MOUNT VERNON — The number of sightings of Bigg’s killer whales in the Salish Sea in 2022 was double what it was in 2017.
“It’s great for whale watchers and enthusiasts,” said Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Pacific Whale Watch Association, which helps track sightings. “There have frankly never been more whales in the area than there are right now.”
Humpback whales and Bigg’s killer whales were spotted by whale-watching groups on about 75% of days in 2022.
“They have an abundant food source here in the Salish Sea with thriving seal, sea lion and porpoise populations. As a result of abundant prey, the Bigg’s population has been growing, in stark contrast to the declining Southern Resident population, which is happening in response to declining salmon numbers,” said Monika Wieland Shields, director and co-founder of the Orca Behavior Institute.
Southern Resident killer whales are endangered and are not as often spotted by whale watchers as are Bigg’s and humpback whales.
“Planting trees and cleaning up streams and stuff like that—those little projects are the things that will make the difference for Southern Residents in the long run,” Gless said.
Gless said the Pacific Whale Watch Association works to protect all species of whales in the area.
Its actions include cautioning boats that whales are nearby, removing trash from the water and reporting injured whales. In 2022, 74% of interactions were successful in redirecting nearby boats.
“Last year, we logged more than 1,000 sentinel actions,” Gless said. “And now it’s just a fun competition among companies of who can do the most good while we’re out there. That is something we definitely want to continue to promote within our organization.”
The Pacific Whale Watch Association is a network of 30 whale-watching companies throughout Washington and British Columbia, and though these companies are in competition with each other, they put rivalry aside to achieve their goal of preservation and protection.
“Even though the businesses are competitors, you know, vying for that tourist dollar, when we’re out on the water we really help each other,” Gless said. “It really is a community, and that’s something I haven’t experienced anywhere else. This area just draws people who are really passionate about whales.”
The Pacific Whale Watch Association and the Orca Behavior Institute both hope to advance their research and conservation throughout 2023. They say they will continue to document whale sightings and take action to help the whales.
“I think it’s really important that people have hope,” Gless said.