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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Gray Whale Off Whidbey Island

Today I went out as a passenger on the Western Explorer. The whale-watch company I work for, Western Prince, has added the Explorer as a new vessel this year, and I went out for a pleasure cruise to experience the new ride. It's a rigid-hulled inflatable (zodiac), so it's a zippy, open-air ride that's a lot different from our other boat, but it's a lot of fun.

The orcas headed out to the ocean on Monday night, so instead of checking out orcas today we headed south towards Whidbey Island to look for a gray whale that's been hanging out there. On the way, we headed through Cattle Pass at the south end of San Juan Island and I shot this photo of Cattle Point Lighthouse as a sail boat was passing by:

We caught up with the gray whale and had an amazing encounter with it. It didn't seem to take heed of our presence and we watched it feed in a shallow bay (about 18 feet deep - the whale was as much as 45 feet long!). Gray whales are bottom feeders, meaning that they scoop up mouths full of mud and sift out amphipods to eat. We could tell it was feeding because every once and a while we would see a plume of mud surrounding it as it surfaced.

Interestingly enough, the whale was hanging out right off the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, and there were several jets doing touch-and-gos and flying overhead, making for a very noisy backdrop to watching the whale!

It was still quiet enough on occasion to hear the whale breath, a much longer exhalation than what we hear from the orcas. With all the blotches and barnacles on its skin, it looks almost more like a rock in my photo than a whale!

But if you look closely in the photo below, you can see the gray whale's two blowholes. Toothed whales, like orcas, have a single blowhole, while baleen whales like the gray have two, looking more like the two nostrils of land mammals that were the precursor to cetacean's blowholes. As always, you can click on the image to see a larger version.

Take a look at all the pock marks and scrapes on the skin! So much different than the smooth, usually unblemished skin of the orca. The gray whale's back really seems to tell a story, and I wonder where it got some of its markings.

We thought our trip was almost over just outside of Friday Harbor, but we came upon a California sea lion hanigng out on the buoy in the middle of San Juan Channel. The Steller sea lions seem to have mostly departed the area in favor of their breeding grounds, but we see the occasional California sea lion year round.


Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

We used to have Grey Whales migrating up through the Irish Sea but they were hunted to extintion mostly in the bottleneck between Ireland and Scotland in the 16th/early 17th C. A local university had a plan to reintroduce them using whales taken from your population, how that would work I've no idea.
Keep making us jealous with those cracking cetacean pictures...hope the Feds don't come after you for shooting their hardware!


Warren Baker said...

magnificent beasts Monika. That sealion looks so chilled!

Vickie said...

Amazing images. I did not know about two blow holes. That was fun and new. Amazing creatures that they can be so huge and feed on such small organisms!

Monika said...

Dave - I definitely only snatched a few quick shots in case they didn't like me pointing my camera at their jets! As for the gray whales, I've never heard anything about a reintroduction project on the marine mammal scale! Sounds pretty crazy. I have no idea how that would work either.

Warren - The sea lion was definitely very relaxed! He just lifted his head to give us a lazy look before laying back down and looking like nothing more than a log.

Vickie - I'm always fascinated by such large animals feeding on such small ones, too. Amazing how nature "figures" things out!

WB6NAH said...

Hey Monika,

I saw that bad boy (or girl) a few weeks ago between Hein Bank and Deception Pass.

Unknown said...

Last Wednesday night (8/19/09) I was kayaking off Possession Beach in South Whidbey. I was surrounded by a large pod of whales gently surfacing and breathing, occasionally "fin-slapping" the surface of the glassy water! It was a moonless night, so it was hard to see much except for their backs and blowholes. One got within about 15 feet of my kayak! I don't know if these were gray whales or something else... any ideas?

Monika said...

Leslie - It doesn't sound like gray whales if you saw a large pod, since they are usually solitary. Roughly how big were the animals? If they were smaller than your kayak, it sounds like it could have been a group of porpoise?

Unknown said...

Hi, Monika - It was pitch black at around 10:30pm, no moon, so all we could see were their large backs and blowholes... no dorsal fins... some off in the distance were loudly slapping flippers on the water...