On a hot-as-blazes afternoon at the end of summer, Donna Sandstrom gazes out at the Salish Sea from an overlook along the south side of Seattle’s Alki Point.
She has the tousled-blonde, sun-burnished look of a California girl, and in fact she did grow up in southern California, but Sandstrom moved to Seattle in the early 1980s and has made her home here ever since.
“We are so lucky to live on this urban fjord,” she says, as beachcombers play tag with the surf down on the beach in front of us, and pedestrians walk and jog by on the sidewalk behind us.
But Sandstrom also believes that good fortune is accompanied by deep responsibility, and that’s how this California transplant, once a project and team manager for an influential software company, ended up serving on Washington Governor Jay Inslee's Southern Resident Orca Task Force over the past year.
The Southern Residents are an extended orca clan comprised of the J, K, and L pods, matrilineal family groups that sometimes come together and other times break off to travel with their own family members. Their territory extends throughout the Salish Sea, which stretches between Washington State and British Columbia and includes the waters of Puget Sound, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia, and the channels around the San Juan Islands and Gulf Islands.
Also referred to as SRKW, which stands for Southern Resident Killer Whales, the Southern Residents historically had been considered stable at approximately 200 individuals.
But this iconic species of the Salish Sea is currently down to a nearly all-time low of 73 whales. There have been several instances of orca calf mortality over the last couple of years, including the heartbreaking case that received worldwide attention last year when grieving mother Tahlequah carried her dead calf for 17 days, over a thousand miles.
In 2018, Washington Governor Jay Inslee created the orca task force to develop a long-term plan for orca recovery.
As executive director of The Whale Trail, a nonprofit she founded in 2008 that encourages whale-watching from shoreline sites, Sandstrom was tapped for the effort. In addition to folks from nonprofit organizations, the task force also included representatives from the Washington State Legislature, state agencies, tribes, federal and local governments, and the private sector – nearly 50 people in all.
Orcas and humans – a complicated relationship
Orcas have prospered in the Pacific Northwest waters for millennia. Since the last Ice Age, they have been the keystone species of this realm, navigating between the elements of water and air, diving as deep as 800 feet down into the dark undersea canyons and then coming back up for air and breaching into a rain-rich sky.
The first humans to move along this coastline and venture into the waves via cedar canoe recognized the orcas as powerful beings, not to be trifled with. And as they gathered around their fires at night, the humans wove stories of awe around these whales. Some tribes regarded orcas as the wise and protective rulers of an underwater people. Other tribes believed that when their chiefs died they could be reincarnated as orcas in undersea villages.
But all that began to change as explorers from Europe and the United States began to sail into the Salish Sea. They named the waters after white men – the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, Elliott Bay – and after planting their flags from far-off lands, they plundered this region’s natural resources.
A new ethos of human dominion prevailed. In this worldview, the orcas were called blackfish or killer whales. They were characterized as murderous monsters of the sea, and fishermen considered them a threat to their industry. Extermination campaigns were undertaken to rid the seas of this “scourge.”
It wasn’t until the 1960s that yet another point of view began to emerge. That’s when a self-styled marine impresario named Ted Griffin bought a killer whale that had gotten caught in a fishing net, towed it back to Seattle, named it Namu, and turned it into an attraction on the Seattle waterfront.
Despite the fact that the orca sickened and died in captivity a year later, the craze was on – suddenly every marine park around the world wanted to have its own Namu.
Griffin obliged and went into the whale-catching business with some partners. Over the next decade, more than 270 orcas were rounded up throughout the Salish Sea in raids that involved spotter planes, speedboats, vast nets, underwater detonations, harpoons and other brutish tactics.
In August 1970, more than 80 SRKW who were trapped in an infamous orca roundup that took place in Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove. Mass panic filled the bay as the captors used explosives and prodded whales with poles to pry adult whales away from the youths they were struggling to protect. Separated from one another by nets, whales called out to one another in a piercing clamor.
Four baby whales and one adult female orca drowned during the raid. Many others were culled from the superpod and shipped off to aquariums to be trained as entertainers.
