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Help Washington State Ferries track whales in Puget Sound with new app

A new app allows the public to help ferry captains more accurately pinpoint where orcas and other whales are in Puget Sound.

SEATTLE — There is a new way for the public to help alert Washington state ferry captains to where orcas and other marine mammals are in Puget Sound.

This week, Washington State Ferries (WSF) began using Ocean Wise’s Whale Report Alert System (WRAS), a mobile app and web-based system that relies on real-time sightings to provide a more accurate and updated way to track whales.

The public can download the WhaleReport app and report sightings to commercial mariners within 10 nautical miles of the whales to help avoid collisions.

For each alert, users can report the species, time, number of whales, and the direction the animal or animals were traveling. Reports from the WhaleAlert app feed into the WRAS and are monitored at WSF operations centers, verified, and then relayed to any captains as needed.

Also see | Ferry strike to humpback whale in Elliott Bay was ‘likely fatal’

The information provided by the public will help ferry captains decide if they need to change course or reduce their speed to avoid disturbing or colliding with marine mammals.

Earlier this summer a juvenile humpback whale was struck by a ferry in Seattle’s Elliott Bay after it breached about five feet in front of the vessel. WSF has procedures in place to watch for whales, but the whale that was struck was too close for the crew to maneuver the boat out of the way.

NOAA Fisheries spokesperson Michael Milstein said the strike was likely fatal, based on information provided by passengers.

Russell Fee has been a Washington State Ferries captain for the past 27 years. He said the strike earlier this summer was an unfortunate accident and there isn’t much they can specifically change on the vessels alone to avoid a strike in the future.

Also see | How Washington state ferry workers spot hazards in the water

However, Fee said there has been an increase of whale reports from the public after the likely fatal strike.

“There are more reports from pleasure boaters, from the ferries coming in, and with that information, the shore sighting facilities are better able to tell us there are whales heading in your direction,” Fee said. “So, we’re already maintaining a lookout, but we’re just more aware that they could possibly be in our area.”

The WRAS has been operational in British Columbia and along the coast since October of 2018. Jessica Scott, B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network Manager and Applied Research Biologist, said 26 marine organizations in B.C. are currently using the app, and over 2,600 alerts have been sent out to commercial mariners since the program began.

“I’m hoping that anyone out on the water if they see a whale, a dolphin, a porpoise, they download the WhaleReport app and report their sighting right away,” Scott said. “This is just a great tool to contribute to conservation.”

Access to the WRAS is only granted to commercial maritime operators. It is not available for whale watch operators or public use.

You can download the WhaleReport app for free in the Apple App Store or the Google Play store.

Also see | Southern Resident orcas put on a show in Puget Sound