Places I Remember with Lea Lane

Whale Watching: What To Know, Best Places To Go

November 02, 2021 Donna Sandstrom, author of 'Orca Rescue!' and founder of The Whale Trail, shares a whale of a convo with Lea. Season 1 Episode 40
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
Whale Watching: What To Know, Best Places To Go
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Donna Sandstrom is passionate about whales. She is founder of The Whale Trail, and author of Orca Rescue! The True Story of an Orphaned Orca Named Springer.  She and Lea share a fascinating discussion of whales, and other cetaceans, including orcas and porpoises. And also, best places to see them around the world.

After talking about The Whale Trail, we talk of what makes whales so fascinating, including size and age. Whales are the kings of our "Water Planet." We talk of the social bonds of cetaceans, and whales sounds.

Whales cannot be captured, but orcas (really a type of porpoise) can be, and we talk of using the animals for entertainment. We discuss types of whales including humpbacks, gray whales, sperm whales and fin whales. And we recall personal experiences of seeing whales in Antarctica, and endangered North Atlantic right whales off the eastern Canada coast, And blue whales  -- the largest mammals to ever live -- in the Sea of Cortez.

We discuss land-based whale watching and how to best spot whales. And places to see whales  around the world, including South Africa, Monterey Bay in CA, east coast U.S. areas, the Azores off the coast of Africa, New Zealand, Iceland and Antarctica.

And finally, Donna gives her favorite memory of Springer, the orphaned orca.
Donna Sandstrom is passionate about whales. She is founder of The Whale Trail, and author of Orca Rescue! The True Story of an Orphaned Orca Named Springer.
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; on  Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website: placesirememberlealane.comPlease follow, rate and review this weekly travel podcast!

*Transcript edited for clarity.

Lea Lane  00:04

Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales Truths Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world. 

On this episode, we'll be featuring a wildlife adventure beloved by travelers around the world, whale watching. We're going to cover all about whales, and the best places to see them. We've discussed other wildlife adventures on the podcast. In episode six we talked of safaris and endangered animals with the CEO of the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. In Episode 26, American Idol producers Simon Fuller and director John Downer spoke of African wildlife filming the series Serengeti, for Discovery Plus, but whales and other cetaceans, including dolphins and porpoises seem to hold a place in our hearts. And I'm passionate about them. I found a quote which pretty much sums up why whales are so wondrous. Imagine seeing something the size of a house over a century old, singing, suckling and spinning beneath you in the middle of a sparkling sea. Our guest to share the passion for whales and other sea mammals is Donna Sandstrom. So glad you're here to share your passion, Donna.


Donna Sandstrom  01:21

Lea, thank you so much for having me. I'm really happy to be here. And I loved your quote. And yeah, it was a topic that's super important and exciting to me.


Lea Lane  01:31

Now you're a partner in the Whale Trail. Tell us about tell us about the Whale Trail.


Donna Sandstrom  01:35

Yeah, I actually founded the Whale Trail in 2008. Here in Washington state in the northwest, we've got three pods of orcas that are endangered. And it seemed like one of the best things we could do for them is to help people know where they live, that they're endangered. And we started the Whale Trail just as a way to let people know where the animals live and where you can watch them from shore. So we started with 16 sites in Washington State and now we've expanded all along the west coast from Dana Point California up through BC.


Lea Lane  02:15

What specifically is it about whales that makes them so fascinating to us?


Donna Sandstrom  02:19

I think first of all, their intelligence, their playfulness, and the fact that they seem curious about us, as well as of course, their huge size. They're the masters of the ocean planet.


Lea Lane  02:31

I read that an adult blue whale weighs up to 150 tons. And it's the largest animal to ever live by comparison. An elephant only weighs five tons.


Donna Sandstrom  02:41

I often give presentations to kids. And the two facts that always get them are blue whales are larger than the largest dinosaurs that ever lived and theirs hearts are the size of Volkswagen Beetles.


Lea Lane  02:54

Epic migrations are another thing about whales; they can travel 10 to 12,000 miles between their breeding grounds from Baja California up to Alaska and Russia. And also their deep dives. I read that a dive nearly 10,000 feet the longest I've ever seen among mammals. Have you have you any info on that?


Donna Sandstrom  03:14

Well, the thing about whales is they've been on this planet tens of 1000s of years longer than humans. And this is the water planet. If you look at this planet from space, it's more water than Earth. And they are the they've been perfectly evolved to live in that domain. I've heard it said that blue whales could want to hear each other from one pole to the other. That's how they're perfectly they adapted. They are Yeah, they've got all manner of ways they have figured out how to thrive in the oceans until now we have brought them to a terrible, terrible edge. 


