support the efforts of the SBCWHA, with the hopes the public will better understand the modern threats whales endure and learn how we can all be better ocean protectors.

Submitted by Holly Lohuis