Where the Whales Are

Alum Caitlyn Blair turns her girlhood love of orcas into a career protecting the Salish Sea
Frances Badgett

Caitlyn Blair was a 10-year-old in landlocked Parachute, Colorado, when her mom got her a very special birthday present: She “adopted” an orca for Blair through the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor almost 1,300 miles away.

Blair became fascinated with orcas, learning everything she could about them. She followed the story of the Southern Resident orcas, of the (now tragic) movement to bring Tokitae home from the Miami Seaquarium, and based many school projects and reports on orcas, dolphins, and other sea mammals.

So when it came to choosing a college, Blair knew she wanted to attend Western Washington University. She was drawn to the self-directed program at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, where she designed her major in marine ecology, place-based education and community engagement with an environmental and social justice lens. She also minored in education and social justice, and Salish Sea studies.

Caitlyn Blair stands along the shore of Bellingham Bay
Caitlyn Blair

The Salish Sea Institute was formed in 2017 for students just like Blair—students who care deeply about the cultural and ecological health of the Salish Sea Basin and its residents.

Dedicated to the conservation, preservation and study of the wildlife, cultural and economic significance of the Salish Sea basin and surroundings, the Salish Sea Institute was a perfect place for Blair to apply her passion for the orcas she loves.

She was among the first cohort of 20 students to declare a Salish Sea Studies minor when it was established in 2019. She contributed to the State of the Salish Sea reports and did important research on the health of the Salish Sea.

“Salish Sea studies fostered my curiosity and love of the ocean,” Blair says. “I love connecting people and making sure everyone is able to learn from one another.”

She also worked as a teaching assistant, helped developed the class curriculum and led field trips, including a kayaking trip around Sucia Island.

“I enjoyed being able to see myself in these students,” she says, “and felt I was learning alongside them.”

The Salish Sea

The Salish Sea was defined and placed on maps in 2009-10, a project spearheaded by Bert Webber, professor emeritus of the College of the Environment. The Salish Sea is 5,500 square miles includes all of Puget Sound, all of the San Juan islands, the Georgia Strait and Desolation Sound to the north, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the west.

Caitlyn Blair's hand, touches a shallow rocky bottom of the water. On one of her fingers is a ring shaped like a wave.

In 2022, Blair graduated and worked in curriculum development at Western before leaving for the Northwest Straits Commission where she is a program coordinator.

The Northwest Straits Commission brings together the state’s seven regional, governor-appointed marine resource committees, combining research and field work with public outreach and education. Blair supports the marine resource committees by planning networking conferences, updating databases, preparing planning commission meetings around the region, and DEI initiatives.

At the center of Blair’s work is always her love of orcas, including her “adopted” orca, J-41, who continues to reside in the Salish Sea. Blair spotted J-41 from the ferry during her first December in Washington – she was the first orca Blair had ever seen in the wild.

“I’ve always been in love with the sea and with whales,” she says. “I find such joy in this place and my goal is to reach others who are passionate about it.”

A bird soars overhead as Caitlyn Blair, seen from behind, looks out over Bellingham Bay

Frances Badgett is Western’s assistant director of Marketing and Communications for Advancement.

Photos by Luke Hollister