Lea Lane  03:50

Well, their great age is another thing. Speaking of age, a decent life expectancy is up to 70 years for a non-endangered whale. And I heard up to 200 years for species such as the bowhead whale, which is quite amazing in itself. If there were nothing else that were amazing about a whale, how about their social bonds? They remind me of elephants in the way they're very close and they work together in pods. Can you tell me about that?


Donna Sandstrom  04:14

Yeah, well, you know, there's so many species of whales and they all have different habits like minke whales are more solitary. But the orcas that we're so used to are tremendously bonded to their families. They're one of the most tightly bonded family units on earth, the offspring stay with their mothers their entire lives. So even more than an elephant's. The sons and daughters stay with their mother who stays with her mother who stays with her mother. So when we see orcas here near Seattle, we might be seeing four generations of whales traveling together.


Lea Lane  04:45

Wow. And they have a very gentle nature in general. I know they've been hunted for years but they can love; I've read that they have very deep-rooted emotional feelings and they mate for life.


Donna Sandstrom  04:57

Yes, that's one of the most curious and wonderful thing about the orcas. They do, you know, spend their whole lives together.


Lea Lane  05:04

They have emotions, they can experience love, and they have deep-rooted emotional suffering.


Donna Sandstrom  05:09

Yes, one of our southern-resident orcas made international news in 2018. She had lost a calf shortly after it had been born. And she carried that calf grieving. And she carried the calf over her head or rostrum, and basically carried it around for 17 days. 


Lea Lane  05:28

That was in the news, yeah, her grief was palpable. Yeah, that was very touching to see that I think it was all over the world. We saw that in the news. Now, whales make noise to communicate. People are very interested in that fact. Do they do it to identify  navigation or physical surroundings? And what are the different clicks and whistles and pulses? Can you tell us?


Donna Sandstrom  05:48

Yes, probably all those things. Echolocation is whales have a have a special kind of sonar, where they send out clicks to find that basically builds an image of the world like that stew, you know, they build an image of the world, they get information from the clicks they send out that come back, they get received in this organ called a melon, and it forms a picture in their head. So the orcas I know use echolocation and two ways both to find their hunt and sometimes to stun their prey. So they both use it navigate and hunt with. 


Lea Lane  06:21

I know the sounds of whales are things we think about that are mystical, and some people just listen to them to go to sleep and so forth. But they're purposeful. And it's interesting. We know  some of it, but not all of it.


Donna Sandstrom  06:35

One of my favorite facts is about humpback whales. So the humpback whales migrate from Hawaii and from Costa Rica, I believe up to Alaska for their summer in their summering grounds. And I think it was Roger Payne, who helped identify that the humpback whales have songs with stanzas even. And those songs changed just a little bit each year, a new stanza gets added and some of the old song gets dropped off. And the songs change in the same way even though the populations are in different locations for a good part of the year, their song changes the same way. So what are they singing about? And and how do they know? How does that change? I'm super curious about that.


Lea Lane  07:22

Yeah, we all are. Well, many people feel a strange connection to whales. Because we can't see them in captivity, we can only see them in the wild. Unlike orcas and dolphins, other cetaceans who perform in shows I have an idea of what you feel about that.


Donna Sandstrom  07:38

Yes, I think that when you see an orca in captivity, you're not really seeing an orca anymore than if you put a human. If someone went and looked at the human in a jail cell and thought they were seeing a representative human or engaging with them. Orcas can travel 70 to 100 miles in a day. And again, they live these long-lived lives with very intense social bonds. So it's what you're seeing is a diminished animal. We certainly hope that we're moving to a time where people lose their appetite to see orcas in that way. We have so many wonderful animal camps around the world through places like We can watch orcas in the wild  -- humpbacks, we can watch all different kinds of animals without impacting them.


Lea Lane  08:20

Exactly. And that's one of the reasons we're talking about them today. I'm very into endangered species. And I think this is an important thing to discuss. And because we can tame them, we can watch them in the wild. So let's talk about some of the frequently seen whales when you go whale watching. Let's start with your favorite -- orcas. They're known as killer whales, but they aren't actually whales at all. Tell us about that.


