Gray whales will soon slowly start making their migration north (if they haven’t already) from Baja, Mexico to Alaska, but not before a small group of them make a stopover in the waters of Puget Sound to feed on the abundance of ghost shrimp! Once these whales have eaten their fill, they will begin to continue their migration north.
Of the estimated 22,000 gray whales that inhabit the North pacific ocean, we get to have our very own “resident” gray whale population of about 12 animals right here in Puget Sound for a few months! How lucky are we?! They usually start arriving in March and are generally here through late April/early May. This is the time to see gray whales in Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula.
The one everyone hopes to see is an adult male designated as #53. He has been given the nickname “Patch” because of the large white patch that can be seen on his back. He’s been coming into these waters for at least 25 years in a row now!! That’s dedication! Don’t miss out on seeing the grays that are only here for a short time and book your trip now!
Photo by Janine Harles: Gray whales have a very mottled skin pigmentation that is mostly gray, as shown here. The mottled pattern on their skin is how we and scientists can tell them apart.
2015 is set to be remembered as an all-timer for the Southern Resident Killer Whales! The Center for Whale Research has just announced a new baby orca in J Pod – J54!
We don’t know the sex of the young orca, but its mother is J28, a twenty-two year old female Southern Resident Killer Whale in the Pacific Northwest. The mother had a previous baby designated J46, a female, born in 2009 and still surviving. This brings the known births of Southern Resident orcas to eight since last December, and the total population of the population as of now to 84 known individuals. 1977 is the only previous year in the past forty years in which as many baby killer whales were born into this community of whales, and there were nine in that year. From calculations accounting for all reproductive age females, we estimate that typically up to nine babies could be produced each year, but there is usually a high rate of neonatal and perinatal mortality, and we have seen only three babies annually on average. In the years immediately following poor salmon years, we see fewer babies and higher mortality of all age cohorts.
The new baby, J54, was first seen on 1 December 2015 by several whale-watchers near San Juan Island, and photographed with J28 by Ivan Reiff, a Pacific Whale Watch Association member. However, the 1 December photographs were not conclusive in that they did not reveal distinct features of eyepatch and “saddle” pigment shape that could unequivocally rule out that it was not another baby being “baby sat” by J28. Today’s photographs in Haro Strait between San Juan Islands and Vancouver Island confirm the distinct features required for alpha-numeric designation. The new baby is estimated to be two and a half to three weeks old as of now. The family, including mother and sister, grandmother, aunt, uncles, and cousin, and other J pod members continued North in Haro Strait and Swanson Channel by sunset. Presumably, they are destined for the Strait of Georgia where J pod spent an extended amount of time last December.
It is clear that the Southern Resident population (in particular J pod) is investing in the future, and that survival of all of the new calves and their mothers and relatives depends upon a future with plentiful salmon, especially Chinook salmon, in the eastern North Pacific Ocean ecosystem. This may be problematic with pending and unfolding Climate Change that is anticipated to be detrimental to salmon survival, in the ocean and in the rivers. Warmer ocean waters are less productive, and rivers without continual water (no snow melt – rains runoff too quickly) and with warmer water are lethal to salmon. The Pacific Salmon Foundation and Long Live the Kings are non-profit organizations concerned with the declining survival of juvenile salmon in the Salish Sea, and the Center for Whale Research is a non-profit organization concerned with the survival and demographic vigor of the Southern Resident Killer Whales in the Salish Sea and coastally from Vancouver Island to California.
PHOTO: Dave Ellifrit, the Center for Whale Research.
The 2015 holiday season is upon us! If you want to give a truly life-changing gift, consider a gift certificate for whale watching with Puget Sound Express. We offer gift purchases on all of our 2016 tours, and making it happen is as easy as clicking “purchase gift” directly below.
The endangered Southern Community continues to rebuild its ranks.
The Center for Whale Research announced this weekend that a new calf has been spotted, the seventh born into the population since December 30th, 2014, and the third born into L-Pod this year. The baby, dubbed L123 by the Center, was born to L103, the 12-year-old’s first known calf. The calf was first spotted on November 10th, 2015 off Seattle, WA and then again on November 22nd near the Jordan River in B.C.
The announcement comes almost exactly a year to the day after the tragic loss of J32, or “Rhapsody,” the beloved member of the Southerns who died from an infection while trying to give birth to a full-term fetus.
“Losing J32 was like losing two on one day from this population,” remembers Michael Harris, Executive Director of Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA). “That also dropped their numbers to 77, down one from when we got them listed under the Endangered Species Act 10 years ago. And that brought us all down. Many of the most optimistic among us started to really wonder if we could save this population. Some gave up — but not us. And then true enough, they surprise us with seven beautiful, healthy calves within a year. It goes to show that you never can give up on these orcas. They’ve been around for about 10,000 years, and if we make sure we have salmon out there, they’ll be around for thousands more.”
