The southern resident orcas (J, K and L pods) are listed as an endangered species in both the US and Canada. With just 74 individuals in the population, they are nearing their historical low of 71 whales.  If the current trend continues, these beloved and iconic mammals will go extinct in less than 100 years. (WDFW 2004)

The threats that have brought them to this edge are all human-caused: lack of salmon, toxin accumulations, and vessel noise and disturbance. These work together like a three-legged stool, each impacting the other.

  • Toxins like PCBs are stored in the orcas’ blubber and mother’s milk.
  • When whales are stressed or hungry, the toxins may be released into their bloodstream, making them more susceptible to disease.
  • Boat noise makes it harder for the orcas to hunt and find food, which makes them stressed and hungry.

Orcas are acoustic animals. They rely on sound to find and catch their prey, and to communicate with each other. A recent study (Tollit et al 2017)shows that the southern residents lose 5.5 hours of foraging time each day due to noise and disturbance from commercial vessels and whale-watching boats specifically.

It doesn’t matter how many salmon are in the sea if the orcas can’t hear to find them.

The best available science shows that to recover the orcas, we must both increase the amount of salmon and decrease the amount of noise. Increasing salmon by 15 percent and decreasing noise by 50 percent will achieve NOAA’s recovery goal of 2.3 percent population growth per year.


NOAA Fisheries is the U.S. agency responsible for managing and recovering the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Learn more about NOAA’s recovery efforts here.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is the agency responsible for managing and recovering the Southern Resident Killer Whales in Canada. Learn more about Canadian efforts here.


In May 2018,  Governor Jay Inslee signed an executive order to protect and recover the southern residents. The order established a Task Force, which is charged with delivering a set of recommended actions by November 16.

Three working groups were formed to support the Task Force. The working groups were organized around the key threats: Prey, Contaminants, and Vessel Impacts.

Whale Trail Founder Donna Sandstrom is a member of the Task Force. The next and final Task Force meeting this year will be held in in Puyallup on November 6. The public is invited to attend.

Learn more about the Task Force and recommended actions here.


The Whale Trail was founded to promote awareness of and stewardship for the southern resident orcas. While our range and scope have expanded, we remain laser-focused on their recovery.

Working with partners from California to British Columbia, we are building awareness of the orcas throughout their range, along the Pacific Coast and around the Salish Sea.

  • Our sites and signs educate a broad and diverse public about who the southern residents are, where they live, that that they are endangered and how we can each and all help.
  • By making it easy to watch whales from shore, we provide ways to encounter the southern residents without adding to the noise and disturbance around them.
  • Our programs like Orca Tours and Orca Talks bring communities together to learn about whales. We have piloted unique and innovative programs like Orca Stewardship certifications and Orca Shuttles on San Juan Island.
  • And the  whales are near, our shore based naturalists make sure that everyone can see them, and leaves the encounter knowing more about the SRKW and what we can each and all can do to help them recover.

The Whale Trail is specifically called out in NOAA’s Killer Whale Recovery Plan.

Our shared vision is a fully recovered orca population, thriving in healthy seas.


View our guide on how to watch marine animals from shore.


Fill out our nomination form for that amazing site.


Share your inspiring story below or tag #thewhaletrail.


The Whale Trail depends on your support. Get involved!