It was pointed into both wheelhouses of the ferry Tokitae.
It was pointed into both wheelhouses of the ferry Tokitae. (To see it with its beam on, scroll down.) Courtesy of Washington State Patrol

I don't know how I missed this story, because it vaguely intersects with one of my obsessions, the endangered killer whale from local waters who was eventually named Lolita. (Her first given name was Tokitae, and the ferry is named after her.) As the Seattle Times reported a few days ago, that high-powered laser above was pointed at the Tokitae from another ferry by someone who said it was a new toy and claimed he was just shining it at the water.

The captain and first mate of the Tokitae said it interfered with their ability to see. It may have also burned their eyes.

I just talked to Sergeant Christina Martin in the Homeland Security Division of the Washington State Patrol, who confirmed that people pointing lasers at ferry captains was something she hadn't seen before—and it's dangerous. "This is the first time we've had this happen with the ferries. We've heard about it with airlines, but we have not seen it with ferries before."

When the laser was confiscated last week, Sergeant Martin told the Times it was unclear what charges might apply. Today Sergeant Martin pointed me to the state law against "Unlawful discharge of a laser in the first degree," which is a class C felony, and comes with a possible $5,000 fine and/or possible jail time. It would be up to the Island County prosecutor's office to pursue such charges; no word yet. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard is conducting its own investigation, and depending on what they discover, civil fines might follow. And Sergeant Martin added, "Depending on injuries there could be an assault charge."

She said she had not talked to the ferry operators personally, and that the final medical results have not come in, but her understanding was that there were eyelid burns and possibly a slight burn to one's cornea. A phone call to Washington State Ferry spokesman Ian Sterling was not immediately returned.

This is what the laser looks like when its on. Its beam is strong enough to ignite a match.
This is what the laser looks like when it's on. Its beam is strong enough to ignite a match. Courtesy of Washington State Patrol

There are two wheelhouses on the ferry, one on each end, and the laser shined into both of them. "When I looked up the specs on this laser," Sergeant Martin told me, "the heat from this laser could light up a match. It could cause a match to ignite. And there's warnings on it about wearing goggles and not pointing it at the face."

The man with the laser got his toy taken away but he was not been arrested. That would only happen if there end up being charges. "He told the trooper it was a new toy and he was pointing it at the water and he didn't mean it to hit the ferry." But as Martin says, the captain said the laser was being shined into both wheelhouses "for more than a minute."

"I know this is going to be a problem in the future," she said. "This could have caused that ferry to run aground if they had blinded that captain to the point that he couldn't control that ferry."

Martin emphasized using lasers "responsibly" and "not to point them at somebody's face."

She added, "My fear is what happens when they do this on the freeway? Someone's going 70 miles an hour and they blind someone? They could kill someone. We just ask that the public use these responsibly and not point them at people's faces, moving vehicles, airplanes, or ferries."