History and context
In 2002, citizen stakeholders, the United States National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA Fisheries), Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) and the Vancouver Aquarium joined forces to successfully rescue, rehabilitate and return an orphaned killer whale named Springer to her native wild pod in the Puget Sound. The risky undertaking was more successful than almost anyone could have hoped for, with Springer successfully reunited with her native pod, and now producing healthy calves of her own. The experience created a bond between the individuals and organisations that participated in the rescue, including citizen stakeholder Donna Sandstrom.
While Springer thrived, the Southern Resident Killer Whale population began a precipitous decline, to the extent that they were declared endangered in 2005. Alarmed at their plight, and inspired by Springer’s success, Donna Sandstrom left her career in software development to found a programme focused on building awareness about Southern Resident Killer whales and other marine mammals.
The programme’s inspiration came from Donna’s childhood in California, where a series of mission bells along Highway One connect travelers to the historical significance of the road. What if a similar series of signs could educate people about killer whales, and where to watch them from shore? In 2008, Sandstrom coordinated the first meeting to turn this concept into a reality, reuniting many partners from the Springer rescue, and inviting new partners to join in the effort to create the Whale Trail. The founding partners included NOAA Fisheries, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, People for Puget Sound, Seattle Aquarium, and the Whale Museum. The partners agreed to focus on four main objectives:
- increase awareness that the Northwest Pacific waters are home to orcas and other species;
- connect visitors to orcas, other marine wildlife and their habitat;
- inspire stewardship and build community; and
- promote land-based whale watching.
They selected 16 inaugural sites, created a website, and set about designing and producing the first signs that would be installed at the shore-based whale watching sites they had selected. The first signs were installed in 2010, along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Over the next few years, signs were installed on every Washington State ferry, throughout the Salish Sea, and along the Pacific Coast. In 2014, through a partnership with National Marine Sanctuaries, West Coast Region, the project expanded to California, adding signs in Monterey, Santa Cruz and Point Reyes. In 2015 the team partnered with the BC Cetacean Sighting Network to add sites and signs throughout British Columbia, and with an Oregon team to add sites there.
The founding goal of The Whale Trail was to add sites and signs throughout Southern Resident Killer Whale range. As the project expanded beyond SRKW range, The Whale Trail has a new goal to extend from Baja to Alaska, along the gray whale migration route. There are now more than 90 Whale Trail sites, spanning the west coast from California to British Columbia. Through the current sites and signs, including 2 on every Washington State ferry, the project reaches more than 90 million people each year.