Peter Bates was dropping his car at the mechanic this month when a notification pinged on his phone: killer whales were approaching his Seattle neighborhood.
He hopped on a bus toward the water, then an electric bike. He was pedaling along a shoreline trail when orcas' black fins and white spots punched through the water a few yards away.
“They move so quickly. I was pedaling fast," he said. "I was open-mouthed the whole way. It was a completely joyful experience, just full of awe.”
In a city known for stunning views of Puget Sound, and where the fate of the endangered resident orcas is a common topic of conversation, catching glimpses of the enchanting creatures is still an elusive treat.
But Salish Wildlife Watch, a WhatsApp group chat that alerts its 1,800 members when orcas are near, aims to make it easier for residents like Bates to have wondrous experiences with them, and to motivate people to learn about and protect the animals.
Users credit the real-time updates for spotting whales swim past the city’s skyline, calves with parents, pod hunts and orcas surfacing so close to shore they could hear and smell their fishy breathing.
“It’s just been kind of addicting,” said group chat member Ian Elliott of Seattle, who saw orcas with visiting friends. “You have the city and then you can go to any park on the water and just see these really wild animals.”
Behind the alerts is Kersti Muul, a biologist and wildlife advocate who hopes those experiences motivate people to learn about and protect the animals. Muul created the group chat to consolidate text threads and social media pages she used to update when orcas were around. Tips come from her most reliable whale-watcher friends, group members and colleagues.
“I love to get people out and especially people that have never seen a whale before,” Muul said. “I don’t know anyone that has had a close pass that doesn’t immediately just love whales.”
Muul’s first love is birds and she named Salish Wildlife Watch after 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 marshal the whales’ charisma into awareness of challenges the ecosystem faces, such as depleted salmon runs, vessel noise interfering with their hunting and collisions with boats and ships.
“They’re in our backyard, which is humbling and honoring to begin with," she said. “I’m trying to promote and facilitate equity and inspiration, and inspiration as a vehicle for advocacy. It’s the only way people get involved."
Carved by retreating glaciers, the Salish Sea has been home to orcas for time immemorial. They are revered by the indigenous Coast Salish people.
Visits by “Bigg’s” or “transient” orcas have increased over the last few decades, as populations of their prey, like seals and sea lions, rebound in the region. Alerts from the group chat led people to see these orcas hunt just off the Seattle waterfront, near sports stadiums.
Then there are southern “resident” orcas, an endangered group that primarily eats salmon. Earlier this year, Lolita or Toki, the last captive member from this population, died in an aquarium in Miami. Humpback and gray whales also visit during their migrations.
Now, with so many people in the group chat, Muul usually only allows the two active administrators to post sightings. Alerts come with information about the type of whale, their direction of travel 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. Sporting a telephoto lens with her camera, Philbin now can identify individual whales from their fins and tails and is second 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 be able to have the opportunity to see whales,” she said, “something that everyone can participate in.”
Having so many eyes on whales when they're in town may also help improve their safety. Watchers often track private boats that are getting too close to the animals. And while commercial whale watching is regulated under federal law, Muul said the alerts allow people to see 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 Puget Sound Whale Sightings also post sightings on their Facebook pages and users track the whales. Other local Facebook groups flag the appearance of the northern lights and bioluminescent plankton.
Steven Rice, a recent transplant from Philadelphia, learned through the Orca Network about chasing whale sightings around Seattle. On clear days he checks the updates on Facebook, hitting refresh over and over.
“For me, growing up on the East Coast, I never really imagined I’d be living somewhere where you could see something like that," he said after photographing a pod of orcas this past summer south of Seattle.
Rice once got to see the whales so close he could hear their spouts and see the puff of air and water that orcas let out when breathing.
“I don’t really know the right words for it, but it was just really a kind of a magical experience,” he said.