Most residents of the Pacific Northwest think about whale watching, with their minds drifting to the coast to see 20,000 gray whales migrate each spring, or find themselves daydreaming of boating around the San Juan Islands, watching orcas in their natural environment. When it comes to seeing whales, few, if any, think of Tacoma and the viewpoints around Point Defiance Park. Yet, each year, our corner of wilderness along the Puget Sound has dozens of whale sightings. In the past six months, Tacoma residents who know what to look for out in the murky waters have seen a pod of orcas and a few humpback whales from a couple of locations in Point Defiance.

Humpback whale tail
The tail of a humpback whale, as seen from the Dalco Passage overlook at Point Defiance. Photo credit: Cassy Suratos

One of the best ways to see if whales are in the Tacoma area is to follow the Orca Network on Facebook or Twitter. Using volunteers, the Orca Network’s social media pages post information about the sightings, helping people to be aware of any whales in their neighborhood. The Orca Network also has an email blast they send out, which is a compilation of reports, photos, videos, news and events to more than 15,000 people, giving those who can’t see the whales in person a chance to see them through others’ eyes.

The Orca network also has a Whale Sightings Viewpoint map to help people who want to see whales with their own eyes a chance find the best public viewpoints near them. Point Defiance and along Five Mile Drive have six locations where whales can and are often seen; and when you’re in the area, volunteers are usually there watching and educating.

Dalco Passage
From the Dalco Passage overlook along Five Mile Drive, whale watching is possible. Photo credit: Cassy Suratos

“When our Whale Sighting Network gets a whale report, we share it with our Sighting Network volunteers, as well as a large group of whale enthusiasts,” explains Susan Berta, co-founder and ED of Orca Network. “The volunteers try to get to the shoreline near wherever the whale report is. Then, along with tracking the whales from shore, they snap photos for identification purposes, while observing travel direction, behaviors, etc. The volunteers also talk about the whales they are watching with others who may be gathered on the shore to watch.”

To best see a whale from Tacoma, you need a few things – the right conditions, a whale in the region and luck.

The right conditions to see a whale are not what everyone assumes. While most want to go out and look for an orca or humpback during sunny, warm days, the color of the sky reflecting off the water actually makes it harder to see. The best days are the gray days, when the sky and water are dark, but the wind is mostly calm. When there are clouds in the sky and no whitecaps on the water, you can see a spray in the distance much more easily. Your best location to see a whale, based on the author’s experience, is from the Dalco Passage overlook, where miles of water can be watched easily. Dalco Passage gives a look between Gig Harbor and Vashon Island, which is an area frequented by roaming whales.

Owen Beach Tacoma
Even from Owen Beach, whale sightings are possible. Photo credit: Cassy Suratos

Once you know there is a whale in the region, thanks to Orca Networks posts, heading to an overlook with a pair of binoculars and patience may reward you with a sighting. Resident orcas can be seen in the fall and early winter, while transient orcas show up whenever they want. Last year, orcas appeared during the height of the salmon run in the fall. Humpback whales have been showing up in recent years in higher numbers and seem to enjoy hanging out right off of Point Defiance and south Possession Sound throughout the year.

If there are humpbacks in the region, it is important to know that on average, adult humpbacks surface every 7 to 15 minutes to breathe, but can remain submerged for up to 45 minutes. If you are lucky enough to see a humpback calf, they surface every 3 to 5 minutes.

Sea lions
While you might not see a whale, keep an eye out for feeding seals and sea lions around Point Defiance. Photo credit: Cassy Suratos

Seeing a whale at Point Defiance isn’t a guarantee, even if there is a whale in the area, as they are wild and unpredictable animals. However, thanks to the work of Orca Network in providing detailed, daily sighting reports on their social media pages, you stand a good chance to spot a whale from Owen Beach or the Dalco Passage overlook if you check through the day. Scanning the horizon, there is nothing like the thrill of seeing a spout shoot into the air and the back of a majestic whale come into view.

For many, seeing a whale seems like something that you need to travel a far distance to do, but those of us in Tacoma only have to drive a few minutes to see these majestic mammals exploring, feeding and living in the Puget Sound.