Discovering marine mammals from Pacific Coast shore

Erin E Williams

THE WASHINGTON POST – Only 100 yards from a nature centre and down a sandy trail to the Pacific, I spotted a telltale heart-shaped spout – a misty exhalation of a California grey whale on her northern migration – rising from the ocean. Sunlight glinting off the animal’s back was a sparkling sign that some of the best whale watching can occur from a surprising place: land.

This February visit to Dana Point Preserve near San Diego was my fourth stop along the Whale Trail, a collection of coastal sites stretching 1,500 miles from Southern California to British Columbia. These discrete paths and viewpoints are ideal vantages for learning about whales, dolphins and other marine mammals, some that linger tantalisingly close to shore.

From urban parks to wilderness areas to Tribal and First Nations locations, all Whale Trail sites are publicly accessible and provide a good chance of seeing orcas or other marine mammals, depending on the season and place. Yet each one boasts unique landscapes, wildlife and local perspectives. Many feature interpretive panels. Some, such as the Whale Museum on Washington state’s San Juan Island, curate exhibits, and some reflect cultural or historical significance regarding our relationship with whales. Others promote interpretive talks, trainings and citizen sightings to aid scientific research. The Whale Trail website includes each site, as well as tips for observing more than 30 marine mammal species along the West Coast.

“Watching orcas from shore is an act of conservation,” said founder and executive director Donna Sandstrom of the Seattle-based non-profit the Whale Trail. In 2002, she participated in the first successful rehabilitation and reintroduction of an orca to her family: Springer, an orphan from the Northern Resident killer whale community who was lost in the Puget Sound, 300 miles from her home off northern Vancouver Island. A coalition of local organisations and state and federal agencies from Canada and the United States (US) collaborated on the effort.

“When Springer’s family greeted her return, that moment changed my life,” Sandstrom said. “It showed me what’s possible when people, agencies and two nations work together and put the whales first.”

Today, Springer has two calves of her own.

Sandstrom was buoyed by the success but alarmed by the endangered status of another population: Southern Resident killer whales in the Salish Sea, shared between Washington State and British Columbia. Only 74 of these animals, including two young calves, now survive in three pods, or families, that they remain with their entire lives.

A humpback whale surfaces. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

She founded the Whale Trail in 2008 to inspire conservation through wildlife observation. The organisation doesn’t own land, instead working with US and Canadian site hosts, local communities and numerous partners that share its mission. After expanding 16 initial sites to more than 100, Sandstrom now plans to fill in West Coast gaps and explore bringing the model to other locations.

“The Whale Trail provides an alternative platform to see these amazing animals in their natural habitat without the risks of noise or vessel impacts,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) recovery coordinator for Southern Resident killer whales Lynne Barre. NOAA, one of the Whale Trail’s initial core partners, encourages land-based orca viewing in its recovery plan and also supports vessel-based viewing regulations and guidelines. “They live in our watery backyards, and by encouraging people to watch the whales responsibly, we hope to inspire them to learn about stewardship actions to take to support the marine environment.”

While the pandemic has temporarily shuttered many facilities along the trail, others, such as the Dana Point Nature Interpretive Center, are open with social distancing measures. Most outdoor spaces are still accessible, but subject to state and local COVID-19 guidelines.

Prospective visitors can check out the organisation’s Instagram feed and brush up on their whale-sighting skills via its online Whale Trail Viewing Guide. After the new year, Sandstrom hopes to launch opportunities for people to connect virtually.

I first encountered the Whale Trail in the summer of 2019 on a trip to British Columbia’s Gulf Islands, home to diverse wildlife including orcas that sometimes pass a few feet from shore and spyhop – or poke their heads out of the water – to watch people watching them.

On Saturna Island, I bicycled a fern-lined road to East Point, a Whale Trail site in Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. Although whales didn’t surface, the landscape was as full of wildlife as a Disney movie: swallows darted above golden bluffs, oystercatchers zipped over the water, a fawn snoozed in a thicket, harbour seals basked in the sun and a river otter floated atop kelp beds.

