Become A Citizen Scientist

Becoming a Citizen Scientist is a great way to get involved in our research while working within your own schedule!  Help us build a better picture of where harbor porpoises and harbor seals are going in the Salish Sea.

We are now holding formal Citizen Scientist Training sessions to provide all our Citizen Scientists with the tools and knowledge needed to conduct sightings on their own with confidence. Our next training will be held on October 20th at 5:45pm (PST).

If you are interested in becoming a Citizen Scientist and attending our next virtual Citizen Scientist Training event, please reach out to our team to be added to the RSVP list.

Preparation Before Training

Familiarize yourself with our datasheets to see what information we collect. If you are observing at our primary field location of Burrows Pass, Washington Park (in Anacortes), download this sheet specifically for that location. For all other observation locations, download this Citizen Scientist Sighting Sheet.

Watch our step-by-step Citizen Scientist Training Video where Research Director Dr. Cindy Elliser walks you through how to fill out your Sighting Sheet.

Current Citizen Science Locations

Anacortes, WA

Port Townsend, WA

What Can You See?

There are several species of marine mammal that can be seen year-round in the Salish Sea region, as well as a few that can be observed at various points throughout the year. The marine mammal species found in this part of the Pacific Northwest are:

  • Orcas (killer whales)
  • Harbor porpoises
  • Harbor seals
  • California sea lions
  • Steller sea lions
  • Dall’s porpoises (occasional sightings)
  • Gray whales (seasonal, Mar-May)
  • Minke whale (seasonal, May-Sep)
  • Humpback whales (seasonal, Mar-Sep)
  • Pacific white-sided dolphins (seasonal, May & Sep)
  • Fin whales (occasional sightings)

(You can even hear what some of these species sound like – check it out on this page!)

Of these, the species we see most in Burrows Pass (off Fidalgo Island) are harbor porpoises, harbor seals, California sea lions and Steller sea lions. Although technically a terrestrial species, we also see river otters swimming in the waters of our study site on occasion! Every once and a while we are lucky enough to see orcas, gray whales, minke whales, and even humpback whales in Burrows Pass or just outside it in Rosario Strait.

What To Look For?

One of the best ways to become educated about marine mammals is to observe them in their natural habitat. We’ve put together a list of some “tips and tricks” to help you spot, identify, and safely observe marine mammals in the field. Although these are useful for spotting any marine mammals, the tips below are specifically geared towards viewing those species that we typically see in Burrows Pass, Washington Park.

1. Scan: when looking for marine mammals, scan the area with your eyes or binoculars, doing continuous sweeps of an area, looking for any movement or changes on the water. This is one of the best ways to catch that first glimpse of an animal in the field.

2. Bird Mills: one of the first indicators that marine mammals might be in the area is the presence of sea birds (e.g. gulls, cormorants, etc.) congregating on or over the water. These characteristic ‘bird mills’ form when the birds are feeding on a school of fish, which may mean animals such as harbor porpoises and harbor seals are also foraging in the same area.

3. Glints or Flashes of Sunlight: a quick flash of sunlight on the surface might be the first indication you have that an animal is in your line of sight. It’s caused by light reflecting off the back of a harbor porpoise or harbor seal as it surfaces.

4. Listen: harbor porpoises are sometimes called “puffing pigs” due to the loud noise they make when they come to the surface to breathe.  On quiet days, noises such as loud exhales and/or splashing made by seals or porpoises surfacing or chasing fish can be heard easily, so listen out for these telltale sounds of movement in the water.

5. Small, Dark Shapes: harbor porpoises are especially tricky to spot in the field as they are very quick and subtle at the surface. A telltale sign of a porpoise is a small, dark triangular shape (their dorsal fin) breaking the surface before disappearing.

Harbor seals in contrast spend more time at the surface, and therefore are often easier to identify as they swim through the water with their heads up looking at their surroundings. Harbor seals have a spaniel-like profile, and are gray in color which is quite different than the other pinniped species primarily observed in the Pass, the California sea lion.

California sea lion males have a large, darker head with a large sagittal crest (bump in their forehead!). Males are often observed doing their characteristic “open-mouth swimming” while moving through the Pass, during which they swim with their mouths wide open. Female CA sea lions lack the sagittal crest of the males but are still much larger and darker than harbor seals with a sleek, elongated profile.

Steller sea lions are also large, but can be distinguished from CA sea lions by their color (they are more of a honey-gold to light brown, vs. dark brown of the CA sea lion) and size, as both male and female Stellers are typically larger than the CA sea lions.

California sea lion
Steller sea lion

Report A Sighting

If you’re out and happen to see harbor porpoises or harbor seals, let us know! We need your help to build a better picture of where these animals are going in the Salish Sea.

Use Our App!

You can now report your harbor porpoise sightings to us directly from your phone! Use an app called Epicollect5, hosted by Imperial College London to report sightings from your boat, ferry, land, kayak, or wherever you are.

Report porpoise sightings using the Epicollect5 App!

App Instructions:

● Download the Epicollect5 app to your device and open it. The app is completely free to download and use.
● Tap [Add Project], type in the phrase “PacMam Harbor Porpoise“, and select it. It will now be available on your device whenever you want to report a porpoise sighting.
● Whenever you see a harbor porpoise, open Epicollect5 on your device, select “PacMam Harbor Porpoise” from the list of projects, and answer the short list of questions that appear on your display. These should only about 30-seconds to a minute to complete.
● At the end of these questions, you will be prompted to add any final notes or useful information about your observation. Please feel free to add anything you think we should know, or anything you observed that our questions did not address. You will also be asked to send any photos you took to cindy.elliser@pacmam.org – these will help with our ongoing photo-ID project and we may even be able to identify the animal(s) you saw!
● Your device should automatically fill in the GPS coordinates for your location when you open the harbor porpoise form, but you can change them manually—for example, if you fill out the form after you have moved away from where you saw the porpoises.
● Don’t forget to [Upload] your entry when you’ve finished, or it will just remain on your device as a draft.
● As soon as you upload your observation, Epicollect5 will add a point with embedded data to an online map of the central Salish Sea and islands!

And that’s it – it really is that simple! Your sighting data will help us build a better picture of where harbor porpoises are travelling within (and beyond!) the Salish Sea, and what they are doing in different areas.

A huge thank you to our friends over at Kwiat for helping to develop our PacMam Harbor Porpoise form, and to the creators of Epicollect5 for making such an easy to use product!

Check Out Our PacMam Harbor Porpoise App Flyer

Use A Sighting Sheet

1. Download the appropriate PacMam Sighting Sheet below to record any time you see harbor porpoises or harbor seals in the Salish Sea.

If you are observing at our primary field location of Burrows Pass, Washington Park (in Anacortes)download this sheet specifically for that location. For all other observation locations, download this Sighting Sheet.

2. If you can, snap a picture to send us with your Sighting Sheet. This can be tricky, but if you manage it we might be able to identify the individual(s) you saw!

3. Make a note of the date, time, and location where you saw the animals.

4. Record environmental conditions at the time of the sighting if possible (e.g. temperature, sun/cloud cover, sea state, tidal state, etc.)

5. Note whether the porpoises or seals you observed were engaged in any specific behaviors (e.g. wake-surfing, foraging, etc.).

6. Estimate numbers of porpoises or seals observed.

7. Send your completed Sighting Sheet, along with any pictures, to us via email at cindy.elliser@pacmam.org.