Building the Whale Trail
Around the time the SRKW were listed as endangered in 2005, Sandstrom began working on a plan. She had seen the power of public engagement around Springer’s case, and she was keen on increasing public awareness around the issues facing the Southern Residents.
She knew that whale-watching tours had been increasing in popularity, and were considered an effective way to generate enthusiasm for whales and their wellbeing. On the other hand, with noise being cited as one of the harmful impacts on the SRKW, she was concerned that whale-watching boats, ever increasing in numbers, could inadvertently be contributing to the problem.
So she came up with an alternative. A land-based whale trail could identify places around Puget Sound to watch for orcas and other whales from the shore, and provide signage to let casual passersby know what to look for.
Sandstrom reached out to the partners she had worked with during the days of Springer’s rescue – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, People for Puget Sound, the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife, Seattle Aquarium, the Whale Museum and others – and they collaborated in the selection of 16 inaugural sites for the Whale Trail.
The first signs went up in 2010, the same year that TheWhaleTrail.org achieved status as a nonprofit organization. The next year, signs were posted on every Washington State ferry and in every ferry terminal. More signs were erected on Washington shorelines and coastlines in 2012 and in 2013, and in 2014 the first Whale Trail signs in California were posted, followed by signs in Oregon and British Columbia in 2015. Today there are over a hundred sites and signs all along the coast from British Columbia to southern California, and even more are on the way. The recent formation of a team in Mexico, La Ruta de las Ballenas, suggests that Whale Trail signs may soon be coming to la línea costera there, as well.
Each sign has customized information pertaining to the site where it is situated. The signs describe not only the whales that frequent the local waters, but also any other marine mammals that might be spotted there, including dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, seals and otters.
At the Charles Richey Viewpoint in West Seattle, on that aforementioned hot day in August, there are no whales in sight. In fact, the J, K and L pods were abnormally absent from Puget Sound during the summer of 2019 – apparently there’s not enough food for them here.
But the pedestrians going by don’t necessarily know that. They pause to consult the sign, then look out at Puget Sound for any evidence of dorsal fins or flukes emerging from the water.
Sandstrom gets up to chat with some tourists from Hawaii, and then with a local resident who has brought a friend visiting from Germany. She tells them a bit about the orcas’ long history in the Salish Sea, and touches on the threats they now face. Public education is crucial, but there’s a delicate balance between conveying the urgency of the matter enough to get people to want to help, and not loading them down with so much dire data that it leaves them feeling impotent.
The Governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force
The challenge faced by the Governor’s orca task force was formidable. The group met between May and November 2018, holding six meetings across Washington State, and collecting 18,000 comments from the public. Experts were called upon to provide the best available science to research and analyze possible actions.
Sandstrom meets with visitors from Hawaii at The Whale Trail sign located at the Charles Richey, Jr. Viewpoint in West Seattle – photo credit Barbara Lloyd McMichael