Marine mammals from distant places visit Puget Sound
The reasons for the surprise visits are unknown, but changes in environmental conditions here or elsewhere are one possibility.
It was a flat-water day at the end of March for whale watchers in the San Juan Islands. Jeff Friedman was guiding his 38-foot whale-watch boat across Boundary Pass, looking for killer whales, when he spotted a series of blows from a whale in the distance.
“My immediate reaction was that it was probably a humpback,” he said, recalling how he moved the boat closer to give his 12 passengers a better look. When they reached the area, there was nothing. They waited about 15 minutes, but still they saw nothing.
Soon after they left the area, a voice came over the radio from another whale-watch boat, calling to Friedman: “We found your humpback, and it’s not a humpback; it’s a sperm whale.”
Sperm whales had never been seen in the inland waters of Washington state, at least as far as anyone knows. To Friedman, the chance of seeing a sperm whale was almost beyond belief, but minutes later the animal was before him.
“It was incredible,” Friedman said. “I told my passengers that they couldn’t imagine how special and rare this is. I explained to them that this is probably going to be the only time in my career that I would lead a boatload of people to see a sperm whale.”
This year’s sighting of that sperm whale in our inland waterway punctuates a series of unprecedented appearances by marine mammals in Puget Sound in recent years. People have reported warm-water species, such as common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins, which are rarely seen north of California and only reported recently in Puget Sound.
A ribbon seal from the cold Arctic or subarctic regions made an unheard-of entry into the Sound a few years ago. And some marine mammals — such as fin whales — have been growing in numbers off the coast, so it may be inevitable to spot a few daring pioneers coming into Puget Sound to look around.
The rising number of unusual species in Puget Sound is probably the result of a variety of factors, depending on the particular species, according to John Calambokidis, senior research biologist at Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia. Some of it is good news: For example, improving environmental conditions, such as fewer fishing nets and reduced pollution levels, may have led to a resurgence of harbor porpoises and humpback whales, which were once plentiful in Puget Sound but disappeared years ago.
“These animals are finding enough prey to survive,” Calambokidis said, “but we’re not sure which prey that is. It’s a bit of a mystery.”
Growing populations of ocean-based marine mammals off the West Coast may motivate some animals to seek out new territories, he said. Meanwhile, one should not overlook the idea that more sightings, usual and unusual, could be the result of larger numbers of people paying attention to the water and taking photographs for ID purposes.
The occurrence of unusual animals in Puget Sound may be fascinating, but it is also a worrisome prospect, according to Jessie Huggins, stranding coordinator for Cascadia. Although the number of unusual whales, porpoises and seals seems to be increasing, their overall numbers remain very small.
“A small number of animals are sticking around,” she said, “but they are still dying at a high rate.”
Unusual dolphins that appear in pairs or in groups seem to have a greater chance of survival, perhaps because animals coming alone into Puget Sound might be a sign of a problem, according to Huggins, who discussed the stranding issue at a special session of the Salish Sea Ecosystem Conference in Seattle last April.
“These are social animals,” Huggins noted. “Maybe the ones that are alone can’t keep up with everybody else. It’s also harder to survive when you are by yourself.”
The rare sperm whale observed by Friedman and the whale-watching passengers had been spotted more than a month earlier off Hanson Island, near the northern end of Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
The whale was identified by researchers as a young male about 45 feet long. He was given the name Yukusam, a Coast Salish name for Hanson Island, where he was first seen. The whale worked his way south among the scattered islands between the B.C. mainland and Vancouver Island, eventually crossing into the U.S. near Turn Point off Stuart Island.
Until Yukusam showed up near Vancouver Island, the only evidence of a sperm whale coming into the Salish Sea was calls picked up on a hydrophone some 34 years ago. That whale was heard but never seen.
Yukusam’s diving pattern remained largely the same during his travels, according to Friedman, affiliated with Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching. The whale would stay down 35 to 40 minutes before coming up and logging at the surface for about 10 minutes. During the brief encounter, the whale was diving in one of the deepest places in the Salish Sea, some 1,200 feet deep, Friedman said.
“I put the hydrophone in the water, and you could hear the clicks,” he said. “They were so loud it sounded like an air gun.”
The loud clicks can bounce off potential prey, mostly squid and fish. By using echolocation, the whale can tell where things are in the underwater world. When the clicks stopped, Friedman guessed correctly that the whale was making its way to the surface.
“You don’t really see them come up,” he said. “You see the blow and part of their bodies. When they go down, you see the fluke rise up.”
As the sun moved low in the sky, Friedman said his passengers were elated to experience this once-in-a-lifetime event. After two dives, the boat headed back to port, arriving in the dark.
“This experience is completely burned into my memory,” said Friedman, who serves as U.S. president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. “I will never forget it.”
The sperm whale apparently returned to the Pacific Ocean, his natural home, by heading out through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Sperm whales, the largest of the toothed whales, normally stay in deep waters well off the coast, sometimes venturing into submarine canyons closer to shore.
