Some call Puget Sound “Orca Country,” but nowadays the seascape has changed. Perhaps it’s best to call these inland waters, “the American Serengeti,” home now to as many whale and dolphin species as there are terrestrial creatures in Kenya and Tanzania.
A fin whale surfaces off Sequim, WA last weekend. Second whale in photo is a humpback whale. Photo by Sarah Hanke, Puget Sound Express Whale Watching, Edmonds and Port Townsend, WA.
First, we had the “Humpback Comeback,” the return of humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae) to the Salish Sea after once being wiped out in these waters a half-century ago by commercial whaling. Then PWWA reported the surfacing last month of tropical/warm temperate common dolphins (Delphinus delphis) off Port Angeles, possibly the first confirmed sighting of the species in the inland waters of Washington state. Now we have another cetacean setting up camp here and capturing the attention of the scientific community, and this whale story may be the biggest yet.
On July 15, 2016 a few miles northeast of Dungeness Spit, WA a crew aboard the Chilkat Express saw and captured photographs and video of an adult fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), the second-largest creature to ever roam the Earth behind the blue whale.
In September of last year, the same crew from Puget Sound Express Whale Watching were credited for the sighting of a juvenile fin whale south off Smith Island, later confirmed by Cascadia Research Collective of Olympia, WA, and Dr. Jonathan Stern, Professor of Marine Biology at San Francisco State University. It was the first confirmed live sighting of the species in Puget Sound since 1930.
Whale watchers dubbed the whale “Finnegan,” as in, “there’s that fin again.” True enough, for the next several months Finnegan was a daily forager off Smith Island, providing extraordinary opportunities to observe and study one of the marine world’s most fascinating and mysterious creatures.
“We’ve really been in one some amazing discoveries the last couple of years,” explains Capt. Pete Hanke, owner of Puget Sound Express, who’s been running whale watch tours for 30 years out of Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. “First with Finnegan and now this new fin off Dungeness. It’s exciting, of course, but also a reminder that we have to give this whale a lot of room and continue helping researchers understand why it’s here and how we can protect it.”
A full-grown adult fin whale - between 60-70 feet and 70 tons - off Dungeness Spit. Photo by Capt. Mark Malleson, Prince of Whales Whale Watching, Victoria and Vancouver, BC
A fin whale, the second largest animal, was sighted in Puget Sound last weekend. Photo by Renee Beitzel, Puget Sound Express Whale Watching, Edmonds, WA.
The sighting of this new visitor last weekend was confirmed by Capt. Mark Malleson, skipper for Prince of Whales Whale Watching in Victoria, BC, and contract researcher for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Center for Whale Research.
On July 9 Capt. Malleson came across what he believed to be a fin whale off Jordan River, about 43 miles northwest of Victoria. Once the crew of the Chilkat reported the fin sighting on the 15th off Dungeness Spit, they alerted Malleson and he was able to rush across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and find the whale, confirming it to be the same animal he documented off Vancouver Island, a full-grown adult estimated at between 60-70 feet long and 70 tons.
“This is like finding a brontosaurus in your backyard,” according to Michael Harris, Executive Director of Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA), representing 38 companies operating out of 21 ports in BC and Washington. “Mark (Malleson) and some of our people have seen fin whales off the outer coast and further west near the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but down here in Puget Sound we only see fin whales when they come in dead on the bow of a freighter or tanker. Now we’ve had two years in a row where we’ve had fin whales set up shop here, and they seem to be getting plenty to eat. This is fascinating stuff.”
Whale watchers and researchers are still learning why Orca Country has become the American Serengeti, and what’s been drawing these rare whales and dolphins into the Salish Sea.
“There’s no question that ocean conditions are playing a big role here, but there clearly are overlapping factors,” Harris continues. “And some of those are quite positive. The populations of these large whales are rebounding, and a lot of that has to do with the banning of commercial whaling in 1966. Remember that whalers particularly targeted fin whales and humpbacks and they truly decimated the local populations, and otherwise imprinted on them that the inland waters here are inhospitable, to say the least. Whaling stopped and 50 years later we’ve seen the humpbacks recovered, delisted and now coming back and recolonizing these historic foraging areas. Perhaps with Finnegan and now this new sighting it’s an indication that fin whales are also returning for good.
“We’re hoping this big guy is the second fin in, with plenty more to follow.”
Malleson, who also assists Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, WA on its humpback whale study, has had his logs full of fin whale sightings the last few years up in BC waters. In 2005 he reported seeing four different fins off Vancouver Island, the first documented sighting of the species in the inland waters of BC. One of those individual whales returned the next season. Last year, he also had opportunities to observe and document Finnegan as the fin made its way over to the BC side. This is now the sixth fin whale Malleson has documented in the last 11 years.
Fin whales can reach 85 feet and 75 tons and live up to 90 years. Listed as an Endangered Species in the U.S., they once were common in the Salish Sea.
EDITOR's NOTE: The original posting had the phrase "In U.S. Waters" it should have been "In Puget Sound". The article has been corrected.
Dr. Frances Robertson Wednesday, 20 July 2016 15:22 Comment Link Report
I agree with the previous comment, this article is full of inaccuracies and it still says in several places that this is the a) the second time a fin whale has been seen US waters and b) the first time common dolphins have been seen in US waters! Fin whales were once encountered in the Juan de Fuca Strait as has been documented by Scheffer and Slipp (American Naturalist 1948), but it is unusual for fin whales to venture into these shallower coastal waters as they are mostly commonly found further offshore along the shelf break. Poorly researched public articles such as this one, do a real disservice to the public that read them with a genuine interest in the information being presented. I strongly encourage the author to do their due diligence next time as these are interesting stories and really do highlight the importance of the Salish Sea to many different species of marine mammals, sea birds, fish etc.
Russ George Wednesday, 20 July 2016 15:06 Comment Link Report
There is a dark side to this story of the shyest of all the great whales, the fin whale, coming into inshore waters for the first time since 1930. This goes along with the story of the large numbers of Humpback whales being seen here this summer. That these great whales are coming ashore was reported on last year as well when starting in May/June in Alaska all time record numbers of Humpbacks and Fin whales were found starved to death on remote shores of Alaska. Where until last year only 1-2 dead whales would be sighted in Alaska over a time frame of 1-3 years last year alone saw a death toll of more than 30, add more dead in British Columbia. Given the remote character of the region it is certain many more dead were not counted. In the past 2 months more emaciated dead Great Whales are beginning to be found again in the North. The reason we have whales in our inland seas is that out on their distant ocean pastures something is terribly wrong. The ocean pasture plankton blooms have collapsed and there is little to feed marine life. It's not just on our coast but around the world, its not just whales its sea birds, sea lions, disappearing fish. To read more http://russgeorge.net/2016/07/17/humpback-whales-driven-ashore-starvation/