Summer's a great time to see the state of Washington's Puget Sound. A sharp-eyed visitor might even catch a glimpse of some of the rarest killer whales on Earth.
There are only 81 "southern resident" killer whales left the wild. They were on the path toward extinction until a few years ago, when they were protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Turns out, though, these restless Puget Sound orcas don't stick around in the winter and spring.
New research shows that this whale population -- divvied up into three lively pods -- loves to travel, especially in the winter. Last year scientists found that, over the course of just a few months, they cruised from Cape Flattery, at the far northwestern tip of Washington, down along the Oregon Coast to Northern California's Point Reyes.
Along the way, these close-knit family groups traveled through more than 9,000 square miles of marine habitat, often in search of migrating salmon at the base of coastal rivers. Now that we know, it only makes sense to protect those migratory areas too.
That's why this week, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to designate the whales' winter foraging areas along the West Coast as protected "critical habitat."
Critical habitat designations prevent the federal government from undertaking or approving activities that reduce an area's ability to support an endangered species. Studies show that species with designated critical habitat are more than twice as likely to show signs of improvement than those without.
It's clear these killer whales need it.
There were once an estimated 200 members of the "southern population." The population has endured several significant declines since the 1960s, hitting a low of 67 in 1971.
Although the population has shown signs of stabilizing, these whales still face a litany of threats. Human activities in and near coastal waters reduce salmon numbers, generate toxic pollution and increase ocean noise, which disrupts the orcas' ability to communicate and locate prey.
All those threats will have to be addressed, but the immediate task should be safeguarding the last remaining places these rare whales need to survive, especially those foraging waters along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California.