On a hot-as-blazes afternoon at the end of summer, Donna Sandstrom gazes out at the Salish Sea from an overlook along the south side of Seattle’s Alki Point.
She has the tousled-blonde, sun-burnished look of a California girl, and in fact she did grow up in southern California, but Sandstrom moved to Seattle in the early 1980s and has made her home here ever since.
“We are so lucky to live on this urban fjord,” she says, as beachcombers play tag with the surf down on the beach in front of us, and pedestrians walk and jog by on the sidewalk behind us.
But Sandstrom also believes that good fortune is accompanied by deep responsibility, and that’s how this California transplant, once a project and team manager for an influential software company, ended up serving on Washington Governor Jay Inslee's Southern Resident Orca Task Force over the past year.
The Southern Residents are an extended orca clan comprised of the J, K, and L pods, matrilineal family groups that sometimes come together and other times break off to travel with their own family members. Their territory extends throughout the Salish Sea, which stretches between Washington State and British Columbia and includes the waters of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia, and the channels around the San Juan Islands and Gulf Islands.
Also referred to as SRKW, which stands for Southern Resident Killer Whales, the Southern Residents historically had been considered stable at approximately 200 individuals.
But this iconic species of the Salish Sea is currently down to a nearly all-time low of 73 whales. There have been several instances of orca calf mortality over the last couple of years, including the heartbreaking case that received worldwide attention last year when grieving mother Tahlequah carried her dead calf for 17 days, over a thousand miles.
In 2018, Washington Governor Jay Inslee created the orca task force to develop a long-term plan for orca recovery.
As executive director of The Whale Trail, a nonprofit she founded in 2008 that encourages whale-watching from shoreline sites, Sandstrom was tapped for the effort. In addition to folks from nonprofit organizations, the task force also included representatives from the Washington State Legislature, state agencies, tribes, federal and local governments, and the private sector – nearly 50 people in all.
Orcas and humans – a complicated relationship
Orcas have prospered in the Pacific Northwest waters for millennia. Since the last Ice Age, they have been the keystone species of this realm, navigating between the elements of water and air, diving as deep as 800 feet down into the dark undersea canyons and then coming back up for air and breaching into a rain-rich sky.
Building the Whale Trail
by Barbara Lloyd McMichael
Donna Sandstrom is the founder and executive director of TheWhaleTrail.org– photo credit Barbara Lloyd McMichael