Two bottlenose dolphins, known as “Miss” and “Stump,” decided to take their time moving up the West Coast from California, where they were first studied and named in the early 1980s. They now seem to be taking up residence in Washington state.
The fact that they are in Puget Sound at all is rather amazing, since they are considered to be a warm-water species, according to Laurie Shuster of Cascadia Research. Most of them stay along the California Coast or in Mexican waters and areas farther south.
Miss, who has distinctive notches on her dorsal fin, apparently moved north from Southern California to Monterey Bay, where she was identified in the 1990s. Then she moved north again and was identified in San Francisco Bay in 2012.
Bill Keener of Golden Gate Cetacean Research in San Francisco reported that Miss was seen near Point Arena, about 100 miles north of San Francisco, before returning south along the coast. In Northern California, she was last observed in March of last year.
Puget Sound sightings of Miss and Stump began last fall, including frequent reports from Seattle’s Elliott Bay. Now, as many as five or six bottlenose dolphins may be hanging out in Puget Sound.
Earlier visits to Puget Sound by bottlenose dolphins were reported in 1998, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011, with deaths potentially connected to the dolphins seen in 1998, 2010 and 2011.
Why bottlenose dolphins would leave their traditional home range is unknown, Shuster said, but their early wanderings in 1982 might be related to a strong El Niño event, which resulted in warmer ocean waters all along the coast at that time. Their recent arrival in Puget Sound followed another strong El Niño, which started in 2015.
Bottlenose dolphins are known to eat a variety of fish and invertebrates, and those in Puget Sound seem to be in good shape, Shuster said. If the animals continue to survive and expand their numbers in the Salish Sea, then federal biologists will need to redraw the long-held maps that suggest they do not belong here.
Since the summer of 2016, a group of 6- to 8-foot-long dolphins have been leaping, feeding and approaching boats in Puget Sound, according to sighting reports. Biologists might tell you that these long-beaked common dolphins shouldn’t be here, but the dolphins don’t seem to understand.
Common dolphins normally don’t travel north of California, but recent reports in Puget Sound describe groups of dolphins ranging from five to 20 individuals, with as many as 30 in one reported encounter. Four individuals with distinctive dorsal fins, along with a new calf, have been seen repeatedly in South Puget Sound.
Earlier, common dolphin sightings in Puget Sound were confirmed in 2003 and 2011-12. Dead animals were found in 2012 and last year.
By looking at their coloration and the shape of their dorsal fins, one can distinguish common dolphins from harbor porpoise and Dall’s porpoise — considered the endemic species.
Harbor porpoises, once common before World War II, nearly disappeared over the years following the war. Many were killed in gillnets as fishing intensified. Now harbor porpoises are returning to Puget Sound in huge numbers, which are increasing even faster than their reproductive rate. That means that many of the porpoises are coming from somewhere else. Researchers have yet to crack the mystery of the rapidly growing harbor porpoise population, but Dall’s porpoises seem to have chosen a deferential path out of Puget Sound, as the harbor porpoises move in. Few Dall’s are seen anymore.
Harbor porpoises are all gray-brown, whereas Dall’s are all black with a white patch on their sides. Dall’s may be mistakenly identified as baby orcas. Common dolphins have a distinct black cape that extends to a saddle below their dorsal fin, with a light underbelly.
Harbor porpoises and Dall’s porpoises have fairly triangular dorsal fins, whereas the long-beaked common dolphins have a curvier fin. Neither of the porpoise species expose much of their backs while swimming, but the common dolphins will leap out of the water and often play in the wake of a boat.
Common dolphins may be competing for food with the much larger group of harbor porpoises as well as other marine mammals. Their diet is said to include small squid, herring, sand lance, surf smelt, anchovy and stickleback.
Shuster of Cascadia Research said she was kayaking near Ketron Island in South Puget Sound in March of 2011 when she saw a pair of sea creatures jumping out of the water.
“They seemed like a weird harbor porpoise,” she said. “They were enormous animals and making full-bodied leaps out of the water and splashing back down. They were gray on top with lots of scarring and a white belly.”
Shuster did some checking and learned that they were Risso’s dolphins, frequently found in deep ocean waters off the West Coast but extremely rare in Puget Sound. The odd-looking creatures, which can grow to 12 feet long, feature bulbous heads and a rotund midsections with unusually tall dorsal fins, given their size. Scars presumably come from battles with rivals and encounters with prey, such as squid and small sharks.
The two animals spotted by Shuster remained in Puget Sound for at least several months before they apparently departed. Two years later, another Risso’s dolphin showed up, but it eventually stranded and died.
In the summer of 2016, Susan Berta of Orca Network received a report of a humpback whale off Bush Point near her home on Whidbey Island. The whale was said to be coming south down Admiralty Inlet into Central Puget Sound. Berta got out her long-distance binoculars.
