By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Another local organization just dove back into in-person events: The Whale Trail presented updates Thursday night at C & P Coffee Company (WSB sponsor), two years after its previous in-person gathering.
The Whale Trail’s founder/director Donna Sandstrom thanked attendees for “tiptoeing back into the world with us.” Here’s what they heard:
THE WHALE TRAIL UPDATES: Sandstrom began with a reintroduction to her organization, starting with her inspiration, Springer, the orphaned orca rescued after getting lost in Puget Sound 20 years ago – Sandstrom’s written a youth-geared book about it, “Orca Rescue!” Springer has given birth to two calves and is pregnant with a third. Sandstrom recapped the amazing story of how once Springer was returned to a cove in British Columbia, her family came for her. She says the story is heartening even all these years later “because sometimes we can get it right.” Then in 2005 she decided to get involved when Southern Resident Killer Whales were listed as endangered. Her founding idea for The Whale Trail was to “let people know where the whales live” – all over the region, not just in a specific confined place. The SRKWs range from Ucluelet, B.C., to Monterey, California. The Whale Trail encourages land-based whale-watching, for one – with markers placed starting in 2010, first on land, then on ferries starting in 2011. TWT has four signs in West Seattle, educating passersby about the species and their home. They have more than 130 sites, including aboard BC Ferries as well as Washington State Ferries. TWT presents programs and events, from impromptu watching when the orcas are around, to Orca Talks like this one.
What’s new in these past two years? Sandstrom, who served on Gov. Inslee‘s task force to help the orcas, noted licensing for commercial whale-watching vessels and the new rules to protect the whales they watch – distance restrictions as well as emergency rules like the ones announced to protect pregnant SRKWs – 3 years in the making. Every time they showed up, “they were mobbed,” she said, and that interferes with their seeking of – listening for – prey (aka food) – a study confirmed that last year. It’s like overfishing, she observed. “Maybe in 30 years the whales will recover” to the point where restrictions can be relaxed, but if action’s not taken to protect them, “we will never get there.” The program doesn’t cover recreational vessels, so they’ve started a voluntary pledge-based program.
Events coming up include the online Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference April 26-28 (Sandstrom is hosting a panel); Celebrate Springer on Springer Day in honor of the 20th anniversary of the rescue July 14th; replacing the Alki Whale Trail sign that was “wiped out” by a big log during a king tide this past winter.
ON THE WATER WITH THE WHALES: West Seattle-based researcher Mark Sears, whose “journey with these whales” began in 1976, talked about encounters in 2021. He briefly displayed his “mug-shot book” that shows the identifying characteristics of all the whales; he and daughter Maya work together identifying, also collecting scraps of what’s left behind after the whales have had a meal – analyzing what they’re eating and “which fish runs are important to them.”
They encountered residents Sept. 7th and Nov. 8th and transients nine times between February and November. “Resident visits are becoming pretty scarce, while transient visits are off the map.” The trend of transients visiting Puget Sound about 15 years ago: “Something’s changed.” They eat a lot of harbor seals, he noted, but that population’s been stable for about 20 years, so “it’s not that.” The Harbor Porpoise population has exploded, though, and there’s been a growth in Steller sea lions too.
On September 7th, they tracked orcas from J Pod from Whidbey Island to Elliott Bay and got four scale samples and two fecal samples – the latter are “incredibly important for researchers.” Drone studies by SR3 showed J56 was in poor condition. He showed Tahlequah with her new calf – she’s the mom who carried a dead calf with her for months. Sears said it was fascinating to watch the whales when they had three paths they could travel, as they deliberated a decision.
Then on November 8th, members of J and L Pod off Whidbey Island, social rather than feeding. He then described encounters with transients and how savagely they treat their prey (later showing what happened to a California Sea Lion as an example). He said paddleboarders approaching them might want to think twice. And he talked about some of the transient whales he’d encountered. One group was in Hood Canal last November 19th through December 24th; they passed West Seattle on December 30th. One of them, T68C1, got stuck on and rescued from an Alaska beach.
Sears also mentioned that he co-authored a 40-page paper with NOAA’s Brad Hanson, “the result of 15 years of work,” “Endangered Predators and Endangered Prey.”
QUIET SOUND: Rachel Aronson, a West Seattleite, is director of this program (which we noted briefly in this report last year). It’s a “collaborative non-regulatory program,” she explained. There are 74 resident orcas now; researchers guess the past stable population could have been as high as 200. Killer whales live in all waters but the SRKW population is unique. “Vessel presence and noise” is one of the “major present-day threats” to them. She explained that sound travels 4.5 times faster in water than in air. Vessel propellers are what make the most noise, not their engines. Quiet Sound emerged from the governor’s task force recommendations.
The program focuses on most types of vessels except for whale-watching boats and recreational vessels. The program’s leadership committee includes reps from Maritime Blue, Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, NWSA, WSF, NOAA, Makah Tribe, Puget Sound Partnership, Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, Marine Exchange of Puget Sound, Coast Guard, NW Indian Fisheries Commission, NRDC, Seattle Aquarium. The state has funded a 1.7-person staff.
Why is it voluntary? She explained that it could be implemented immediately. Canada has a similar program with an 80% participation rate.
What are they doing? Underwater research. Baseline study, hydrophone research, data-sharing with various entities. They are supporting “whale-safe vessels” by providing “large vessels with real-time whale alerts” – reliant on human sightings now but working on other systems like infrared cameras – as well as a “targeted trial of a voluntary vessel slowdown in WA waters.” She said a “relatively small slowdown” can result in a big noise reduction.
How can you report? Get the app WhaleReport, run by BC Cetacean Sightings Network – that’s where sightings will go into the system. They’re working on other ways to get sightings into the alert system, too.
They’re partnering with the US Navy on a “tech challenge” for something that can be mounted on ships above and below water, including domething that could be used on autonomous boats in the future..
Q&A: Are vessel operators hostile to this? Short answer, no, Aronson replied. It’s good business for most, among other motivations. Other threats besides noise? Sandstrom worries that “we don’t know enough” about toxins’ effects, for example, as well as why residents lose so many pregnancies. That led to a reminder that everything in the ecosystem contributes – what you use in/at your residence, what you eat, etc.
“My vision is that when the Southern Residents come back, they have a big ring of quiet around them,” Sandstrom said, urging attendees to leave with a “message of hope.”
GET INVOLVED: The Whale Trail is welcoming more community involvement – contact Sandstrom via thewhaletrail.org.