James Whitehead certainly knows how to capture attention with smoke bombs on the side of his 23-metre vessel, but his message is clear.
“The end game is a total ban on commercial whale watching, you should not be able to sell a ticket to go harass a wild animal,” Whitehead said.
The former cannabis shop owner and life-long environmental activist was inspired to wage war on the whale watching industry after learning about Tokitae, a Southern Resident orca that has spent decades in captivity at Miami’s Seaquarium.
“Orcas are not for entertainment, cetaceans are not for selfies, and the Salish sea is not a circus,” he said.
So he bought a former wooden military ferry and gave it an eye-catching paint job. The boat got a new name, Seaquarium’s Shame, and so did Whitehead, who has taken on the alias “Captain Jim White”. He calls it performance art intended to show his opposition to the industry.
But the whale-watching industry is calling it something very different.
“Basically declaring the war on a perfectly sensible, professional industry community like this is eco-terrorism,” said Pacific Whale Watch Association Communications Director Kelley Balcomb-Bartok.
“I truly believe he’s misinformed, misdirected and missing the point,” he said.
Balcomb-Bartok says the whale watching industry isn’t there to entertain but rather to educate visitors about the plight of the whales. And he insists their presence on the water is actually beneficial since they can track injured animals, or alert shipping and ferry traffic to the whales’ whereabouts.
“Let’s embrace each other and start working together on the collective needs that the whales face which is salmon and habitat protections,” he said.
Whitehead won’t say when he plans to protest or what exactly he plans to do once he hits the open ocean.
“When you declare war, you do not declare your tactics, they can watch for me on the water,” he said.
The industry says it plans to do just that and report anything they find threatening or potentially harmful to the authorities.