10 Gray Whale Sounders Have Returned to Puget Sound

10 Gray Whale “Sounders” have returned to Puget Sound as of today! We’ve been able to document many of the first sightings of the year for our Sounders as they return to us from their northward migration from Baja California, Mexico over the last couple of weeks! The gray whales that are confirmed so far include CRC 22 (Earhart), 53 (Little Patch), 56, 185, 383, 531, 2249, 2259, 2440, and 2441. There will likely be at least a few more that join this group of 10 this spring, and it’s always possible that there are a few more here right now that we haven’t spotted yet. We’ve also had a few sightings of Bigg’s killer whales on some of our recent trips including the T46 pod, T124A2 pod, and T87! Enjoy some photos from the last week of whale watching adventures.

Opening weekend whale sightings

We had a successful opening weekend for our gray whale season.  On day one, Friday March 3, started out with a bang as we managed an orca/gray whale double header!  It was a group effort for sure starting with a lucky sighting from the dock 45 minutes before we departed.  Captain Trevor was in the wheelhouse and pulled out the binoculars for a quick pre-trip scan and – Bingo – he spotted orcas a mile offshore from Edmonds within 5 seconds.  High fives were going around everywhere with the crew, but then we didn’t see them surface again before we had to bring passengers onboard.  Whales can move around a lot in 45 minutes so we enlisted the the help of one of our crew members, Colleen, on her day off to give us some help from shore.  She just happened to be walking her dog, Peach, on the beach near Point no Point.  At first she didn’t see anything but it wasn’t long before she gave us a call back with some black and whites in her sights.  It turned out to be the T36B pod and we got some great looks at them before heading north to find a gray whale too.

Besides the orcas we saw 3 of our Sounder gray whales this weekend including 2022 newbie CRC 2440 who never migrated southward this winter, CRC 53 (Little Patch) who arrived way back in December of 2022, and CRC 22 Earhart who has been coming back to Puget Sound ever since 1990.  We are looking forward to the return of the rest of the Sounders as March rolls along.  Enjoy some photos from this weekend. 

Meet T49A6, the newest calf in the T49A pod

2022 has been a great year for new Bigg’s killer whale calves being born. Here is another little one that we saw numerous times this year. T49A6 was born early in 2022 and the mom is T49A (Nan). This is Nan’s 6th offspring, and so far she’s had 4 boys, and one girl. We don’t know the gender of the new calf yet. Enjoy some photos of T49A6 with the family from our last sighting of the pod on Oct 29!

Video of Gray Whale Feeding in Puget Sound

The gray whales we see here in March and April, the Sounders, employ a very unique feeding strategy that is definitely productive but also very risky. Gray whales are bottom feeders, and in Puget Sound they focus on eating sand shrimp, but they feed in much shallower water than most gray whales do. To access these 3-4 inch long crustaceans that live right on the sea floor the gray whales wait for the high tide to swim in and target the sand shrimp beds that are inaccessible at low tide. The risky part comes when they feed in water that is barely deep enough for them to swim in and they could get stuck! These gray whales arrive in our area very skinny from not eating while they are down in Mexico, where they do their mating and calving, but by the time they leave Washington to continue their northward migration they are significantly fattened up!

Recently our passengers on the M.V. Saratoga got front row seats to see just how they do it near the shores of Camano Island. The video below shows two gray whales feeding in water that is so shallow that the biggest of the two giants can’t even get her body totally submerged as she tries to swim out to deeper water. In the beginning of the video you will see gray whale crc531, a confirmed female, roll over on her side and her pectoral fin sticks straight up in the air as she feeds. After she rolls back over, the pectoral fin from gray whale crc383, a confirmed male, comes out of the water as he feeds right next to her. Believe it or not, most gray whales tend to be “Righties”, meaning they prefer to bottom feed on their right sides. Eventually this duo swims out towards deeper water, but notice that the back of 531 is exposed the whole time, meaning that her belly is probably scraping right up against the bottom as she goes. At the very end of the video 383 raises his head high out of the water in a maneuver we believe might be used to help them sift the sand and mud out of their mouths through the baleen plates, leaving only the food inside.

Nature Can Be Cruel Sometimes!

