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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

March 18, 2013 at 7:00 AM

Our biggest sign of spring: Gray whales are back

What’s bigger than a swallow — and brings just as good news? Gray whales, Washington’s biggest sign of spring.

The resident gray whales are back in  Whidbey and Camano Island waters once again.

The Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Network received its first report of a North Puget Sound Gray Whale on Feb. 4, and in the past few weeks have received reports identifying several North Puget Sound grays returning to feed in Saratoga Passage, from Polnell Pt. to Port Susan and Possession Sound.

A gray whale cruises off the coast of Whidbey Island. Howard Garrett photo.

A gray whale cruises off the coast of Whidbey Island. (Howard Garrett photo.)

This small group of resident grays typically arrives to our region in early March and stays through the end of May or early June, feeding on ghost shrimp along the sand and mud shores of Saratoga Passage between Camano and Whidbey Islands, and in Possession Sound.

Not true year round residents, they are more like lingerers, stopping to rest and feed on the journey to their summering grounds in the Bering Sea. The whales are arriving from their birthing lagoons in Mexico, where they have spent the winter. They undergo one of the longest migrations of any mammal.

Read more about it in my story in the Seattle Times.

Viewing opportunities are excellent from the shorelines of Island county or from the Mukilteo/Clinton ferries.  Bottom feeders, the whales often feed close to shore by turning on their sides and sucking up huge mouthfuls of sand filled with ghost shrimp, then straining it out through their baleen plates, swallowing the invertebrates and pushing mud and water back out, leaving plumes of mud trailing through the water.

The telltale sign of a gray is their pectoral fins and fluke tips, which can often be seen above the surface of the water while they are feeding. Climb a bluff, and you can get a great view of the entire whale as it feeds in the shallow intertidal area.

Howard Garrett of the Orca Network also advises gray whale spouts can also often be seen while they are traveling or feeding in deeper waters, and their flukes are exposed whenever they take a deep dive.

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