Fighting for the Future of Southern Resident Orcas
by Stacy Lynn Gilbert
“I don’t remember a time in my life where I wasn’t completely obsessed with whales,” says Whale Scout founder and director, Whitney Neugebauer. “Growing up, I was a Free Willy kid. That movie was a really big part of my childhood. There is just something about whales that is magical and connects people.” In 2013, Neugebauer started the local nonprofit Whale Scout to share her lifelong passion for whales, and connect with others who wanted to help keep the southern resident orcas in the Puget Sound for future generations to enjoy.
After her time volunteering with The Whale Museum, in the San Juan Islands, and earning her master’s degree in marine and environmental affairs from the University of Washington, Neugebauer realized that there was a gap in the nonprofits that supported orcas in the Pacific Northwest region. “I really wanted to offer people land-based whale watching opportunities because at the time there was a lot of pressure from boat-based whale watching. I wanted to provide a win-win alternative for both the whales and the people seeking to enjoy them in the wild.”
Whale Scout is run completely by volunteers who connect the public with trained naturalists to watch whales for free from shore, and also encourage and lead the public in habitat restoration events that are crucial to the survival of the southern resident orca’s major food source: Chinook salmon. Declines in the salmon population have been one of the contributing factors to the low population of southern resident orcas in the Salish Sea and surrounding areas. As of 2018, their numbers have dropped to a dangerously sparse 75 as they struggle to find enough nourishment to reproduce offspring. They are at their lowest population in over 30 years.
The transient orcas, which are a population of mammal-eating whales, are doing well compared to their salmon-eating relatives. Their food source of seals and dolphins are plentiful, which is why their numbers are climbing compared to the resident orcas.
“The resident population of whales are named, and they stay in family groups,” explains Neugebauer. “People connect to them, watch them grow up year after year, and they can recognize them. People really begin to see them as a family, and it draws a lot of parallels to our own lives. I think that is really what draws people in.”
Whale Scout partners with various local groups eight times a year to put on “Helpin’ Out” events where the public can work on restoring vital salmon habitat in smaller waterways and rivers. “We do things like planting trees and taking out invasive plants. The water is often too hot for salmon because there isn’t enough shade, so we are trying to add more diversity to the vegetation surrounding our rivers and streams,” says Neugebauer. “The whales are really struggling right now, which is why investing in your local watersheds is so important.”
For more information, or to volunteer, email Whitney Neugebauer at Director@WhaleScout.org or visit WhaleScout.org.