The YNS took its first marine trip to observe whales (Orca, it turned out to be) in October of 2013 (see that trip’s summary here). This month’s YNS trip was centered around observing grey whales and was hot on the heels of last month’s salamander love night. To many of us terrestrial vertebrates, March is still a cold month in the PNW. However, in the marine environment here, the annual flux in temperature is fairly minimal (~10 degrees C in Washington). Furthermore, whales (and many other marine mammals including seals, sea lions, etc.) possess a healthy layer of fat (blubber) that acts as a biotic coat and insulates these animals from the cool marine temperatures. This means that migratory whales are some of the earliest vertebrates to return to the high latitudes.
Just as many (northern hemisphere) bird species migrate southward to over-winter, many (northern hemisphere) whale species migrate south to find warmer waters during our winter, and also, to breed. A vast majority of grey whale individuals breed in the Gulf of California between mainland Mexico and Baja California. Grey whale mothers will reside in the breeding waters longer than males as they give birth to calves after a long gestation period (> 18 months!). A result of this behavior is that male greys often lead the wave of returning individuals of this species.
Island Adventures is the company that we have used for both of our whale watching trips. They keep data on where and when all their sightings are, and they put their money where their mouth is; if you don’t see any whales, you get a second trip on them. Plus they are nice and knowledgeable people. As we were waiting to leave their Everett pier, the weather was grey and misty. From the dock, we saw many bald eagles and even a pair of common goldeneye.
We soon made our way south and west towards Whidbey Island where they had luck seeing greys in the past week. We were seeing Bonaparte’s gulls, common loons, large rafts of surf scoters, and even a few brant. As for non-avian vertebrates, harbor seals were abound, and just east of Whidbey Island, we saw a couple California sea lions! After about thirty minutes, the captain turned the boat 180˚, and soon, people were spotting a whale spout far in the distance! The weather was starting to improve by this point. We were headed straight for the whales, going in their same direction, and the captain and crew were on their game. They measured the interval between breaths to know how long the whales were under, and therefore, when to expect them at the surface.
As we got closer, we anticipated the direction of their surfacing so we could get as much viewing as possible of these mysterious beasts. The crew informed us that the “heart-shaped” misty spout was indicative of grey whales.
Once we got close enough, we realized that we were actually chasing TWO individuals! We slowed down to give them their space and watched as they chewed mud off the shallow sea bottom to filter out some food. We watched their pectoral fins flopping around above the surface, as if they were waving at us, as they foraged in shallow depths.
At this moment, everyone simultaneously thought that their neighbor’s Philly cheese steak wasn’t sitting well. BUT, it turns out that we were down-wind of the whales. Whale breath smells something like a combination of fish and a beached (dead) seal. Not pleasant. However, many of us agreed that the opportunity to be so close to the whales that we smelled up was far cooler than the smell of their fetid breath. What a rare experience!
The group watched these two whales for another hour or so as they breached every 5-10 minutes. At the closest point, we were within 150’ of the beasts, well close enough to make out barnacles on their skin!
Towards the end of our trip, our boat sought out another grey whale individual that we had seen spouting in a different direction. But this individual was taking a long time between breaths and our trip had gone overtime, so we had to leave to come back to shore. Over the course of the day, we had seen many species of anatids and larids, pinnipeds, and for the goal of our trip, four grey whale individuals! This trip was great because a) we utilized the (under-appreciated) Salish Sea, and b) we observed some of the earlier arriving migratory species that beckon spring in the PNW. As the weather continues to improve, we are eagerly anticipating our trips over the months to come!