All around Penn Cove that day, there were hundreds of people witnessed the event. It was tourist season, and vacationers as well as locals who saw the spectacle and heard the panicked vocalizations of the orca were horrified and said they’d never forget it.
Apparently the SRKW have long memories, too. According to local reports, they avoided Penn Cove for decades following that raid.
Public sentiment was beginning to build against this kind of unregulated activity. In 1972, the United States Marine Mammal Protection Act was enacted, preventing the taking of any marine mammals without a permit.
But the reprieve for whales was brief. By 1974, orca captors associated with SeaWorld were back in business, thanks to an economic hardship exemption granted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
When a capture operation took place in Puget Sound’s southernmost inlet two years later, however, within view of the State Capitol, the State of Washington had had enough. Under swift direction of then-Governor Dan Evans, State Attorney General Slade Gorton went to court and was able to shut down orca capture activities throughout the state –permanently.
But so much damage already had been done. The J, K, and L pods had been deprived of a generation’s worth of breeding orcas, and by 2005 the SRKW were placed on the federal endangered species list.
Today they may be free of the threat of capture, but now they’re facing a new and even more wide-ranging set of challenges.
First, the orcas’ primary food source, salmon, has significantly diminished over the last several decades due to a combination of factors that include global warming, dams and overfishing.
The fish that orcas do find to eat have increased levels of toxins in their flesh from the soup of chemicals that humans drain, leak and flush daily into the Salish Sea. These toxins make their way up the food chain. The resulting bioaccumulation in whale blubber impacts the orcas’ resistance to disease.
Noise pollution has become another critical problem. Whales use echolocation to hunt for their food. In quiet seas, an orca can detect a Chinook salmon as far away as 650 yards – the equivalent of almost six football fields. But the Salish Sea accommodates busy commercial shipping lanes, along with the added commotion of ferries (Washington State operates the nation’s largest ferry system) and pleasure craft. On top of that, the burgeoning whale-watching industry sometimes results in a dozen or more boats puttering around a pod of orcas as they try to hunt for their food. It’s thrilling for the humans, but it inevitably compromises the orcas’ capacity for locating prey.
Overarching all of these are the effects of climate change and ocean acidification, which are causing numerous alterations to an ecosystem and food chain that the Southern Residents traditionally have relied upon.
These are the challenges that Governor Inslee’s task force was charged with tackling. And if their efforts fail, scientists fear that SRKW’s downward spiral in population will continue, and the J, K and L pods may face extinction within the next hundred years.
The making of a whale advocate
Sandstrom’s activism on behalf of whales began shortly after she first arrived in Seattle in the 1980s. Back then she engaged in letter-writing campaigns to keep SeaWorld from collecting more orcas to augment its captive breeding program.
By the early 1990s, she was taking her first steps into public education about the whales. She founded the Orca Alliance in 1993 to facilitate collaborations between whale advocacy groups, and she arranged public education events about whales – bringing in speakers and focusing on the plight of whales held in marine parks.
One program focused on Lolita/Tokitae, one of the young whales captured in the Penn Cove raid, and the only one still alive today. Lolita has spent the last 49 years in captivity. The three-and-a-half ton whale lives at Miami’s Seaquarium, in a tank that is shallower than the length of her body. Repeated efforts to bring her back to the Salish Sea have been rebuffed by Seaquarium owners.
Clearly, not all advocacy efforts bear fruit, and it can be discouraging. But sometimes there are gleams of hope.
Back on a wintry January day in 2002, a quartermaster on the ferry run to Vashon Island (just across Puget Sound from Seattle) called in a report: there was a small orca hanging around the ferry dock – by itself. This was highly irregular – orcas are known as a nannying culture, and if a mother is not present, there’s usually an auntie or grandmother near by. But this orca calf was on its own, and it was ailing.
“That,” Sandstrom says, “was when everything came together.”