     We often tell passengers that you never know when one of those National Geographic moments might happen. April 9 we had one of those extraordinary moments just outside of Edmonds. The day started out with lots of promise when Captain Trevor spotted transient killer whales circling around at Possession Point about an hour before our trip even started. Once underway we found the T65A pod, and part of the T77 pod within 5 minutes and noticed they hadn’t moved at all since Trevor’s first spotting.

  It was obvious, by all the birds circling above them they were eating a meal. They continued to eat their meal for our entire visit and towards the end a few of the orcas started punting large pieces of their prey 20-30 feet into the air! Killer whales punt stuff by turning upside down and swiping their tail flukes at their target. This is a tactic they often use to stun and injure their prey while it’s still alive, but they are also known to do this as a potential form of sport. There were plenty of “swing and a miss” moments, but the black and whites also hit their target on a handful of occasions, sending the skin/blubber flying high. 

    At that point we started to speculate what the prey might have been and the evidence pointed towards a very large animal such as a small minke whale or an elephant seal. The tremendous size of the oil slick on the surface of the water was one clue, as it was much larger than normal. The color of the skin on the prey remnants they were kicking into the air did not match harbor seal, Steller sea lion, California sea lion, or harbor porpoise (their most common prey items). The best color matches seemed to be for a minke whale or an elephant seal. Elephant seals are rare but we definitely see them in that area of Puget Sound from time to time. Minke whales are also rare in that area, but two of them were spotted nearby just the day before. Perhaps we will never know what they did kill on that day but its always fun to speculate and lean on past experiences to try and come up with an answer. Enjoy some pictures from the punt-fest.

More Gray Whales and Orcas than Usual so Far!

    We sure had a great opening month for whale watching this year.  We’ve had higher than normal numbers of gray whales returning so far and we’ve been blessed with a fair share of orca sightings too!  So far we’ve seen 13 different gray whales on our trips including CRC 21, 44, 53, 56, 185, 383, 531, 723, 2249, 2255, 2259, 2261, and 2356.  A few other gray whales have also been reported in the area too.  It is especially exciting that many of these gray whales are relative newcomers that have decided to come back again after their initial visits to our area in 2019 and 2020.  Now that some of these “newbie” whales have come back more than one time we are hopeful that they will become part of our regular “Sounder” group that visits every spring.  April tends to be the peak of gray whale watching for us so its possible that we could have even more gray whales returning this month, but we will see.  This is an important feeding stop for these gray whales during their migration northward.  They arrive very skinny from having not eaten much while they are in the protected lagoons in Baha California, Mexico, where they are focused on mating and calving.  Recent research using drone photography has shown that these gray whale’s body condition can improve significantly in the manner of only a few weeks time.  Ghost shrimp, or sand shrimp are believed to be the primary target for these hungry gray whales while they are here and they feed mostly around high tide when the intertidal zone is accessible to them.  

      Besides having larger numbers of gray whales we’ve also had plenty of transient killer whale sightings too.  Since our spring gray whale trips are only 2 1/2 hours long the orcas have to be relatively close to the prime gray whale habitat for us to be able to “double up” with two species in one trip.  Luckily transient killer whales also like some of the same waterways as our grays and they have been close by on several occasions for our trips.  So far this year we’ve seen the T46 pod, T65A pod, T77 pod, and the T137 pod.  All of those pods are frequent visitors to Puget Sound except for the T77 pod which accompanied the veteran T65A pod when they visited us in March.  Enjoy some photos here from our first month of trips. 

Meet the Newest Member of J-pod, J57!!

    Meet the newest member of J-pod, J57!! Today we had a heart warming experience watching J35, Tahlequah, frolicking with her new calf J57, who was born just 14 days ago! In 2018 Tahlequah made news around the world when she carried her calf, that died shortly after birth, for 17 days straight. Her tour of mourning, that covered approximately 1,000 miles, brought the decline of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population to a global stage!
       Today there is a buzz of excitement and hope in the whale community, both for mom, who endured so much in 2018, and for the new calf. J57 brings the SRKW population up to 73. We don’t know if the calf is a boy or a girl yet, but we almost got the chance to answer that question today when mom lifted up little J57 out of the water with her rostrum a couple of times. This is a pretty common bonding behavior we see with moms and their calves. You can determine the sex of the calf if you see it’s underside in just the right spot. At times it almost looked as if mom was showing off her new calf! She must have known how excited everyone is for her.
     On Sept 6, 2020 shortly after J57 was born, all three SRKW pods (J, K, and L) joined together in a huge superpod party! They appeared to be celebrating the new birth in one of their favorite stomping grounds – Haro Strait off the west side of San Juan Island. The orcas were breaching, sphopping, tailslapping, rolling around each other, and vocalizing so loudly that you could hear them above the surface!!  Enjoy the pictures from today!  As always prints of these photos are available for purchase.

