By Stefanie Donahue
If you saw a few gray fins break the surface in Birch Bay last week, you weren’t the only one.
According to Whatcom Marine Mammal Stranding Network principal investigator Victoria Souze, there was an outpouring of reports from locals over the last week about three gray whales visiting Birch Bay on their northbound migration to southeast Alaska and the Bering Sea.
Gray whales are known to make one of the longest annual migrations of any mammal, spanning about 10,000 miles per year. The population known as Eastern North Pacific stock spend the winter breeding in the coast of Baja California, Mexico and head north to feed in the early summer. Mature gray whales weigh an average 80,000 pounds, are 50 feet long and are marked with a dorsal hump and eight to 14 small bumps called “knuckles.”
In 1994, the Eastern North Pacific stock was removed from the U.S. List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife. Since then, their population has grown to about 21,000.
“The gray whales are making a comeback,” Souze said.
While it’s possible the whales are feeding in the area, Souze said experts have yet to determine if that’s the case. The bottom-feeders flip on their sides to eat and filter food through the 130-180 baleen plates located in each side of their upper jaw, leaving behind long trails of mud and sea floor “feeding pits.” Souze warned locals to not mistake gray whales’ feeding habits with stranding, which occurs when a whale is stranded ashore without the ability to return to deeper waters.
Boaters should steer clear of the whales, which are under federal protection. It’s against the law to come within 100 yards of a marine mammal, in-person or by vessel. Disrupting the normal behavior or prior activity of a whale is also strictly prohibited. Boaters should operate vessels at a slow and safe speed in whale territory and if they get too close, Souze said, they should shut off the engine completely until the
whale passes by.
Just last month, a gray whale named Patch was hit by a speeding boater off the coast of Whidbey Island. The whale was one of three that frequent the Puget Sound every year on their northbound migration. According to local news reports, it will take weeks for experts to determine if the whale would survive; it’s nearly impossible for experts to detect internal injuries. And just days ago, a gray whale was found dead floating in Bellingham Bay.
While it’s too early to determine if the three visitors in Birch Bay will become regulars, Souze is hopeful that they’ll consider stopping by on their next migration.
If you spot a whale, report it to the Orca Network by calling 360/331-3543 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, visit.orcanetwork.org.