I spotted the orcas while island hopping aboard a local commuter ferry; Canada’s BC Ferries (and Washington State Ferries on the US side) is aboard the Whale Trail as a boat-based platform and posts interpretive signs.

“Watch for them at Active Pass,” the ticket attendant had advised, referring to a strait between forested islands. “They like to hang out there. If you’re lucky, you might see a pod.”

I craned my neck over the bow, scanning channels before getting lucky: six orcas, probably members of a Southern Resident pod. Their five-foot dorsal fins sliced through the water, and I could discern their distinctive black-and-white skin markings. I blinked back tears; seeing these animals in their realm felt electric.

Sandstrom agreed. “The first time you see an orca,” she said, “it changes you.”

“When you’re looking out to sea, you never know what you’re going to get,” said research fellow at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation and co-chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force Erich Hoyt. “You’ve got to be present, and you need a little patience, but amazing things can happen.”

During one memorable day, Hoyt saw four dolphin and whale species – including orcas chasing grey whales in the distance, and a grey so close its spout almost reached him – in California’s Monterey Bay, illustrating some of the area’s astounding biodiversity.

Land-based whale watching “doesn’t interfere with what the whales are doing, like the Southern Residents who are mainly trying to get enough salmon to survive,” he said. “You have to be careful wherever your footprint lands, but it’s much easier to give whales space when you’re on land.”

And the sites’ easy accessibility to some urban areas – the Southern Residents, for example, frequently pass several Seattle sites – underscores the fact that even city-dwellers live in or near a whale habitat.

In October, I visited seven Central Oregon coast sites, from Cape Perpetua National Scenic Area to Boiler Bay State Scenic Viewpoint one hour north. The state has well-established viewing locations through Oregon State Parks’ Whale Watching Spoken Here program, which pioneered citizen engagement with grey whale counts that are crucial in determining population size.

The Central Oregon Coast is a whale-watching hot spot, ideal for observing any of the approximately 27,000 grey whales that migrate each year to their winter breeding and calving lagoons in Baja California, then return to their Arctic summer feeding waters – about 12,000 miles round trip.

At Cape Perpetua, I hiked a short trail to the lava-fringed coast where old-growth spruce rainforest plunged into the water. Waves hammered the shoreline, shooting 20 feet into the air and creating ground-trembling percussions. I hopped along tide pools, where a sea otter scampered among the rocks and about 50 pelicans skimmed the swells.

From a viewing deck atop basalt cliffs at Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area, I stood under Oregon’s tallest lighthouse. A bald eagle glided overhead and sea lions hauled out on craggy rocks below, but I cast my eyes adrift, catching a small white puff above the ocean.

Was it a whale? I waited for a breach or a fluke. Perhaps it was one of about 200 resident greys that feed in the summer and fall near the Oregon coast – or maybe it was just a wave crashing into a rock.

Part of the Whale Trail’s appeal is that even if cetaceans don’t make a splash, visitors can enjoy remarkable vistas and ecosystems with abundant wildlife.

“Just being in these places and looking at the ocean is a restorative act,” Sandstrom said.

“And people connect to animals who live there. That’s a way of bringing people into conservation, which starts with awareness and caring.”

Experiencing these coastal habitats was a reminder that animals we’ve connected with still share our world, even close to home.

At the Dana Point Nature Interpretive Center in February, I borrowed binoculars from a docent, then began to pace the half-mile Preserve Trail from one overlook to another, scanning for marine mammals; seals, dolphins, orcas and grey, blue, fin and humpback whales visit the waters.

Hummingbirds and gnatcatchers perched in scrub brush. Sea lions barked on the shore. I looked down, searching for endangered Pacific pocket mice, before my eye caught something much larger in the waves: a whale spout. A moment later, two companions, including a calf, surfaced.

I sat down and watched.