One of the amazing aspects of the Pacific Northwest is our proximity to the Salish Sea and the Pacific Ocean. These bodies of water are home to a myriad of animals, plants, and other forms of life. Orcas, sharks, sea otters, salmon, puffins, some dolphins and porpoises, and walruses are just some of the animals out there. Being able to see some of these animals out in the wild is a truly amazing experience and springtime is a great time to try and see some.
NOTE: It’s important to keep in mind that wild animals have the potential to be dangerous, especially if they feel threatened. While out in nature, be sure to keep a distance between you and any animals and bring binoculars if you’d like to get a closer look. If you think you found an injured or abandoned animal, call your local Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA, or nearby wildlife rehabilitation center. If you are in Oregon, there’s even the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network. People with the best of intentions could cause serious damage to a wild animal (or themselves) if they’re not trained so please keep your distance.
Where To Whale Watch From Shore
From British Columbia to the Olympia Peninsula and then all the way down to Southern California, there are over 100 sites where you can go and look for marine mammals. These specific sites are a part of The Whale Trail project, a non-profit located in Seattle, Washington that works with local partners to maintain the sites. Some of these sites are more accessible than others, as there are plenty of sites on rugged or sandy terrain. Iconic sites include Ventura Pier and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in California, Sea Lion Caves in Oregon, Cape Flattery and Seattle Aquarium in Washington, and Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver, British Columbia.
Shore-based marine mammal watching has some benefits, including being an economical experience that promotes citizen science and conservation practices and helping reduce ship strikes with whales. Noise pollution from boats can cause issues for marine mammals that rely on eco-location to communicate and hunt and while there are many amazing whale watching companies in the northwest (and the topic is far more complex), there are other options to see wildlife.
The Importance of Citizen Science
In addition to being a focus of The Whale Trail, citizen science is a crucial part of both science as a whole and the conservation/recovery of important species. The Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audubon Society is one of the oldest and maybe most well-known examples of citizen science, where citizens around the United States and Canada can join a local group led by an experienced birder to collect information about local birds. Citizen science of all types can help gather more information about different species from many places all at the same time, allowing for large amounts of data that may not have been collected otherwise.
When to Go to The Whale Trail Sites in the Pacific Northwest
While there’s always a chance you’ll see animals at the sites year-round, there are times of the year when you’re more likely to see different types of animals. The best time to possibly see gray whales in the Pacific Northwest is during the spring (March, April, May) when they’re migrating from the waters off of Baja California to the North Pacific. Resident and transient orcas can usually be found in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea year-round but are most often seen from April through September. Unfortunately, other whales, like the humpback, minke, and blue, are hard to see from the shores of Oregon and Washington.
The spring and summer are great times in the Pacific Northwest and all along the west coast to go whale watching from the shore, as you’re more likely to see some animals and the weather is a lot better.
- Where the whales are: Discovering marine mammals from shore along the Pacific Coast by Erin E. Williams, The Washington Post
Other Animals You Can See
In addition to whales, you can also see animals like porpoises, dolphins, and more in the waters off of the west coast! There are two types of porpoises in the Pacific Northwest. The Dall’s porpoise is 6-7 feet long with black and white coloring and an exceedingly friendly and energetic personality. They tend to like deeper water and thus, are found farther offshore. But they can be seen swimming and leaping out of the water beside boats! The Harbor porpoise is a bit smaller at 4-6 feet long and has a blunt, round head. Unlike Dall’s porpoises, these porpoises are shy and elusive and found swimming alone in shallower waters like harbors and bays.
Other marine mammals in the area include the California sea lion, harbor seal, northern sea otter, southern sea otter, northern elephant seals, and northern sea lions.
What To Bring
If you do go to a Whale Trail site, there are a few things to consider bringing! Some sites are on piers or close to a parking lot but others involve a walk or hike to get to. A good pair of shoes and socks plus weather-appropriate clothes are great things to bring/wear. If you’re planning to be out for a while, bring a day pack with water, sunscreen, your phone, a camera (if you have one and want to bring it), writing utensils, and a notebook (if you want to draw or write notes).
There are at least three organizations you can report or look up whale sightings to, The Whale Trail, B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, and the Orca Network. The Whale Trail and Orca Network are both based in Washington state but work with local partners and private citizens up and down the west coast of North America to promote awareness of whales and conservation. As indicated in the name, the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network only looks for information on cetaceans and sea turtles in British Columbia’s waters.
The great news about the ever-changing digital age is that it’s easier than ever to report whale sightings. Here are some smartphone apps and websites you can report sightings:
- The WhaleReport App from B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network
- Report Your Sightings to The Whale Trail
- Email sightings to the Orca Network firstname.lastname@example.org
Have you ever been to a Whale Trail site? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!