When Seattle wildlife biologist Kersti Muul started a WhatsApp group chat last summer to alert members of wildlife sightings in the area, she didn't expect it to become so popular.
"Having free access and in real time helps people get to the beach faster. So that was the beginnings of it," Muul said of the group chat called the Salish Wildlife Watch. It's named after the Salish sea, inland waters spanning between Washington state and British Columbia.
"Initially it was just going to be kind of West Seattle and then Seattle, but now it's down to Tacoma and up to Edmonds."
"This app was designed for ethical viewing for all kinds of urban wildlife, not just whales. I like to think of it in the broader context of how we're helping, you know, all the urban wildlife that shares the community with us and the whales."
But with their breathtaking size and beauty, orca sightings have become a member favorite and because of the group chat, Muul and research partner, Brittany Philbin, have made some unexpected connections.
Because of the postings on the chat, a couple on their honeymoon visiting Vashon, Washington saw killer whales so close they could hear them breathing.
"You know things like that, it was just so exciting for me. I was so happy for them," said Muul.
Then there's Lori and Riley Hess, who happened to be in Seattle for Riley's second bone marrow transplant.
The 25-year-old was born with a rare genetic disorder called severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID).
Lori Hess learned about the app from local media reports and started messaging Philbin.
"She heard Riley's story, and she's like, 'Well, it's my life mission to get you to see a whale before you leave.'"
"She messaged us at 7 am. the next day and told us to get on a ferry go," Riley Hess said.
They rushed to Point Robinson lighthouse and made it just in time to see a group of orcas.
"It's hard to describe in words, but it was really just a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he said.
"It just kind of made me feel almost small, like my problems that are so big right now, seeing something so majestic and giant, it just kind of really grounds you, I guess, is a good way to put it and it really just made you feel in the moment."
It was a full circle moment for Riley Hess. At age three, Make-a-Wish arranged for him to go to Sea World.
"I fell asleep for the Orca whales, and I never got to see them. Twenty years later, I finally get to see Orca whales for my second transplant which is crazy," he said.
"It was very special. We were crying. I was sobbing my eyes out," Lori Hess said.
"You get to stare at this magical thing that truly needs your help in many ways," said Riley Hess.
The group chat has become an opportunity to raise awareness of issues plaguing the Southern Resident killer whales. They're critically endangered faced with depleted salmon runs, boat noise, and the threat of collisions with boats.
"We provide our members with information on how to report boater violations for boats that they think are too close to whales," Philbin said.
"We posted a link to the WRAS app and within WRAS, you can pinpoint a whales' exact location on a map and upload what the species is, where the whale is, what it's doing, how many there are, etc. And that goes directly to vessels, like the ferries and larger vessels," Muul said.
"For me as a wildlife biologist and an educator, I know that connection between being inspired and experiencing awe and how it translates to advocacy and wanting to know more about said species that you're inspired by. So, the more eyes on the water, the more of these inspirational experiences right here in our backyard."
"These animals are very resilient, but we do have to protect the environment that they live in and respecting them at the same time," said Philbin.