Resident gray whales return to Puget Sound

Group feeds near Everett, heads to Alaska

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SEATTLE — A male gray whale that feasts on shrimp in the Puget Sound every year was spotted over the weekend, marking the start of an annual stay in Washington state inland waters by a small but peculiar group of these big marine mammals, whale watchers reported Tuesday.

The intrepid bull — nicknamed "Little Patch" and identified with the number 53 by researchers — is the first of a small group of about a dozen, primarily male, gray whales that feed on ghost shrimp in northern Puget Sound for about three months during spring. He's been the first of the group to show up for two years in a row now, the Pacific Whale Watch Association said.

By late May and early June, the whales leave the Puget Sound to continue their migration to the Bering and Chukchi seas off Alaska.

These grays are a peculiar group that breaks off the main northbound Pacific Coast migration, seemingly because they have discovered plentiful feeding in Puget Sound waters, said Cascadia Research Collective biologist John Calambokidis.

Calambokidis said researchers first began identifying the whales in the group from the natural markings in 1990 and 1991.

"Although they were clearly using this area before that," he said, "most of the animals identified in our first two years are still returning today … 25 years later."

The whales can be seen in Possession Sound, which is between Everett and Whidbey Island. It's the 23rd year in a row that Little Patch has been seen here. Because of their long visits, the whales have been nicknamed "resident" gray whales, the Pacific Whale Watch Association said.

About 22,000 gray whales make an annual migration from California to Alaska, and many of them visit Washington state waters to feed. There's a subgroup within the migration, about 200 of them, which make up a Pacific Coast feeding group. They don't go to Alaska and instead stay in the Pacific Northwest, Calambokidis said.

Stragglers of the migration make a grimmer visit to Washington waters. These whales, often sick and debilitated, are often spotted farther south in the Puget Sound, reaching Tacoma and Seattle. Those whales come here to die.

The dozen that feed off Everett, though, eventually go back up to Alaska.

"So we begin with 22,000 or so whales, 11 of them pit stop every year here off Everett, and then we have number 53 checking in first again. It's almost like looking at a tide chart. It's March, so here come the grays. And oh look, there's 53!" Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, said in a statement.