- Ecotourism is a movement that seeks to sustain local communities by uniting conservation, travel, and education. To minimize effects on animal behavior, ecotourism operations must be carefully managed. Local management efforts that can be tailored to the specific area and animals may be more successful than broad‐scale efforts that may be unknown to users of the environment, or inappropriate for the species. A profitable and growing whale‐watch industry exists in Oregon, USA, but prior to this project, no state guidelines existed to protect animals and maintain sustainability of the industry. This project integrated research and outreach regarding gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) behavioral response to vessels, and translated results into community‐developed vessel operation guidelines. We tracked whales and vessels in summer 2015 using non‐invasive, shore‐based theodolite and photo identification techniques. We monitored 2 sites along the Oregon coast with differing levels of vessel traffic for 4 weeks each. We analyzed tracks of whales using Markov chains to assess behavior state changes relative to location, individual, vessel presence, vessel type, and distance between whale and vessel. We documented significant differences in gray whale activity budgets between control and impact conditions, and between study sites. We did not observe significant differences in individual responses to vessel disturbance. Researchers and stakeholders collaboratively applied these results to create scientifically informed vessel operation guidelines that aim to balance the economic and educational gains of a whale‐watch industry with adequate protection of the exploited whale population to enhance sustainability.