In Seattle, the phones are ringing. Killer whales could be close

SEATTLE (AP) – Peter Bates was dropping his car off at the mechanic this month when a notification was sent to his…

SEATTLE (AP) — Peter Bates was dropping his car off at the mechanic this month when a notification buzzed on his phone: killer whales were approaching his Seattle neighborhood.

He hopped on a bus headed to the water, then onto an electric bike. He was pedaling along a riverside path when the orcas’ black fins and white spots broke through the water just meters away.

“They move so fast. I was pedaling fast,” he said. “I was speechless the whole way. It was a totally joyful experience, full of admiration.

In a city known for its stunning views of Puget Sound, and where destiny endangered resident orcas is a common topic of conversation, spotting these enchanting creatures is always an elusive treat.

But Salish wildlife monitoring, a WhatsApp group chat that alerts its 1,800 members when orcas are nearby, aims to make it easier for residents like Bates to have wonderful experiences with them and motivate people to learn about and protect the animals .

Users credit real-time updates for spotting whales swimming past the city skyline, calves with their parents, pod hunts, and orcas surfacing so close to shore they could hear and feel their fishy breathing.

“It was just a little addictive,” said Seattle focus group member Ian Elliott, who saw orcas with visiting friends. “You have the city and then you can go to any waterfront park and see these really wild animals.”

Behind these alerts is Kersti Muul, a biologist and wildlife advocate, who hopes these experiences will motivate people to learn more about animals and protect them. Muul created the group chat to consolidate the threads and social media pages she used to update when the orcas were around. Advice comes from his whale-watching friends, group members, and most trusted colleagues.

“I like to bring people out and especially people who have never seen a whale before,” Muul said. “I don’t know anyone who’s had a close pass and doesn’t immediately love whales.”

Muul’s first love is birds, and she named Salish Wildlife Watch in homage to the maze of inland waters between Washington state and British Columbia called the Salish Sea. She planned to include alerts for all kinds of animals. The orcas, however, became the stars.

Muul doesn’t mind. She hopes to harness the charisma of whales to raise awareness of the challenges facing the ecosystem, such as depleted salmon runsthe noise of ships interfering with their chase and collisions with boats and ships.

“They’re in our backyard, which is humbling and honoring to begin with,” she said. “I try to promote and facilitate equity and inspiration, and inspiration as a vehicle for advocacy. This is the only way people can get involved.

Sculpted by retreating glaciers, the Salish Sea has been home to orcas since time immemorial. They are revered by the indigenous Coast Salish people.

Visits by “Bigg’s” or “transient” orcas have increased in recent decades as populations of their prey, such as seals and sea lions, rebound in the region. Group chat alerts led people to see these orcas hunting just off the Seattle waterfront near sports stadiums.

Then there are the southern “resident” orcas, an endangered group that feeds primarily on salmon. Earlier this year, Lolita or Toki, the last captive member of this population, died in a Miami aquarium. Humpback and gray whales also go there during their migrations.

Now, with so many people in the group chat, Muul generally only allows the two active admins to post observations. The alerts contain information about the type of whale, their direction of movement, and nearby landmarks.

Brittany Philbin is an emergency hospital nurse who sought the outdoors as a way to relax during the coronavirus pandemic and quickly became obsessed with whales. Equipped with a telephoto lens with her camera, Philbin can now identify individual whales from their flippers and tails and is second only to Muul in sorting sighting tips and sending alerts. Muul said she couldn’t do it without Philbin.

“I volunteer for this group because I want people to have the opportunity to see whales,” she said, “something that everyone can participate in.”

Having as many eyes on the whales when they are in town can also help improve their safety. Observers often track private boats that come too close to the animals. And although commercial whale watching is regulated by federal law, Muul said the alerts allow people to see the whales from shore, without disturbing them.

Muul’s group is one of many efforts to marry the digital world with nature. The Orca network And Whale sightings in Puget Sound also post sightings on their Facebook pages and users follow the whales. Other local Facebook groups are reporting the appearance of northern Lights And bioluminescent plankton.

Steven Rice, a recent transplant from Philadelphia, learned through the Orca Network how to hunt for whale sightings around Seattle. On a clear day, he checks Facebook for updates, pressing refresh again and again.

“For me, growing up on the East Coast, I never really imagined living in a place where you could see something like this,” he said after photographing a pod of orcas the last summer south of Seattle.

Rice once got to see the whales so close that he could hear their blows and see the blast of air and water that the orcas let out as they breathed.

“I don’t really know the right words, but it was definitely kind of a magical experience,” he said.

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