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No-Impact Whale Watching: The Whale Trail Builds Knowledge of Whales and Support for Recovery

October 26, 2020

More than 100 West Coast sites from Canada to California feature whale watching from shore.

Southern Resident Connections - Post 11

Person looking through binoculars out to sea Taking in the view at one of The Whale Trail's northernmost stops in Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Credit: The Whale Trail

For years Donna Sandstrom watched Southern Resident killer whales and other whales from shore near her home in West Seattle. It’s perhaps the best urban area in the nation to view these and other cetaceans.

“People were always surprised—delighted but also surprised—to see the orcas,” she recalled. “It made me a little sad that they were so surprised, because the Southern Residents have lived here for tens of thousands of years—this is their home. Most people knew that they lived in Washington waters, but few people understood—then—that central Puget Sound is an important part of their range.”

Sandstrom envisioned a series of shore-based viewing sites to build awareness about the orcas and other whales and dolphins. Soon she realized that she was not alone—others had similar ideas. Washington-based illustrator Uko Gorter had sketched a map of what a whale-watching trail in the region might look like. Others had compiled lists of the best places for watching whales from shore.

Donna Sandstrom talking with Gov. Jay Inslee and his family
Donna Sandstrom, at left, of The Whale Trail talks with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and his family at a stop on The Whale Trail at West Beach in Deception Pass State Park. Credit: The Whale Trail

From those efforts came The Whale Trail, a West Coast network of more than 100 shoreside whale watching sites. These spots bring people and whales together, throughout and beyond the Southern Resident orca range. In doing so, they build knowledge and appreciation for native cetaceans and what they need to thrive. 

Every location has its own Whale Trail webpage and many feature interpretive panels. “The signs reach a diverse cross-section of people who might otherwise seek out this information,” said Sandstrom, who also served on Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s Task Force on Southern Resident killer whale recovery. “We reach people when they’re on a walk, taking a hike, or riding a ferry. There’s a golden moment when people read the sign and then look out at the sea with a new understanding of the animals that live there.”

Avoiding Vessel Impacts

Watching whales from shore also avoids the impacts of boat noise and traffic. This has been recognized as one of the main threats to the endangered Southern Residents. Other threats include availability of prey and toxic pollution. The situation has become ever more important as the small population’s numbers have dwindled to 73, including a recently born calf.

The Whale Trail has key partners and supporters, including NOAA Fisheries. Many of them first worked together in returning an orphaned Northern Resident orca, known as Springer, back to her family in Canada in 2002. That same cooperative spirit helped build The Whale Trail’s first viewing sites. Now shoreside viewing is included in NOAA Fisheries’ recovery plan for Southern Residents.

“The Recovery Plan includes encouraging land-based viewing to reduce vessel impacts and outreach to inspire the public to take positive actions to improve conditions for the whales,” said Lynne Barre, Recovery Coordinator for the Southern Resident killer whales in NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. “The great thing about The Whale Trail is that it helps people do both.”

Bringing attention to viewing opportunities also benefits West Coast communities, Sandstrom said. The Whale Trail dedicated its first site in 2010 on the Olympic Peninsula, in cooperation with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, the Juan de Fuca Scenic Byway Association and other groups interested in bringing more visitors to the Peninsula. “It was the perfect match,” she said.

Whale Trail sign
An interpretive sign at a stop on The Whale Trail in San Simeon. California. Credit: The Whale Trail

Emphasizing Citizen Science

The Whale Trail now stretches from sites north of Vancouver Island south as far as San Diego. Many offer views of the Southern Residents, which are known to travel as far south as California’s Monterey Bay in search of prey. Others include chances to view gray whales, humpback whales, and many other marine species.

The British Columbia Cetacean Sightings Network brought more whale-watching sites into the fold to help boost whale sightings. They emphasize the value of citizen science in tracking and understanding local whale populations. British Columbia now has more than 40 Whale Trail sites, each with interpretive information and guidance in reporting sightings. Most recently, BC Ferries has joined The Whale Trail and added signs at its terminals.

In 2014, The Whale Trail partnered with NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries West Coast Region to add the first signs in California, in Santa Cruz, Point Reyes, and Point Lobos. In 2018 the project added 11 sites along the Mendocino Coast and its first dedicated sign in Oregon.

The citizen science comes when whale watchers report sightings through apps, such as Whale Report and Whale Alert, that improve understanding of whales and their movements.

“We don’t own any land,” Sandstrom says. “The Whale Trail exists because our partners share our vision, and understand that wildlife viewing can be a powerful way to inspire conservation. Caring about orcas leads to caring about the marine ecosystem, forests, watersheds, and salmon-bearing rivers they depend on. Here in West Seattle, people are reminded that our everyday actions matter—what goes down our drains has an impact on whether the orcas will survive.” 

The Whale Trail’s website offers visitors the chance to nominate new sites. That helps meet its ongoing mission to discover new shore-based whale-watching opportunities and increase the number of sites, while also advocating for recovery of the Southern Residents.

“Our goal is for people to be so impressed by what they can see from shore, they cannot help but become advocates for recovering J, K, and L pods,” Sandstrom said, noting the three pods of Southern Residents. “That’s the ultimate benefit.”

Southern Resident Connections

Southern Resident Connections

Southern Resident killer whales are icons of a vibrant but struggling marine ecosystem that is important to us all. Join us in exploring the ecological connections that tie this system together, and the ways we are protecting and working to recover the whales we all care so much about.

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Last updated by West Coast Regional Office on January 18, 2024