Whale-watching for free, aboard the state ferries

The orcas are venturing south into the Sound this time of year, and the Ferry system has ways to spot them; plus on-shore viewing sites facilitated by The Whale Trail.

Whale watching aboard a Washington State Ferries vessel running from Sidney, B.C., to Anacortes

Whale watching aboard a Washington State Ferries vessel running from Sidney, B.C., to Anacortes Sue Frause

While ferry users grumbled about a general fare increase of 2.5 percent that went into effect on Oct. 1, (with an additional 3 percent increase being imposed on May 1, 2012), there's some offsetting good news. Whale watchers should be pleased about WSF embracing our Resident orca pods. And it’s just in time for fall and early winter when the orca venture south into Puget Sound.

The Washington State Ferries and The Whale Trail have partnered to provide ferry passengers with onboard guides to identify Puget Sound marine mammals. WSF has placed two signs on each ferry vessel, along with one in each terminal. The signs provide descriptions of orcas, gray whales, Dall’s porpoise, harbor seals and California sea lions — plus explaining their habitat needs. The signs are also the first generation of Whale Trail signs that feature a QR code, which allows linking to The Whale Trail’s website site via mobile devices. The Seattle Aquarium donated the graphic design services for the signs, and printing was provided by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Our Southern Resident orcas are endangered,” said Donna Sandstrom, executive director of The Whale Trail. “Ferries are perfect places to observe them and our many other marine mammals.” Lynne Barre of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration praised the collaboration between the Washington State Ferries and The Whale Trail. “This is an excellent example of the kind of partnership it takes to recover our endangered Southern Resident orca population,” said Barre.

According to Susan Berta of the Whidbey Island based Orca Network, Resident orca pods are currently traveling down Admiralty Inlet, chasing blackmouth and chum salmon runs into lower Puget Sound. The Orca Network observed members of J, K, and L pods in Admiralty Inlet during the first week of October. Berta says this time of year offers great opportunities to observe the orcas from the shorelines of Whidbey Island, the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas, and the inland waters of Puget Sound. The Orca Network encourages shore-based whale watching, along with watching for whales while aboard Washington State Ferries.

The Whale Trail is a network of marine mammal viewing sites in the Pacific Northwest. The non-profit organization is a partnership representing state and federal agencies, educational and research institutions, and environmental groups. It includes the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife; NOAA Fisheries; Seattle Aquarium; The Whale Museum; People for Puget Sound; and Coast Watch Society. The non-profit organization’s mission is “to inspire appreciation and stewardship of whales and our marine environment by establishing a network of viewing sites along the whales’ trails through Puget Sound and the coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest.”

So far, The Whale Trail has established 19 sites in Puget Sound, the strait of Juan de Fuca and the Washington coast. More sites will be added in the future.

"The Whale," a documentary about Luna the orca who gets separated from her family off the west coast of Vancouver Island, is playing at The Clyde Theatre in Langley on Whidbey Island Oct. 21-24. Filmmakers Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm of Vancouver Island will give a talk following the 7:30 pm screening on Friday, Oct. 21. Read more about it in my Seattlepi.com blog. Langley is a designated Whale Trail site, located at Whale Bell Park on First Street.

Sue Frause is a Whidbey Island freelance writer and photographer. You can reach her at sue@suefrause.com.


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