Running for orcas

About 1,300 dedicated athletes traced their way along the shores of Puget Sound early Sunday, striding through West Seattle as rain fell in fits and starts under gray skies.

Despite the gloomy weather, spirits were running high, perhaps because these runners were moving for a good cause: to help the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) population.

Runners run along Puget Sound in the Orca Half on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019.

This is the Orca Half, an annual half marathon that raises awareness and funds for this troubled orca population. The setting for the race couldn’t be more appropriate — beginning at Lincoln Park and stretching along the Alki Trail past Alki Point and Luna Park, almost the entire race overlooks Puget Sound, where the SRKW population is known to make show-stopping appearances. (They returned to Puget Sound just last week, frolicking off the southern end of Whidbey Island.)

The event is hosted by Orca Running, which puts on a variety of regional races throughout the year. The Orca Half, though, is special, thanks in part to its partnership with The Whale Trail, a nonprofit that, in the words of Executive Director Donna Sandstrom, works to “tell the tale of the orcas even when they’re not in Puget Sound.”

To achieve that, The Whale Trail hosts more than a hundred locations along the West Coast that offer opportunities to spot whales and other marine mammals from shore. The Orca Half runs past four such sites along Puget Sound.

These Whale Trail signs — one at Alki Beach, the other at the Charles Richey Sr. Viewpoint — can be found along the Orca Half race course. They offer information about whales and other marine mammals.

The Whale Trail got its start in 2008, with help from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account grant program, as well as several other federal and state partners. Since then, Whale Trail has continued to grow, with sites in California, Oregon, and British Columbia.

“Fish and wildlife has been a partner in The Whale Trail since our founding, and were very helpful, especially in the first couple of years,” Sandstrom said. “It’s been a wonderful partnership.”

More recently, WDFW’s Enforcement program has partnered with The Whale Trail to open three new sites in each of the past three years, including at Richmond Beach Saltwater Park in Shoreline and Point Robinson on Maury Island.

WDFW’s Enforcement program is the primary agency responsible for enforcing a minimum 300-yard radius between the whales and vessels in Washington waters, an expanded measure approved earlier this year by the Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee.

“These onshore viewing sites offer residents a way to connect with these whales while minimizing possible disturbances to these sensitive populations,” said WDFW Enforcement Chief Steve Bear, who also attended the Richmond Beach site dedication this summer.

A runner in the Orca Half marathon passes one of four Whale Trail signs lining the course.

Beyond The Whale Trail sites that dot the course of the Orca Half, the race offers an even more personal way for runners to engage with the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population, which has dwindled to fewer than 75 members across three pods.

Before the Orca Half had its first race in 2016, Sandstrom said she had the idea of having each participant run for a specific whale, and Porter Bratten, head of Orca Running, suggested each runner’s bib feature that orca and its life history.

A runner displays their finishing medal and race bib for the Orca Half, featuring the name of an orca from J-Pod, Hy’Shqa. The whale’s life history is included on the back of the bib.

“It’s a really powerful way of connecting them to the whales,” Sandstrom said. At the end of the race, The Whale Trail booth features graphics depicting the family history of each SRKW pod, and Sandstrom said runners love coming to the booth and tracing the lineage of their whale.

While the personalized bibs offer a unique way for runners to learn more about this imperiled whale population, there’s a sadder side to it, and one that Sandstrom hopes will change soon.

“Every year I have to update the list of orcas to send to [Orca Running],” Sandstrom said, “and I’m really tired of having to take orcas off that list every year.”

But with new legislation and increased awareness around the plight of the SRKW population, orca fans everywhere have hope that the trend may turn around soon.

Want to get involved? You can register now for next year’s Orca Half (this year’s event was sold out), learn more about The Whale Trail, or visit WDFW’s website for more information about orca conservation, management, and other partners in the recovery effort.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Written by

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

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