Scientists believe that the baby boom this year is directly correlated to a healthy Chinook salmon run last year. But coming off a regional drought and other problems, the next few years are expected to be challenging for the population.
“We are very excited about the SRKW baby boom, but it is now more important than ever to remember that the more whales we have the more salmon they will need,” said Dr. Deborah Giles, Director of Research for the Center for Whale Research. “With all these new mouths to feed it is crucial to focus on Chinook salmon habitat restoration. Removal of the lower Snake River Dams is just one of the many ways to address the issue.”
(Photo by Mark Malleson under NMFS Permit #15569 and/or DFO license #2013-04 SARA-272 “3”.)
Some call Puget Sound “the American Serengeti,” home to a wide variety of whale species – humpback whales, minke whales, gray whales, and of course resident, transient and offshore killer whales.
But naturalists aboard the Chilkat Express saw and captured photographs of something even many long-time whale watchers and researchers have never seen in the inland waters of Washington State – a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus). The juvenile fin was spotted 11:00 am Thursday, September 2, 2015, apparently feeding about three miles south of Minor Island in north Puget Sound.
“Fin whales have a very distinctive exhalation,” explains Dr. Jonathan Stern, Professor of Marine Biology at San Francisco State University whose done studies on fin whales off Kodiak Island, Alaska and in the Bering Sea. “That’s how we knew this wasn’t a minke or humpback whale. Fins have a lingering blow that is very unique. This definitely appears to be a young fin whale, healthy but a bit thin, with lots of Pennella (parasitic copepods). This is a very interesting sighting.”
The fin whale is the second-largest creature to live on Earth, behind the blue whale. Adult fins can reach 85 feet and 75 tons and live up to 90 years. Listed as an Endangered Species in the U.S., they once were common in the Salish Sea until very targeted and intensive commercial hunting off Vancouver Island essentially extirpated the local population – much like it did the humpbacks here. The hunts stopped and in the last several years, after a generation or more in diaspora, humpbacks have returned to these waters in full force, delighting researchers and whale watchers. The eastern north Pacific population, also known as the Hawai’i humpbacks, has recently been taken off the Endangered Species list. The first whale spotted regularly here was “Big Mama,” who has since brought in several of her calves.
“There always has to be that pioneer, that first one in to literally test the waters, and maybe this little fin whale is that pioneer,” explains Michael Harris of Puget Sound Express, who’s also a longtime Wildlife Specialist for ABC News and an Emmy Award-winning wildlife filmmaker. “We had Big Mama usher in the ‘Humpback Comeback,’ and before that we had a gray whale we named ‘Patch’ start coming down to south Whidbey Island every spring for the ghost shrimp. We’ve seen Patch now for 23 straight years, and there’s about a dozen more grays who’ve followed his lead. We really know very little about this fin whale – we don’t even know if it’s healthy or not – but a lot of us are hoping that he, or she, is that first fin in, with many more to come.”
With an estimated 10,000 freighters and tankers transiting the Salish Sea every year, this juvenile fin whale and others to come will need to navigate quite a perilous path to recolonization. Large whales like fins are particularly prone to ship strikes, and because the sound of approaching ships is directed behind the ship and not forward, they’re often unaware of the danger.
“Sadly, the only time we ever see fin whales in these waters is when they’re stuck on the bow of an incoming ship,” continues Harris. “This may sound a little funny, but it’s really cool to see a live one out there for a change.”
“Overall, I’d give this place 6 stars if I could. Aside from the organization and hospitality being on point, the crew’s true passion for sea life impressed me the most. When we saw the first humpback, the captain’s voice was so shaken with excitement, it was apparent that this wasn’t just a job for her. I think in any industry, when people love what they do, it offers better service for customers.”
Thanks Rachel for sharing your experience with us.
This is Seattle whale watching at its best! PSE naturalist Renee Beitzel captured an amazing image of a transient orca visiting the Seattle waterfront on August 18, 2015. T037A’s and Co., put on quite a show. This encounter was seen on our Seattle whale watching tour departing daily from Edmonds – don’t miss a great experience.
Denise Whittaker of KOMO TV in Seattle recently joined us on the Chilkat Express for our Seattle Whale Watching tour, departing out of Edmonds. Her report focused on “the rules of the road” that every boat operator needs to know when visiting orcas. Since these amazing creatures are an endangered species, private boats and whale watch operators are required to maintain a safe distance from orcas whenever possible.
As a proud member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, Puget Sound Express takes care to give the orcas as much space as possible, while also providing an outstanding viewing experience for travelers. In Denise’s report, you can see a bit of the Chilkat, and hear Captain Pete talk about how we find orcas.
We were honored recently to host journalists Chris Brown & Chris Corday from the Canadian Broadcasting Company on the Chilkat, our Seattle Whale Watching tour that departs from Edmonds.
The duo were reporting a story about our the recent “baby boom” of orcas in the waters of the Salish Sea. They produced an excellent video and story that we have embedded here. Good background on our region’s orca population.