Tacoma joining the Whale Trail worthy of some splash

Tacoma has now claimed an official spot on the West Coast Whale Trail, with a designated whale-watching overlook at Point Defiance Park.
Tacoma has now claimed an official spot on the West Coast Whale Trail, with a designated whale-watching overlook at Point Defiance Park. Photo courtesy Mary Krauszer, Point Defiance park ranger

With so many exciting projects on the near horizon at Point Defiance Park — the debut of the Pacific Seas Aquarium, and the opening of a pedestrian bridge to Ruston Way, among others — last weekend’s dedication of a modest new feature at Tacoma’s flagship park would be easy to overlook.

As it happens, an overlook is exactly what we’re talking about: a whale-watching viewpoint, freshly identified and marked as a prime location to observe members of the Northwest’s majestic, mysterious and all-too-vulnerable cetacean population.

Point Defiance now counts itself among 90 official spots on the Whale Trail, which hugs the Pacific coastline and inland waters from Southern California to northern British Columbia. An interpretive sign was unveiled in a ceremony last weekend.

The first links in the Whale Trail were designated by a Seattle nonprofit conservation group nearly a decade ago. Whale Trailers originally focused on appreciation and stewardship of the Puget Sound’s endangered southern resident orcas, but have since expanded into an ambassador role for all marine mammals.

There’s a lot to see around here, from orca, humpback and gray whales, to harbor seals and porpoises, and many more. Last month, South Sound residents were blessed to catch glimpses of orcas near Chambers Bay, between Fox Island and Hale Passage and elsewhere as whales passed through to feed on returning chinook salmon. One family nearly had its jetski capsized by a curious young orca.

While up-close encounters are breathtakingly memorable, one of the great things about the Whale Trail is its promotion of land-based whale watching.

Families can make special memories by consulting whale-sighting resources such as the Orca Network. They can take a field trip to a Whale Trail overlook — or a vacation to several — with binoculars in hand, smartphones poised, ready to upload photos of J-Pod whales into iCloud storage. They can cultivate a sense of wonder (and delayed gratification) as they wait for a whale to breach the waters below.

Watching from shore is also better for the animals. They’re disturbed by noise from boats and personal watercraft and can be knocked off course due to proximity with humans.

The Northwest’s fragile resident orca population has weathered a tough year and remains well below the Puget Sound Partnership’s target of 91 whales. In the 12-month census period ending in July, no orcas were born alive, while six animals died. The death of a 2 ½-year-old male in September further thinned the pods, to 76 whales.

Causes range from pollution and disease to vessel traffic and the availability of prey.

Puget Sounders should be mindful of small efforts we can make in our everyday lives to improve the mammals’ chances. That includes admiring them from a safe distance; Washington law requires at least 200 yards.

The addition of Tacoma (as well as Vashon and Bainbridge islands) to the Whale Trail map — and the increased public education it should foster —are steps in the right direction.