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Set out on the Whale Trail: See Orcas from the Shore in Washington State

People may have heard of watching orcas off San Juan Islands,  but Donna Sandstrom wants everyone to realize whales are all over the coastal waters of Washington State, including the Salish Sea. For the last two years she’s been working with seven government groups pulling together The Whale Trail, 15 spots where people can see whales from the shore.

Aside from Lime Kiln Point State Park, which bills itself as the best shore-based whale-watching site in the whole world, the Whale Trail reaches up to Vancouver and down to coastal La Push, where the Quileute Nation welcomes the gray whales when they return from their migration to Mexico.

“They could go extinct in 100 years and that’s heartbreaking to me,” she says. “We are right at the intersection of whether they make it or not.” Yet down the coast from the San Juans people in her native Seattle are largely oblivious to the presence of killer whales, Orcinus orca right outside their doors. “It always makes me a little sad that people are surprised whales are here,” she says.

Now they’ll be able to look up public places where they can see whales from public land–which means the viewing is free for people, environmentally low impact and no hassle for whales. Tour operators, sensing the project will just spur more interest, even helped set it up. Behavioral biologist and author Toni Frohoff, has called land-based whale watching “the ideal form,” noting that it works so well in the area “because it gets so deep right off” the shore.

Sandstrom pulled together what she calls a dream team of area whale experts, many of whom she met when they cooperated to rescue Springer, a calf separated from her mother. They pulled together a list of places people could visit where there was a “reasonable chance of viewing whales” at least part of the year.

All of the invited spots said yes. The idea of organizing the spots “seems like its latent in the air,” she says. Oregon has organized Whale Spoken Here sites along its coast. Labrador and Newfoundland provide a neat map of boat and shore-based sites. But those were largely government projects that had tourism in mind. Sandstrom’s project is more focused on the community–getting people to enjoy and understand their wildlife. “To me it’s all about local community,” she says. “These are communities who want to be part of this.”

Each spot will get signs detailing what people can expect to see in the area and when. The focus is on killer whales, but gray whales, seals and sea lions won’t be neglected. Eventually they’d like to train volunteers in each spot.  

The inspiration was the Mission Bell trail in her native California, but the resulting Whale Trail is, I think, even better. The whales are alive and the whale trail will grow as more people figure it out.

Check out the Whale Trail  

Find More Places to See Whales

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