Few Tacoma residents know that one of the most popular places to walk, run, bike and drive is also the location of world-class whale watching opportunities. Lurking in the waters around Tacoma, occasionally being spotted by those who know where to look, are a handful of whale species and other unique aquatic mammal life swimming in the salty sound.
All around Point Defiance, the abundance of wildlife watching opportunities await you, which is why we are eager to get you out and looking for the spouts, fins and tails of the whales of the Pacific Northwest. Increasing in frequency every year, whales returning to the waters off of Tacoma is becoming more and more common. With the help of the Orca Network, the leading whale monitoring group in Washington, we have found ways to help you see whales swimming in the Puget Sound, without leaving the city limits of Tacoma.
Main Places to Watch
There are three main areas where you’ll have the best chance at spotting a whale in Tacoma. While logic says that anywhere in the Puget Sound could have a whale in it, there are many areas where the water is more shallow and has less food. Your first, and best option is to head to the aforementioned Point Defiance and park at the Dalco Passage overlook. From here, overlooking the short distance between Vashon Island and Point Defiance, you have access and a direct line of sight into one of the most whale friendly waters in the South Puget Sound. In 2017, Dalco Passage was the hangout spot for a young juvenile humpback whale, who was spotted nearly every day for four solid months. According to the Orca Network, Dalco Passage is a pretty regular spot for seeing humpbacks and orcas, having the most sightings of any location over the past few years.
Also at Point Defiance, Owen Beach makes for great whale watching when the weather is just right. In 2017, Orcas were spotted from the beach numerous times. The view is from right at water level, which makes seeing spouts, fins and tails a little easier to spot than from a higher vantage point. It is very common to also see seals and sea lions from here, especially during the salmon season.
Finally, if you find yourself having a pint or eating some fish and chips down at Titlow, check the social media feeds of the Orca Network and keep your eyes out on the water. In 2017, both the orcas and humpback whales swam by, putting on quite a show for onlookers. The orcas swam under the Narrows Bridge, then hung out in the open waters just offshore from Steamers.
Tips and Advice From Experts
The Orca Network has a plethora of tips and advice for people interested in seeing whales around the Puget Sound. To get started, check the Orca Network’s social media pages and sightings map. They are updated numerous times a day and can help you find the perfect spot to see one. It is also recommended that you get familiar with the bodies of water in the region. Knowing the proper names of locations can make the search much easier. Once you have found a spot, look for spouts, fins, or disturbance in the water, as these are good indicators of whale activity. Also look for gathering gulls, seals and sea lions who often take advantage of scraps from feeding whales. Finally, share the love. If you see a whale, report it to Orca Network. Even if you aren’t quite sure what you saw, they’d love to hear as many details as they can. Share your stories, tell what the whale did and what you saw. Your report might help others see a whale.
What You’ll Need to See a Whale
There are a few things you’ll need to make sure you have the best chance at viewing a whale when it is nearby. The first is patience. Depending on the species of whale, you could be waiting anywhere from a minute to 15 before it surfaces again. You should also have a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope with you, as the whales will more than likely be quite far from the shore. Finally, have your phone with you and keep checking the Orca Network, as they are constantly updating reports.
What to Do If You Don’t See a Whale
Obviously, whale watching is a gamble. Even if there was a whale in one location, it might be gone by the time you get there. That shouldn’t deter you from heading out anyway, just in case. Even if the whales aren’t at the locations we mentioned above, a trip to those destinations could reward you with sights of sea lions feasting on fish, seals swimming and eagles soaring. Not seeing a whale every time is no big deal. In fact, it might take you a handful of times to see a whale, even if one is being reported on the Orca Network. The best thing to do is to take it all in stride and to get to know the waterways and trails of the parks of the region.
Seeing the whales return to the south Puget Sound is an experience as old as humanity in the Pacific Northwest. Symbolizing wildness and awe, whale watching today helps connect us with the days of Puget Sound past. By heading out to the water and looking for them, we find ourselves having a deeper connection with the region we call home, forging memories that will last our entire lives.
Photos by Andrew Russell and Mike Charest