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New vessel will open up new opportunities for Center for Whale Research fieldwork

The CWR team chose Washington State’s LIFE PROOF BOATS to build a rugged, safe, stable, and spacious research vessel to navigate in the Salish Sea in the coming decades.

LIFE PROOF BOATS’ commercial-grade aluminum hull and closed-cell foam collar provides exceptional durability and buoyancy, allowing CWR’s new research vessel to operate safely in the most demanding marine conditions Mother Nature throws her way. Unmatched stability, tapered console base, handrails, and generous forward-deck space will permit research staff to work efficiently and effectively (Photographs courtesy of LIFE PROOF BOATS).


"The [Boston] Whalers have done the job superbly, but the time is near to retire them. With the Residents expanded in-season geographical range, it is necessary for the Center [for Whale Research] to have and use a vessel capable of traveling wider distances quickly and safely and has increased working deck area." — Ken Balcomb, CWR Founder (1940-2022)


SINCE THE BEGINNING, the Center for Whale Research has used iconic Boston Whaler vessels for our on-the-water research. Our current research boat is a 1982 Whaler: Orcinus (see picture below with CWR’s Dave Ellifrit and Dr. Michael Weiss on board).

However, as times and technology change, we must keep up, adopting more efficient, safer tools as they become available. In the second half of 2022, Ken Balcomb, Dave Ellifrit, and I frequently met to discuss science planning for the Center for Whale Research’s future. In these discussions, Ken routinely identified a more-robust and advanced research boat as the primary piece of equipment CWR would need to take us through the coming decades of killer whale studies.

These discussions evolved into talks about design needs, cost, and boat manufacturers. Ultimately, we settled on a 23’ aluminum-hull T-Top manufactured by LIFE PROOF BOATS in Bremerton, Washington. LIFE PROOF is a widely respected vessel manufacturer, producing boats for various professional applications, including law enforcement and search and rescue operations.

While CWR’s field staff tries not to “work whales” in rough weather—it’s just not efficient—the new LIFE PROOF vessel will mean we can safely transit rough waters to get to where the whales are or get home after a far-off encounter. Our new boat will feature improved GPS and radar, allowing us to navigate low visibility conditions better.

There are several days each year when the Southern Residents and Bigg’s killer whales are in places we don’t have the capability of reaching. One of the principal reasons we need a new research platform is to expand our killer whale fieldwork range. And this vessel fits the bill. Powered by twin 150 horsepower engines, with a greatly expanded fuel tank (i.e., approximately 30% larger than our current Whaler) and some gains in fuel efficiency, our San Juan Island-based field team will be able to conduct fieldwork in areas currently out of reach, including more northernly regions of the Strait of Georgia and Northern Gulf Islands in British Columbia, and Washington State’s Puget Sound.

CWR’s new research vessel will boost orca encounters each year, increasing our data collection capacity and enhancing our monitoring of these populations.

But it’s not just about getting to the whales. Our new vessel is configured much more optimally for our research procedures. One of the key features is the boat’s increased usable deck space: the bow is completely open, and there’s standing space aft of the console. This spaciousness is especially important for drone operations. We can now move all crew not involved in drone take-offs and landings behind the console while the pilot and catcher (wearing a helmet, eye protection, and gloves) stand on the bow to launch and retrieve the drone. On our Whalers, it is a challenge to safeguard CWR personnel during drone flights.

The Center for Whale Researchs current research boat Orcinus, a 1982 Boston Whaler, with

CWR ORCA SURVEY Lead Dave Ellifrit (left) and Research Director Dr. Michael Weiss on board.


THE ADDED DECK space on the new research boat will also be helpful during ORCA SURVEY photo-identification encounters. While our CWR field teams will remain small—1 to 4 people—the open deck area means more room to work, getting the right angle on whales while not getting in each other’s shots, which is especially important when we have whales on opposite sides of the boat and need to document animals at various angles. The LIFE PROOF’s center-console design will permit researchers to quickly and efficiently move from bow to stern to get a fresh angle without impeding the driver’s line of sight.

The new vessel will also provide extra safety during photo-ID work. We never plan to work in rough conditions, but waves still hit unexpectedly. The foam collar buoyancy stabilizers will help to absorb some of this, providing a more secure platform for our researchers while standing in place or moving around during photo-ID work. The T-Top will partially protect our crew from the elements, protecting our cameras from the rain and shading the driver on hot, sunny days.

Spacious forward deck on the new LIFE PROOF-built CWR research vessel.

Key features of CWR’s new research vessel


  • Aluminum-hull and foam-collar design safely handles rough-water conditions

  • Larger fuel capacity and fuel-efficiency

  • Improved GPS and radar permit navigation in low-visibility environments

  • T-Top and wiper-enhanced windscreen provide partial protection for the crew during inclement and hot weather.


  • Expanded ORCA SURVEY and Aerial Observation Study fieldwork range in more northern regions of the Strait of Georgia and Northern Gulf Islands in British Columbia, and Washington State’s Puget Sound

  • Boosted orca encounters each year, increasing data collection capacity and enhanced population monitoring

  • Increased usable deck space, allowing CWR field staff to move efficiently during ORCA SURVEY photo-ID work and Aerial Observation Study drone flights

  • Foam collar buoyancy stabilizers add stability when taking still photographs and video and during drone take-off and landing.

The bench seat forward of the T-Top center console.

[CWR’s] new vessel is configured much more optimally for our research procedures. One of the key features is the boat’s increased usable deck space: the bow is completely open, and there’s standing space aft of the console. This spaciousness is especially important for drone operations.

— Dr. Michael Weiss, CWR Research Director

LIFE PROOF BOATS are extraordinarily durable and long-lasting. The Center for Whale Research expects our new boat to be our primary research vessel for many, many years.


Funding CWR’s new research vessel Our MOST IMPORTANT orca research tool

In our changing research world, where the whales are more spread out and spend less time in their core summer habitat waters, we need a vessel that travels further, faster, and in various weather conditions. This LIFE PROOF boat will meet these challenges. Vessel Fundraising: We invite your financial gift toward the cost of this vital research equipment upgrade/update. Money donated will directly support the purchase of CWR’s new research vessel. The Vessel: LIFE PROOF BOATS are custom-made. CWR has specified the design and instrument requirements to meet our on-the-water safety and science needs for decades to come. Vessel Delivery: The approximate 18-month construction schedule will see the Center for Whale Research taking possession of our new research vessel in late-fall 2024.

We are sincerely grateful to those who can launch our fundraising initiative. We genuinely appreciate your support.

The Center for Whale Research is a 501c3 non-profit organization registered in Washington State. CWR is a 501(c)3 - ID #91-1334319

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