The new calf, J57, with mom, Tahlequah, J35.
J57 with J42, Echo, following behind
The new calf, J57, with mom, Tahlequah, J35.
Mom pushes J57 out of the water in a moment of play and for a brief moment you see the little one’s tail flukes.
The new calf, J57, with mom, Tahlequah, J35.
L87, Onyx

Lots of Whales and Wildlife Lately

We’ve been seeing 4 species of whales in recent days! The T65A pod and T137 pod orcas have been traveling together in and out of Puget Sound, There are still some gray whales around, and we’ve seen humpbacks and minkes too! There have also been lots of eagles, puffins, and seals out there. Here are some photos from recent trips. As always any of these images are available for sale, just make a comment with your contact info.

Gray whale 2356 shows its flukes
A minke whale lunge feeding at Hein Bank
Play time between two transient killer whales
There have been lots of puffins out there lately
A spyhop near Marrowstone Island

T46 Pod Wows during Porpoise Hunt

We sure had a fantastic experience with the T46 pod in Puget Sound yesterday!  We watched the pod swimming at a slow and steady pace for a while as they spread out across the water looking for prey.  Suddenly T46E, a huge 17 year old male, came flying out of the water in the opposite direction from his family!  That chase was on, and the rest of the family swam in quickly to help!  It only took half a minute before we could see their target, a harbor porpoise, trying desperately to get away from them.  During the hunt I took photos of T46E taking a big “swing and a miss” at the porpoise with his pectoral fin (see the 3 photo sequence at the end).  During all of this action T46D, who often lags behind and seems to go by his own agenda, didn’t even seem interested at first until he swam over towards us and started breaching, perhaps in anticipation of his next meal!  We saw 6-7 breaches in all by this 20 year old!  As always, these photos are available for purchase at any time (just let me know in the comment tab at the end).

T46D back flip breach
T46D belly flop breach

T46D never ate with the rest of the family, but once they moved on from the meal he circled around and probably got to eat some of what they left behind for him.  As the rest of the T46 pod slowly swam southward, T46E decided to breach a couple of times and swam right over to a fishing boat to give them a thrill and a few tailslaps! 

T46E gets in on the breach action after the meal!

These next three photos show the sequence of T46E taking a “Swing and a Miss” at the porpoise!

Here is the porpoise next to T46E’s dorsal fin
T46E takes a swipe at the porpoise with his pectoral fin
T46E misses his mark!

T37A Pod Killer Whales Attack a Porpoise

On July 11 we witnessed the T37A pod attack a pod of harbor porpoise just north of Greenbank on the eastern side of Whidbey Island. The hunt started out like many other killer whale hunts do with the black and white predators spreading out and swimming very stealthily along. We could see a pod of harbor porpoise surfacing about a quarter mile in front of them. The anticipation built with each minute of their next 2-3 minute dive. The silence was finally broken when the 6 killer whales started bursting out of the water, speed swimming, towards the porpoise! The Chase was on!

It only took a few minutes before the T37A pod had the porpoise surrounded (possibly 2 of them) and they were circling around it trying to injure the animal/s for the final kill. They did knock the porpoise airborne on a couple of occasions using their powerful tail flukes. T37A, the mom, seemed to linger off to the side while she let her offspring do much of the finishing work on their prospective meal. Even the youngest members of the pod tried to be an active part of the hunt.

Towards the end of the hunt, when it was all but obvious that the porpoise would become lunch, T37A3 came launching out of the water 3 times in a row revealing that he is a boy! Up to this point researchers didn’t know the sex of this 7 year old animal, but this encounter made it pretty obvious! I sent copies of the pictures to researchers in Washington and Canada so that they could update their ID catalogs with the sex of this growing boy for future reference. As always these photos are available for purchase in print form or digitally