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Published: Friday, March 30, 2012, 2:10 p.m.

Whale Trail Project advises shoreline whale watching

Watching orcas from land helps their long-term prospects, new project asserts

  • An orca is spotted near the San Juan Islands.

    Herald file photo

    An orca is spotted near the San Juan Islands.

  • A pod of at least 11 orca whales glides through Puget Sound between Clinton and Mukilteo.

    Herald file photo

    A pod of at least 11 orca whales glides through Puget Sound between Clinton and Mukilteo.

A decade ago, a stranded orca named Springer galvanized the Puget Sound community.
The orphaned whale made her home off Edmonds and Vashon Island, emaciated and separated from her pod, a group of whales that summer off the north end of Vancouver Island and winter in Alaskan waters.
Springer's close proximity to shore, where her movements could be observed by thousands, in part led to the extraordinary effort to reunite her with her pod.
It's a rare success story in what many believe is the lopsided relationship humans have with these graceful and gorgeous mammals.
A reduction in salmon populations, accumulations in toxins and boat traffic are all human-caused problems that pose serious threats to the orca population in Puget Sound, said Donna Sandstrom, president and executive director of The Whale Trail Project.
"Our overarching goal is to be sure that the southern resident orcas don't go extinct," she said. "They're endangered and could disappear within 100 years."
Sandstrom's Whale Trail Project is designed to raise awareness about the whales, and to encourage people to observe them from the shore, a sustainable and safe way to appreciate the magnificent mammals.
The project has identified nearly three dozen locations in city, county and state parks, and on tribal lands, around Puget Sound. From these easily reachable areas it's possible to see the whales swim by. The trail also points out places where there's a lot of information about the whales, such as the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.
An interactive map on the project's website, www.thewhaletrail.org, makes it easy to find places to visit. Snohomish County's Whale Trail location is Jetty Island. City officials have agreed to work with the project, Sandstrom said.
The only boats or ships associated with the project are the Washington State Ferries. Each ferry has information about the Whale Trail project aboard, and whales often can be seen during transit.
Noise from boats has been shown to hinder how the whales communicate and hunt, Sandstrom said. Some people may believe the only way to view orcas is from a whale-watching expedition boat. When boats get close to the whales, the vessels may cause stress to the animals, she said.
"We're interested in providing an alternative experience," Sandstrom said. "We are not anti-whale-watching (by boat). We're just creating a small piece of common ground that everybody can support and that's free."
Sandstrom built a coalition of partners, drawing a relationships forged during Springer's relocation.
Now, she's trying to install signs and other information tools at various places where people can spy whales from land.
The short-term goal is to create a network of locations in every county with salt water coastline, she said.
Reaching farther into the future, the project hopes to help the Puget Sound orca population to thrive.
"They are endangered and the clock is ticking for them," Sandstrom said. "What is good for them is good for everything else in the Sound."
Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447; jholtz@heraldnet.com.
The Whale Trail Project
Donna Sandstrom will be talking about The Whale Trail Project as part of the Washington State University Snohomish County Extension Beach Watchers series.
Her free talk is scheduled for 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Mukilteo City Hall, 11930 Cyrus Way, Mukilteo.
For more information, contact Chrys Bertolotto at Chrys@wsu.edu or 425-357-6020.

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