Donna Sandstrom  08:42

Right. They're the largest member of the dolphin family. So like the dolphins the bottlenose dolphins that are more commonly known,  they're playful. They're super intelligent, they're curious. And the most amazing thing is they seem to be curious about us.  I want to make the point though that even whale watching can be for the southern resident orcas, we actually don't support watching them by boat. Because of that echolocation we talked about earlier, the southern residents need to be able to echolocate to find their food. And there have they have been under so much pressure from tourism, that they haven't been able to find food here in the Salish Sea. So for the southern residents, we encourage everybody only to watch from shore. Now anywhere around the world we encourage people to watch whales from boats anywhere. I've had incredible experiences watching grey whales. I've been to the calving lagoons in Baja which is just an incredible experience. Lea, I think you would really enjoy that you know there's nothing quite like having a mother and a calf approach these small panga  and you look down and there's a whale the size of an aeroplane below your boat, looking up at you. And it's an entirely participatory thing in terms of the whales; not all the whales come close to the boats. It seems to be a matter of choice for them to. Humpback whales are of course fantastic. Hawaii is a great place to watch the humpback whales or actually along the California coast; along the whole West Coast. Now, they're wonderful to watch breached. Humpback whales have the longest flippers of any whale. And when they jump,  it's just it's just spectacular.


Lea Lane  10:29

Humpbacks are baleen whales. Can you tell us what that means as opposed to other whales?


Donna Sandstrom  10:33

Yeah, there are two main kinds of whales. So on that branch of the family tree of cetaceans, there's one branch that are baleen whales, which means they have these things that actually look like broom bristles. And they strain seawater, they strain their food from seawater using these baleen; so gray whales, for example, go along the surface of the sea, the near shore, and filter small shrimp from the surface of the water from the shore. Humpback whales eat krill, they scoop up great amounts of seawater and push out the water and keep the krill or keep other bay fish like sardines,. Other whales are toothed whales, and that would be the sperm whales, the orcas. And all the dolphins.


Lea Lane  11:17

Tell us about the gray whales, they're called the friendliest whales. Why is that?


Donna Sandstrom  11:21

Probably because, this phenomenon started in back in the 1970s, and the calving lagoons of Baja where a fisherman started interacting with some of the whales there, and they seem to respond. So this whole culture of interacting with the whales in their calving lagoons has grown up and generations of whales now have learned to interact with humans right there in their calving grounds. You know, it wasn't that long ago that the same whales were getting hunted on this coast. I think it's always surprising to learn how recently that went on and how, how horrible it was, you know, gray whales are hunted almost to extinction. And they lived in other parts of the world where they were hunted to extinction. The only gray whales we have left are the whales along this coast and a small remnant population over in the Sakhalin islands; this phenomenon of the gray whales started naturally and kind of spontaneously in lagoons in the 70s. 


Lea Lane  12:15

Now, there are two other whales that I've seen. Well, I've seen more than that; I was lucky enough to go to Antarctica, and I saw many whales in the water there. But I did see the North Atlantic right whale, which is a highly endangered species, maybe only a few 100 are left. I was off the coast of New Brunswick, and a part of them came by maybe 20 years ago, I saw five or six of them. And it was extraordinary. They hadn't seen that in a long while. So I will never forget that -- it was one of those moments that make whale watching so memorable. I also saw I have to say far in the distance in the Sea of Cortez, a blue whale, which is the largest creature ever on land or sea. And there was something about seeing that; I think we all sort of caught our breath. It was far away, but it was a blue whale. Have you ever seen a blue?


Donna Sandstrom  13:07

Yes, I've been really lucky on the central California coast. The first place I saw a blue whale. The blue whales return there each summer to around the Channel Islands. So you can go out of Santa Barbara, they're fairly accessible. Sometimes you might even see them from shore. As you probably saw, they have these great towering spouts. So if you if you can see a huge, huge tall plume, you might be looking at a blue whale. And the other place was in the Sea of Cortez, I also saw the the blue whales down in Baja in I think in February in April; one year we went on a trip specifically to hopefully see them.


Lea Lane  13:45

Very exciting. Let me just ask you, you mentioned this spout or the blow. What are some of the other things to look for? If you're looking for a whale even from the land? What are what are things to see, to look for?


