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Gray whale season has arrived in Puget Sound

About a dozen migrating mammals take a detour

By Daniel Schrager, The Bellingham Herald
Published: April 6, 2024, 6:00am

Bellingham— At over 10,000 miles, gray whales have the longest migration of any mammal in the world. The population on this side of the Pacific travels from the coast of Mexico to Alaska as the weather turns warmer. Of the roughly 15,000 whales that make the trip, about a dozen each year take a sharp right turn into the Puget Sound, where they stay between March and May before continuing their journey.

So far, Puget Sound Express, a Pacific Northwest-based whale watching company, has spotted nine gray whales this season and expects to see a few more. Here’s what you need to know and where you can find them.

Who are the ‘Sounders’?

The handful of whales that make their way into the region are known as “Sounders.” According to Keven Elliff, Puget Sound Express’s marketing director, the point of the detour the whales take is to find food, specifically ghost shrimp.

“It’s actually a risky feeding behavior,” Elliff said. “They basically roll along the bottom of the flats, and scoop up sand so that they can get ghost shrimp.”

While the whales normally migrate through the Pacific to the Bering Sea, Elliff said that they went searching for an abundant food supply on the way.

“At some point, this group of whales kind of figured out that, ‘Hey, if we take the right turn at the Strait of Juan de Fuca and head inward, we can find a whole bunch of shrimp,’” Elliff said.

Last year, Elliff said that Puget Sound Express spotted 15 Sounders, although that’s more than they usually see.

“In typical years we would have about a dozen of these whales in the area,” Elliff said

How to spot a gray whale

Gray whales tend to be just under 50 feet long, and roughly 90,000 pounds, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They can be difficult to spot because their color sometimes blends into the water and they don’t have dorsal fins. Keep an eye out for their dorsal ridges, which resemble knuckles on their back.

They also have a distinct pattern on their backs, Elliff said.

“It’s really something to see them in person, and to see the scale of these animals,” Elliff said. “Grays in particular, they have interesting coloration and there are barnacles and whale lice that hitch rides on these whales. And so they look, at least to my eye, when I see them on the surface sometimes, almost prehistoric.”

Where to find gray whales

Several whale watching companies offer trips to see the Sounders. Trying to track them down on your own is not advised, as boats aren’t allowed within 100 yards of the whales. Sounders are generally found around Whidbey and Camano islands, and in the water west of Everett.

Since gray whales can be difficult to spot, Elliff recommends going slowly if you’re driving a boat through those areas.

“The key thing is just to go slow,” Elliff said. “The biggest problem with recreational boating is that folks floor it, and don’t have the experience to know what to look for.”

Even if you don’t want to venture into the water, Elliff says gray whales are sometimes visible from land.

“You can see them from shore often, from Whidbey Island and Camano Island,” Elliff said.