Scientists scrambled to figure out where the calf, eventually called Springer, had come from. They recorded and listened to her vocal calls, which are distinctive to every pod, and eventually they were able to link her to A Pod, from the community of Northern Resident killer whales (NRKW). With her mother missing and apparently dead, this orca calf – the equivalent of a toddler – had strayed 250 miles out of her territory.
Springer was emaciated, she had worms, and her skin was in bad shape. Additionally, she had developed an alarming habit of rubbing up against marine vessels of all sizes. Perhaps the calf was compensating for the touchy-feely social interaction normally practiced amongst orcas, but this was putting both boaters and herself at risk.
Much debate ensued amongst the papers and in the local press about what to do. Should an attempt be made to reconnect Springer with her family? Should nature be allowed to run its course without human intervention? Should she be sent to an aquarium for rehabilitation?
This was where Sandstrom stepped in. “I found my role as a public organizer, serving as liaison between what science knows and the public interest in whales.” And there was no way she was going to let any aquarium get its clutches on another orca from the Salish Sea.
After many fits and starts among many different stakeholders, and under intense public scrutiny, the decision was made to try to return Springer to her family. The audacious effort would involve an unprecedented coalition of American and Canadian government agencies, First Nations fishermen, scientists, conservation groups, veterinarians, and a boatbuilding company.
Sandstrom’s Orca Alliance was tapped by the National Marine Fisheries Service as one of the key organizations responsible for raising dollars that would attract matching grants to cover the operation. The money was raised in a matter of weeks, and the plan was set into motion.
In June of 2002, Springer was captured and held in a sea pen at a research station in Puget Sound. She responded well to medical treatment and enhanced nutrition. Within a few weeks, the worms were eradicated, her appetite rebounded, she gained weight, and her skin condition cleared up.
Just a month later, in a painstakingly crafted operation that still managed to develop a few harrowing kinks along the way, the young orca was lifted by crane aboard a catamaran and deposited into a shallow, custom-built tub for the 13-hour journey north.
Upon arrival in her home waters of Johnstone Strait, British Columbia, she was carefully transferred into another sea pen. Remarkably, within 24 hours, she had re-established vocal contact with extended members of her family. She was released from the pen shortly thereafter. It took a few days of tentative overtures and trailing after the pod for Springer to gain acceptance from her long-lost relatives. But gradually the resilient little whale began to bond with her kin, and in the months that followed, she managed to be reintegrated within the pod.
Naturally, the partners who had worked together to reunite Springer with her family felt elated and empowered – Sandstrom among them.
“We had the political will to make it happen!” she says now. “It’s the deepest joy – and everybody who participated shares that.”
There is additional gratification in knowing that Springer, now an adult, has become a mother two times over, and her children are thriving. This has been perhaps the most spectacular of several successes for the NRKW. But what about the Southern Residents?
Building the Whale Trail
Around the time the SRKW were listed as endangered in 2005, Sandstrom began working on a plan. She had seen the power of public engagement around Springer’s case, and she was keen on increasing public awareness around the issues facing the Southern Residents.
She knew that whale-watching tours had been increasing in popularity, and were considered an effective way to generate enthusiasm for whales and their wellbeing. On the other hand, with noise being cited as one of the harmful impacts on the SRKW, she was concerned that whale-watching boats, ever increasing in numbers, could inadvertently be contributing to the problem.
So she came up with an alternative. A land-based whale trail could identify places around Puget Sound to watch for orcas and other whales from the shore, and provide signage to let casual passersby know what to look for.
Sandstrom reached out to the partners she had worked with during the days of Springer’s rescue – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, People for Puget Sound, the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife, Seattle Aquarium, the Whale Museum and others – and they collaborated in the selection of 16 inaugural sites for the Whale Trail.
The first signs went up in 2010, the same year that TheWhaleTrail.org achieved status as a nonprofit organization. The next year, signs were posted on every Washington State ferry and in every ferry terminal. More signs were erected on Washington shorelines and coastlines in 2012 and in 2013, and in 2014 the first Whale Trail signs in California were posted, followed by signs in Oregon and British Columbia in 2015. Today there are over a hundred sites and signs all along the coast from British Columbia to southern California, and even more are on the way. The recent formation of a team in Mexico, La Ruta de las Ballenas, suggests that Whale Trail signs may soon be coming to la línea costera there, as well.
