Where the whales are: Discovering marine mammals from shore along the Pacific Coast

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By Erin E. Williams,

Karoline Cullen
Orcas can be seen right off the shore on Galiano Island in British Columbia.

Only 100 yards from a nature center and down a sandy trail to the Pacific, I spotted a telltale heart-shaped spout — a misty exhalation of a California gray whale on her northern migration — rising from the ocean. Sunlight glinting off the animal’s back was a sparkling sign that some of the best whale watching can occur from a surprising place: land.

This February visit to Dana Point Preserve near San Diego was my fourth stop along the Whale Trail, a collection of coastal sites stretching 1,500 miles from Southern California to British Columbia. These discrete paths and viewpoints are ideal vantages for learning about whales, dolphins and other marine mammals, some that linger tantalizingly close to shore.

From urban parks to wilderness areas to Tribal and First Nations locations, all Whale Trail sites are publicly accessible and provide a good chance of seeing orcas or other marine mammals, depending on the season and place. Yet each one boasts unique landscapes, wildlife and local perspectives. Many feature interpretive panels. Some, such as the Whale Museum on Washington state’s San Juan Island, curate exhibits, and some reflect cultural or historical significance regarding our relationship with whales. Others promote interpretive talks, trainings and citizen sightings to aid scientific research. The Whale Trail website includes each site, as well as tips for observing more than 30 marine mammal species along the West Coast.

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