When Seattle Phones Ping, It's a Sign Whales Are Near

The AP looks at a popular WhatsApp chat group that alerts members to sightings
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 2, 2023 2:34 PM CDT
When Seattle Phones Ping, It's a Sign Whales Are Near
People stand on a shoreline looking for whales in Seattle in February.   (Chris May via AP)

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. "I was open-mouthed the whole way," he tells the AP. "It was a completely joyful experience." 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 a unique WhatsApp group chat called Salish Sea Wildlife Watch is out to change that, alerting its 1,800 members when orcas are near.

Users credit the real-time updates for spotting whales swimming 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.

Muul's first love is birds and she named Salish Sea 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 says. "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." Read the full story for more on the whales and the chat group.

(More whales stories.)

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