Donna Sandstrom  13:56

Yes, the first thing you look for is the blow because the shape of the blow can tell you what kind of whale you are seeing; orcas have kind of a medium sized bushy blow. Gray whales are heart shaped, they have a double blow hole; their blow looks kind of like a heart. So there are lots of charts that will show you what to look for, you know how the shape of the flow. Of course you look for movement on the water. Do you see you know an area where the where it looks like there's surface activity, you know, If you have binocular, zoom in there, because any breaking of the surface, if you see splashes, it might be dolphins breaking the surface. You look for dorsal fins. That's the other thing, certainly with orcas; they have that huge, tall, distinctive dorsal fin. But all whales and dolphins have a dorsal fin. So the size and the shape of that and where it's placed can tell you what you're looking at. Gray whales and humpback whales can be hard to tell apart, except that humpback whales have a very pointy little dorsal fin that the gray whales don't have. So if you can see that, you know you're looking at a humpback whale. Of course, the color, they look slightly different -- blue whales, as you know actually look pretty metallic blue. They're hard to mistake for anything else because of how big they are.


Lea Lane  15:10

Well, you can go whale watching in basically any country with a coastline. But there are certain places where the chances of sightings are particularly high. And the whales come conveniently close to shore. Can you give us a few of your favorites? And then I'll list a few that I've found through research that are pretty far flung.


Donna Sandstrom  15:26

Sure. Well, but I think one of the first places that I heard about was in South Africa that you know, there's a hiking trail there where you can watch whales from. And then we founded the Whale Trail here in 2008. And our signature animal are the orcas. But of course, at many of our locations, you can see other animals like humpback, and gray whales; and Monterey Bay is just an incredible place to watch whales, they've got very deep troughs. So even from shore in Santa Cruz or Moss Landing, you know, you can look out in the bay and see these huge sea humpbacks. or sometimes even orcas. I'm most familiar with the west coast animals because that's where the Whale Trail goes. 


Lea Lane  16:07

And of course, people on the east coast. I have seen a whale in Long Island and I know along Cape May, New Jersey; Provincetown, Massachusetts; Bar Harbor, Maine, people have mentioned having seen them. So all along the east and west coast of the states,  as I said, far flung but something to think about if you'd like to travel the world. And pipe in if you've been to any of these, but some of them are far away. One is the Azores off the coast of Africa. These are remote Portuguese islands, but they have a tremendous number of cetaceans, all kinds of whales, and you get a very good shot at seeing them there. It's in the spring. Another one in the spring --and these are timings you want to go when you can see them. -- you can also see a lot of whales in the northern provinces of Canada. As you mentioned, they come down later, but there are beluga whales in the spring. And in summer, New Zealand is a really great place to see whales, on the South Island. Cora is known as a whale watching capital. And they have resident sperm whales that can be seen year round there. And Moby Dick in the South Pacific.


Donna Sandstrom  17:11

So you're right. I mean, really, the whole world is a whale trail. And one of our goals, I you know, I've been approached by quite a few people who've noticed what we've done here on the west coast, and now wants to bring it to their where they are. So Iceland, for example, there's a woman there who's very interested in getting a whale trail going in Iceland. And one of the benefits of watching from shore is orcas, all cetaceans, our acoustic animals, is the background noise in the ocean is increasing by orders of magnitude every year, making it harder and harder for the animals to communicate with each other and to find their food, simply because the oceans are getting so noisy. So one good thing about shore based whale watching is that you're not contributing to that cacophony for the whales. It's a low impact, high value experience. And it creates that wonderful connection. It allows people to have creative experiences that can change your life. Actually, you know, when you see a whale, you don't easily forget it. I've had the great joy of helping people see whales. I live in West Seattle. And, you know, sometimes people break into tears. It's such an emotional, deep connection. So we want to help, we'd like to have the whole world identify places around the world where you could go and see.


Lea Lane  18:28

Absolutely, I think you're doing a very big service, because you mentioned Iceland, and I know they until recently, and maybe now, are still one of the few countries that still hunt whales commercially, including Norway, and Japan. And when you see them and have tourism, it's a way to get away from that. And so it's terrific to hear that Iceland is looking into this as well. And you mentioned about the shore. I know and you said something about the world for shore- based whale watching. You can stay on dry land because there's a special hotline or you can listen for one of the town's whale criers who blows a kelp horn to signal activity in the bay. It's a big deal. Yeah, very, very great story. Yeah, it's a wonderful thing. Not only does the wonderful octopus live in nearby in the kelp bay from the documentary, I want to ask you something. There are a few places in the world you can swim with with whales, and I don't know what you feel about that; Tonga is one,  it's in the Polynesian archipelago. And it permits you to swim with the humpback whales who journey there from Antarctica each year. They try to minimize the disturbance. But let me ask, and there's only licensed operators who do this. What do you think about that?


