SEATTLE -- The video shows an exceptional wildlife sighting for a big city: A humpback whale surfaces just yards from Seattle's busy waterfront at twilight. The city's port cranes, Ferris wheel and car headlights glow in the background, and a ferry cruises by while the giant tail disappears back into the Puget Sound.
Whale watchers say the recording, shot in early May and confirmed by the conservationist group Orca Network, highlights an increase in humpback sightings in the Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca.
"Fifteen years ago, it was unheard of," said Brian Goodremont, who is the president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and runs San Juan Outfitters. "Now they've become a regular sighting in spring and fall."
The ocean mammals can grow to be 50-feet-long and weigh up to 40 tons. They visit Washington waters in the spring and fall as they migrate from southern Pacific winter waters to summer feeding spots off Alaska.
Decades ago, humpbacks visiting inland waters were numerous enough that whaling operations were based in the northern Puget Sound. Hundreds of the animals were slaughtered, said Cascadia Research Collective's baleen whale researcher John Calambokidis.
"It hasn't quite returned to the numbers from the 1800s," Calambokidis said. He added that humpback whales were hunted off American waters as recently as the 1960s, within the lifespan of some of these whales, a practice that has since been made illegal.
The whales that make the north Pacific Ocean their home are making a comeback, and conservationists say the increased sightings are proof that their efforts are working.
According to Cascadia Research Collective, the number of humpback whales off the U.S. West Coast has increased about 7 percent annually to about 2,000 animals, while the whales who visit Washington's coast can number in the hundreds.
Experts believe there could be more than 22,000 humpbacks in the greater northern Pacific Ocean, up from about 1,500 in the 1960s when whale hunting was banned in the U.S.
The whales visiting Washington waters mostly stick to the open ocean, about 20 miles offshore at least, or concentrate at the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to feed, but some, like the animal that visited Seattle, wander farther in.
Anne Hall, a Canadian marine zoologist advising the Pacific Whale Watch Association, says humpback mothers have been seen bringing their young to inland waters, suggesting the Puget Sound is again providing a nursery habitat function.
"The mothers seem to feel this is a safe place to take the calves," Hall said. "There appears to be plenty of food for her to sustain herself, while also weaning her baby, teaching it how to feed."
Over the spring, whale watchers were spotting humpbacks almost daily in the north Puget Sound, providing the possibility that whale watching tours in the future could include humpbacks sightings as part of their regular offerings.
"It's becoming a part of what we do," Goodremont said. "As those sightings of humpback become a little more reliable, it kind of becomes a part of what our industry does."
Orca Network president Howard Garrett says that as long as whale watching tours continue to be respectful of the animals, seeing humpbacks added to the tours is very positive.
"It's a good thing for people to experience the whales up close," Garrett said. "They become advocates."
Whale watching in the Puget Sound is better known for orcas, which both live in the sound or visit temporarily. Gray whales could be considered the next big visitors to the area. Other whales, such as the minke and fin, can be seen in Washington waters.
Humpbacks have been reported to go as far south as Tacoma and the Hood Canal.
"These are individual explorers and adventurers. They'll come down way down to south Sound, just to explore around for couple of days," Garrett said. "It's good to see them come back."
Video of humpback whale off Seattle waterfront: http://bit.ly/10JxC7M