Each sign has customized information pertaining to the site where it is situated. The signs describe not only the whales that frequent the local waters, but also any other marine mammals that might be spotted there, including dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, seals and otters.
At the Charles Richey Viewpoint in West Seattle, on that aforementioned hot day in August, there are no whales in sight. In fact, the J, K and L pods were abnormally absent from Puget Sound during the summer of 2019 – apparently there’s not enough food for them here.
But the pedestrians going by don’t necessarily know that. They pause to consult the sign, then look out at Puget Sound for any evidence of dorsal fins or flukes emerging from the water.
Sandstrom gets up to chat with some tourists from Hawaii, and then with a local resident who has brought a friend visiting from Germany. She tells them a bit about the orcas’ long history in the Salish Sea, and touches on the threats they now face. Public education is crucial, but there’s a delicate balance between conveying the urgency of the matter enough to get people to want to help, and not loading them down with so much dire data that it leaves them feeling impotent.
The Governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force
The challenge faced by the Governor’s orca task force was formidable. The group met between May and November 2018, holding six meetings across Washington State, and collecting 18,000 comments from the public. Experts were called upon to provide the best available science to research and analyze possible actions.
All of the stakeholders at the table understood the crucial nature of their work. The collapse of salmon runs and orca pods in the Salish Sea and beyond would be an unconscionable desecration. But there were so many pieces to this complex puzzle. How could we give up our carefully engineered waterways, which still provide economic benefit, even as they are profoundly compromising the ecosystem? How might we step back from our totalitarian claim on an environment that is also essential for an elegant, complex, large-brained species whose ways and capacities we have only begun to recognize, much less fathom?
Late last fall, in its report back to the Governor, the task force called for “swift and bold near-term actions and effective long-term actions” that would result in boosting the SRKW population by ten additional whales in the next ten years. The task force listed several goals that would help the SRKW population to thrive.
Heeding much of the task force’s advice, in the very next legislative session the Legislature passed, and Governor Inslee signed, five bills designed to spur orca recovery. These laws strengthen requirements for the safe passage of oil tankers; implement recommendations for improving habitat and increasing fish stocks; authorize the Washington State Department of Ecology to restrict the use of chemicals that impact orcas and the environment; educate boaters about whale-watching; and decrease vessel noise and traffic.
Still, Sandstrom is not satisfied. In the photos showing the Governor with supporters of the orca recovery bills right after he’d signed those bills into law, she is the one who isn’t smiling. That may be because one of the task force’s recommendations that she considered essential was not included in the recovery package.
A proposed moratorium of 3-5 years on all whale-watching vessels around the Southern Residents – and that would have affected not just the commercial whale-watching fleet, but also recreational boats and even non-motorized vessels – was met with considerable resistance by the multi-million dollar whale watching industry. One high-profile foe of the moratorium sniped in a newspaper editorial about “emotional and irrational anti-whale watching agendas.”
The steadfast work of Sandstrom’s nonprofit organization over the past decade speaks for itself. She certainly isn’t against watching whales; she counters that she is just being realistic. “The goal is to make it easier for whales to echolocate on their food and not interfere with their social calls…. What can we do to stack the deck for their success?”
She points out that the moratorium would apply only to the endangered Southern Residents, not the Northern Residents, and it would be for a limited period, to see if it actually could make a difference.
Sandstrom will be pushing to have the moratorium reconsidered in the next legislative session.
“I want to go all in for the Southern Residents,” she says, looking past the Whale Trail sign, and out at the Salish Sea.
But on this day, at least, there are no whales to be seen.
Readers who are interested in supporting a suspension of whale-watching on the Southern Residents by all vessels can contact:
Washington Governor Jay Inslee;
and NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region administrators Barry Thom (Regional Administrator) and Scott Rumsey (Deputy Regional Administrator).
Residents in Washington State might also contact their state legislators.