A Whales’ Tale: Part I

by Evie Maxwell, Staff Writer

While gray whales don’t have long-term family relationships, they do make long-term friends. Here a pair of friends feed together in Puget Sound.

Photo by Justine Buckmaster
Puget Sound Express

There was a time when whales roamed the northern Puget Sound in abundance. Humpbacks, gray whales, a wide variety of orcas, minke, and others could be found feeding and playing along our shorelines. So plentiful were whales that some indigenous communities built their ways of life, and worship, around the great creatures.

But like all stories that begin with ‘there was a time,’ time was running out. As the land became more populated, life became a great deal more hazardous for whales. Among the more egregious assaults were:

  • The ‘culling’ of massive numbers of seals and sea lions. This kill off was initiated by the growing number of fisheries, which viewed these creatures as competition for the region’s fish. Unfortunately, they were also the major food source for many orcas;
  • The increased damming of waterways. As more people demanded more water and electricity, governments of all stripes looked to damming the rivers. That destroyed the breeding grounds for a large variety of salmon, and the dwindling salmon population meant less food for orcas;

Add to this the practice of whale-napping by audience-hungry aquariums, a boom in industrial whaling operations, growing pollution, and ever-increasing boating traffic. By the mid-twentieth century, most whale species were seriously endangered. Fortunately, things have begun to turn around, at least for some species. Facing the potential extinction of many types of whales, coalitions of nonprofit organizations, concerned volunteers, and governmental entities jumped in to help save what whales they could. In this two-part article, we’ll talk to some of these organizations about their efforts. Since the subject of whales is quite large (forgive the pun), we’ll start with a look at the baleen whales among us, aka humpbacks, gray whales, and the elusive minkes. Next month’s article will tackle those fabulous orcas.

For the baleens, who feed by filtering water through bristle-like appendages inside their mouths in order to catch critters such as krill, the news has gone from dreadful to improving, at least for humpbacks.

Through the first part of the twentieth century, commercial hunting nearly drove humpback whales to extinction. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, by the 1960s only around 5,000 of these massive (think 46 to 56 feet long with 40 short tons in weight) creatures remained in the world’s oceans.

But, notes Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, an industry group for whale sight-seeing vessels, “In the 1960s, humpbacks became protected.”

That helped but, for northern Puget Sound, humpback whales remained virtually invisible. This changed in 1997.

“For the first time in decades, a female humpback was seen, and photographed, near Victoria Island,” Gless says. The whale—dubbed ‘Big Mama’—has continued to return. In fact, she’s been sighted every year since 2003.

“She’s a great-grandma now,” Gless notes. She’s also the much-watched-for precursor of a Salish Sea humpback revival. Today, hundreds of humpbacks make an annual journey from southern calving grounds to return to our region during the spring. For the most part, they stay until October or November.

As of last year, the Canadian Pacific Humpback Collaboration recorded 396 individual humpbacks in the Pacific Northwest. What’s more, the group sighted a total of 34 humpback calves in the Salish Sea.

Here’s a humpback mom with her 2022 calf. After giving birth in their southern breeding grounds, humpbacks will stay with their calves for about one year. Like grays, these whales make long- term friends that they will visit, and feed with, over many years.

Photo by Bethany Shimasaki
Western Prince

Humpbacks are a playful, social, species, especially known for the close relationships they can establish with each other. In particular, Gless points to a pair, dubbed Split Fin and Split Fluke for their distinctive markings, that remained close friends for years. Even though the two whales winter in different breeding areas, Gless notes, “Year after year they’d come back to find each other and travel together through this region.”

This behavior, she notes, is typical for humpbacks, as it is for our next set of baleen whales: the grays.

Gless explains, “As with humpbacks, grays don’t typically have long-term relationships with family members, but they do stick together in friend-oriented groups.”

A particularly notable group is the so-called Sounders, which now consists of 20-some individuals that return every year to the north Puget Sound and appear to be spending more and more time here.

“They used to show up in February or March and stay until about May,” Gless notes. “Now they’re coming in December or January and staying until June or July, and last year, one of them didn’t leave at all.”

Gless attributes this to our abundance of ghost shrimp, a major food source for grays, which quite literally burrow into the sand for their sustenance.

That’s the good news on grays. The bad news is: they’re still rare and recently have fallen prey to what the experts call ‘an unusual mortality event.’

Here’s how that translates: In 2016, the global population of gray whales was estimated at 27,000 individuals. Today that number is 16,500. “We’re not sure what’s causing this,” Gless says. But malnutrition appears to play a major role, and Gless adds, “Since the grays tend to feed in the Arctic, most signs point to global warming.”

There is some good news though. “Grays are a very resilient species,” Gless says. “This is the third major die-off recorded for them and, in previous times, they’ve recovered. We hope this will be the same.”

Not much is known about the minke whales, but we seem to have a small but stable population that visits each year.

Photo by Sam Murphy
Island Adventures Whale Watching

Last among the Salish Sea’s population of baleen whales is the (relatively) little minke.

“These guys are often forgotten,” Gless says. “At 20 to 30 feet, they’re the smallest of the baleens in our area. They’re very shy, and quick. So we don’t see them often, and really don’t know much about them.” But the minke are here, as the accompanying photo attests.

Protecting our Whale Populations

Okay folks, this is the really important part: The whales among us are beautiful, playful and (in some cases) increasingly abundant. But they do need to be protected, particularly from us.

Fortunately, there are a number of programs and organizations dedicated to this task. Among them are the Pacific Whale Watch Association, as noted in the accompanying article, and the well-known Orca Network, which, despite its name, focuses on all whales. (We’ll hear more from them in Part II of the series.)

For its part, the Pacific Whale Watch Association and its 30 eco-tourism members have adopted a practice known as ‘Sentinel Actions.’ Under this initiative, the whale-watching vessels are constantly on the lookout for anything that can endanger the whales. Thus, the vessels will pick up trash, report entanglements and, perhaps most critically, keep an eye on the behavior of boat traffic.

That boat traffic can harm whales in several ways. For one, points out Alisa Lemire Brooks, whale sighting network coordinator for the Orca Network, “Vessel noise can interfere with the whales finding food, so the slowing of boats is one of the most important things we can do to protect whales.”

Slower boat speed plays another key role in protecting whales: It lessens the number of whales getting hit. Over the past several years, a number of whales have died in boating accidents, and thus, Brooks stresses, PWWA’s sentinel program is critical. The staff on whale watching boats “are the people who really know what to do around whales,” she says. And they’re in the best position to warn boaters to slow down or avoid certain areas altogether.

In addition, the folks at the Orca Network recommend that boaters keep an eye on the Be Whale Wise network (bewhalewise.org) for information on how to safely (for whales) navigate our waters. Plus, the Orca Network runs an extensive land-based whale sighting network, which publishes alerts on where the whales are.

We’ll include more hints for helping whales in our next article, but for now: Boaters’ Beware! If you see a whale, or a whale blow, or even the possibility of whale blow, slow down. Our wonderful aquatic neighbors will thank you.