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2019 Explanatory Reporting, Large Newsroom finalist

Hostile Waters: Orcas in Peril

About the Project

No story in The Seattle Times in 2018 captured the imagination or sympathy of our readers more than that of Tahlequah, a mother orca who carried her dead calf for more than 1,000 miles over 17 days last summer.

To cover this story in more detail and context than any other news organization, The Seattle Times’ newsroom employed innovative techniques in reader engagement and online storytelling. Reacting to reader interest, we also sped up the reporting and production of Hostile Waters, a special project on the Puget Sound’s critically endangered orca population that had been scheduled to launch early in 2019.

Through the end of 2018, the body of work attracted more than 6 million pageviews and hundreds of subscriptions.

To reach our most-dedicated audience, we launched a phone number to which readers could text ORCA and be in direct contact with our reporting team, to ask questions and receive breaking news. More than 1,700 people signed up. We invited readers to share how the story about the mother orca and her sad journey was affecting them, and more than 1,000 people responded, sending us poems, songs, watercolors and more. Reporter Lynda V. Mapes joined our political reporters on the Times’ podcast, The Overcast, which was downloaded thousands of times. With people so eager for news, we sent email news alerts to thousands of addresses to keep subscribers up to date.

As we launched Hostile Waters, a series that is continuing through this year, we designed an immersive video experience, putting people on the water with the orcas and the researchers who follow them.

We took people to a land in the north where another family of whales has thrived in cleaner, quieter waters. We took them underwater, to secluded rubbing beaches the orcas visit seemingly just for fun.

We also took people to a time when Puget Sound’s orcas were captured, often in brutal fashion, and taken to aquariums around the world. We gathered never before seen footage of the captures from the man who started it all.

These startling images were included in a short documentary that told the story of the capture era, a critical period that changed the way people thought about orcas forever.

In our most recent installment, we introduced people to the orcas’ world of sound. Readers could listen to a hunt unfold as a killer whale dove to greater than 500 feet pursuing a salmon. The whistles, calls and echolocation clicks revealed the species’ superpower. A glow-through graphic also showed the complex anatomy that allows the orcas to see inside their prey.

Not just bells and whistles, the innovative tools and online storytelling we used helped readers understand and engage with this story of an animal struggling to survive, and what its battle with extinction means for the people of the Pacific Northwest.