Donna Sandstrom  19:36

I think we have to be very careful. It's undeniably attractive to get close to these animals. But we have to be very careful that our desire to get close to them doesn't overwhelm their need to live natural lives. And that's the tension. So I worry about that because every time we're interfering and the whales are curious, so they will come over But what would they be doing if we weren't there? They might be doing something else, nursing or eating or communicate with themselves. I totally believe in supporting this bond across our species. It's an amazing bridge between whales and humans. And I would never want to come in the way; we have to responsible to how our actions are impacting them. 


Lea Lane  20:25

Absolutely, yeah, I hope that everybody who is interested in whale watching wants to go out on a boat, make sure it's a responsible operator. It's really, really important. And I just like to think of what you were mentioning about interaction on Episode 33, the expedition leader of Antarctica who came on the saying how he interacted with a group of orcas. He was in a in a small boat, and they came toward the group. I guess they weren't used to seeing many people. So it was about an hour of it. And I guess in that sense, they were coming to him they weren't in search of the orcas. They came to look at the at the little boats. So it depends, I guess.


Donna Sandstrom  21:06

Absolutely. I mean, that's, that's the amazing thing, especially about the workers is the curiosity seems to be mutual. And I think it's a wonderful thing that we should celebrate that here we've got these intelligent, other intelligent, sentient species, sharing this planet with us. And our best role is to make sure that they get to keep going on. And then we get we get to enjoy enjoy this connection. But they're their own. I think of them as their own nation. They're not ours, and they're not ours to commodify. That's the weird thing too -- they're not objects here for our entertainment.


Lea Lane  21:46

Yeah, exactly. I was in Antarctica, I mentioned and I felt that I was in their territory. Yeah, they were the creatures who lived there. And I felt that very strongly. I should feel it all the time. Well, Donna, the name of the podcast is Places I Remember and we always end with a special memory of a place our guest has been. For your memory will you tell us a bit about your new book, Orca rescue: The True Story of an Orphaned Orca named Springer?


Donna Sandstrom  22:13

Sure, I'd love to Lea, thank you. Here in West Seattle, near where I live, in 2002 a young orca was discovered in Puget Sound, and she was lost alone, and she turned out to be 300 miles away from home. It was her calls that identified her as a northern resident, or her mother had died. But her family  --her grandmother and aunts were still alive, so there was no way she would naturally be reunited with them. The agency responsible for managing marine mammals had a big dilemma on their hands. What should they do with this little orca who was down here by herself?  And we helped persuade them that she should have a chance to go home, go back to her family, and not be sent to an aquarium and, and even more so not be rehabilitated through an aquarium, but rehabilitated somewhere in Puget Sound, so she could stay as wild as possible. And happily, they thought it was a risk worth taking. They thought there was a good enough chance that she should go back to her family. And NOAA Fisheries, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Vancouver Aquarium committed to the first ever in situ rehabilitation of an Orca. And we the community, a group of seven nonprofits work together to support them. And it was an incredible time and every day we were wondering the little whale. Her name was Springer. She was a two year old orca, and she turned out to be resilient. And she didn't have any serious diseases. She had a bad case of worms. She was rescued. She was dewormed, tested to make sure she wasn't carrying diseases, and carried home on a donated catamaran where her family came to get her less than 24 hours after she was returned. She came back the next year with her family and the year after that, year after that. And today, she's got two calves of her own.


Lea Lane  24:07

Oh, my. That's a wonderful story. Yeah, I really appreciate what you do. I think as founder of  the Whale Trail, it's a very important thing. And I'm going to be putting a list of links to whale conservation organizations in our show notes. So thank you so much, Donna Sandstrom.


Donna Sandstrom  24:27

I'll just say thank you so much for having me and sharing this. I can feel your passion for the whales too. And your curiosity about them. And the whales in the oceans need us all. So thank you for for sharing this time.


Lea Lane  24:40

My pleasure.


Lea Lane  24:46

Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book Places I Remember is available on Amazon and in bookstores, in print and Kindle,and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider Giving us a review until next time join us wherever in the world we're going.

The Whale Trail
What makes whales so fascinating, including size and age
Whales are the kings of "The Water Planet"
Social bonds
Whale sounds
Whales are only in the wild, but Orcas can be captured, and are a type of porpoise
Types of whales, including humpbacks, gray whales, sperm whales and fin whales
Seeing whales: in Antarctica, North Atlantic Right Whales off eastern Canada, and Blue Whales in the Sea of Cortez
Land-based whale watching, and what to watch for
Great places to see whales, including South Africa, Monterey Bay in CA, east coast U.S. areas, The Azores, New Zealand, Iceland, Antarctica
Donna's favorite memory, of Springer the orca