April 28, 2016
People come to the San Juans to get up close and personal with the whales, but how close is too close?
“We looked up and there was a drone about 20 to 30 yards above the water, directly above a pod of whales,” said Sgt. Russ Mullins of the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife.
That case involves Mercer Island photographer Douglas Shih, and his drone, last year.
“One of the things we’re concerned with is drone operators getting distracted and creating a close quarters situation where you could potentially even have a strike with a whale,” said Sgt. Mullins.
Shih and his attorney, Stephen Brandli, fought the ticket, eventually getting the case dropped. They argued the law, which states “vessels and other objects” can’t come within 200 yards of a killer whale, is too vague.
It doesn’t specifically mention drones, or anything that flies.
“If I fly a kite, and some law enforcement officer decides that red kite disturbs the whales, he could technically cite me,” said Brandli.
Further complicating matters is the FAA, which makes the rules about things that fly, but is not clear on this issue.
What is clear is the issue isn’t going away.
“It’s an evolving issue,” said Mullins. “It’s complicated.”
Just an hour after the Shih incident last August, another drone pilot was ticketed.
San Juan County prosecutor Randy Gaylord has asked the state attorney general for an opinion on the issue, but any changes in the law would have to go through the state legislature.
Clarification can’t come soon enough in the San Juans, with another busy whale watching season on the horizon.