WDFW and Soundwatch collaboration enhances boater education, marine mammal monitoring in central and south Puget Sound

On a calm, brisk morning on the waters of Puget Sound, something off in the distance catches researchers’ attention.

“Was that a fluke?” asks Alanna Frayne, Soundwatch Boater Education Program coordinator, at the sight of a gray whale tail — or scientifically speaking, fluke — jutting out of the water.

Supporting marine mammal research, the sighting is part of a new Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and Soundwatch collaboration to extend the on-the-water research, monitoring, and boater education that has traditionally spanned northern Puget Sound in the summer to central and south Puget Sound in fall and winter. Launched in 1993, The Whale Museum’s Soundwatch program helps to prevent vessel disturbance to Salish Sea marine mammals, including endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

WDFW staff and Soundwatch led a two-week piloted project this spring in preparation for the project’s central Puget Sound implementation in fall and winter 2022.

Soundwatch Boater Education Program coordinator Alanna Frayne shares information about Be Whale Wise regulations with a recreational boater in mid April 2022 during a pilot project.

Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, Southern Residents make their home along the coast from California to British Columbia. The population, which currently sits at just 74 individuals, faces several challenges: a lack of food, contaminants in their food, and vessel noise and disturbance as they try to hunt and communicate using echolocation.

“The program operates kind of like a lifeguard for the whales,” said Julie Watson, Ph.D., WDFW killer whale policy lead. “Plus, Soundwatch collects valuable information that lets us know how we’re doing on reducing the impacts of boats on whales. We’re really proud to be able to partner with Soundwatch to expand their impact into central Puget Sound.”

“Expanding our efforts south means we have the opportunity to improve our dataset and build on stewardship in this area, which is important not only for Southern Resident recovery but for other marine wildlife too,” Frayne said. “We’ve seen an increase in Bigg’s killer whales and humpbacks, not to mention the on-going gray whale Unusual Mortality Event. Collaborating with WDFW for this project has been really great, and we appreciate all the hard work of the everyone involved to make to happen.”

In addition to recording marine mammal activity, vessel traffic, and other data points on the water, Soundwatch also connects with recreational boaters to be sure they’re continuing to follow regulations and guidelines outlined on the Be Whale Wise, a transboundary effort to promote regulations and guidelines for best practices when operating vessels around marine mammals, notably orcas.

Soundwatch also maintains a long-term dataset on vessel compliance and whale behavior.

What you can do to help

Next time you’re out on the Puget Sound, Be Whale Wise to help protect Southern Resident killer whales:

  • Stay at least 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales and at least 400 yards out of their path or behind the whales.
  • Reduce your speed to seven knots within one-half nautical mile of Southern Residents.

It’s also a best practice to turn off sonar “fish finders” or “depth-sounders” if you see Southern Resident orcas, and consider using the Whale Warning Flag to indicate when you know whales are nearby.

Just as the diver-down flag, for example, indicates there might be scuba divers in the water, the Whale Warning Flag lets others know that there might be whales nearby. If you see the flag while on the water, slow down and continue to follow the Be Whale Wise regulations outlined above. For more information about the Whale Warning Flag — and to get one of your own (free of charge!) — visit the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee website.

The Whale Warning Flag sits docked on board WDFW’s research vessel with Soundwatch in April 2022.

If you see a whale from land or at sea, you should also report your sighting to Whale Report. Sightings are shared with large vessels like cargo ships, tankers and ferries so they can slow down or take other measures to prevent ship strikes. Sightings are also shared with WDFW Enforcement.

Reporting your sightings to Whale Report is the fastest and most reliable way to ensure that large vessel operators and WDFW Enforcement are aware of whales’ presence. The more that people use Whale Report, the better protected the whales will be. Download from the App Store or Google Play.

Learn more about the WhaleReport app with this video above.

To learn more about Soundwatch, visit The Whale Museum’s website. For more information about WDFW’s work to support Southern Resident killer whale recovery, visit our website. We’ll see you out on the water!

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.