“I looked out and saw a blow, which was huge,” she said. “Then the back came up, and I saw more back, and more back, and more back, and finally a fin.”
That wasn’t a humpback, she realized. Could it be a rare fin whale?
“I had only seen fin whales up in Alaska, but I knew they were huge and had their fin in the back,” she said. “Others on our network were able to get photographs.”
The massive animal was confirmed as the second fin whale seen in Puget Sound since perhaps 1930, when a lone animal made it all the way to Shelton in South Puget Sound. The year before, in 2015, a different fin whale generated much excitement, as well as news reports, when it was spotted in the San Juan Islands. That whale was dubbed “Finnegan.”
The number of fin whales off the U.S. West Coast has been growing steadily, and the California/Oregon/Washington stock now numbers about 9,000 animals, according to a recent report for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. It could be expected that a fin whale will occasionally make a wrong turn or decide to check out new territory.
Fin whales are the second largest whales next to blue whales. They can grow to 90 feet long and weigh nearly 100 tons. They eat mainly krill, tiny crustaceans and schooling fish. They prefer deep water and rarely come into the inland waterways. Sadly, the number of live fin whales in Puget Sound is exceeded by the number of dead ones killed by vessel strikes in the ocean and brought into the Sound on the bow of a ship.
Humpback whales, which were common in Puget Sound before whaling nearly drove them to extinction, have been making a comeback the past few years, with multiple humpbacks visiting the area at the same time, often for extended visits.
On Jan. 1. 2010, observers in South Puget Sound began reporting a large baleen whale with a prominent dorsal fin, said Huggins of Cascadia Research. The whale was identified as a Bryde’s (pronounced "broo-dess”) whale, considered a tropical species never before reported inside Puget Sound.
About two weeks after the first sightings, the 38-foot male, a sub-adult, was found floating dead near Hartstene Island in South Puget Sound. Other large whales had been brought into Puget Sound dead on the bows of ships, but this one apparently arrived on its own. When he died, he was in a poor nutritional condition, according to a necropsy report. He had no food in his stomach, and his blubber was almost gone.
Leaders of the nearby Squaxin Island Tribe honored the dead whale as a distant traveler who chose to die within the tribe’s traditional territory. Tribal members cleaned and dried the bones, according to Rhonda Foster, director of cultural resources for the tribe. The bones may be used to reconstruct a whale skeleton for the tribe's museum, she said, or they may be donated to another museum or university.
The following November, a second Bryde’s whale showed up in the same general area as the first, but this 34-foot male had extensive injuries and died within days. An examination suggested that the animal had been struck by a ship’s propeller and died from a bacterial infection and generalized emaciation.
If some unusual species are making their way into Puget Sound from warm-water areas, a few others appear to be making their way south from Arctic regions, experts say.
A ribbon seal, whose species is most commonly seen in the Arctic Ocean, was first identified in Puget Sound in January 2012, when a woman noticed a strange-looking seal sitting on her dock in the Duwamish River in Seattle. Sightings continued later that month near Everett in North Puget Sound.
Ribbon seals, which grow to about 5 feet long, are mostly black in color with white rings around their neck, hips and front flippers.
While in Everett, a team of federal biologists assisted by a veterinarian threw a net over the animal to conduct a quick health assessment. The male seal, about 4.5 feet long, was found to be in good shape.
Later, the seal kind of bounced around to different places — Aberdeen, Bellingham and into Canada, said Dyanna Lambourn, marine mammal biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Another sighting of a ribbon seal off Long Beach on the coast was a different one, she said, and another animal made it to California this past winter before it died during an effort to save its life.
Female ribbon seals give birth on sea ice, and they use the ice for molting, resting and rearing their young. When the ice melts in the summer, they move into the water and spend most of their time foraging for fish, squid and small crustaceans. They may disperse over a large area.
Why an Arctic animal would move south is unknown, Lambourn said, but as global ice continues to melt, it may be a fact of life that animals will be looking for other places to live.
Last year, a rare ringed seal came ashore at Pacific Beach on the Washington Coast, Lambourn said. People posted signs to keep others away and were monitoring the animal, thought to be a young harbor seal.
Something attacked the seal, perhaps a dog or a coyote, she said, and it was dead before she arrived. As she examined its fur and head size, she realized that it wasn’t a harbor seal after all. She soon identified it as a ringed seal.
“It was in fairly good body condition,” she said, “but an ice seal should not be here.”
Ringed seals build caves in snowdrifts to rear their young. Without adequate sea ice or enough snowfall at the right time, ringed seals are doomed — and those uncertain conditions can be expected as climate change continues.
In 2012, three subspecies of ringed seals in the Arctic were placed on the Endangered Species List, with climate change listed as their greatest threat.
This article was updated from its original version to correct the estimated length of the sperm whale in Boundary Pass.