First off we want to give a big shout out to John Calambokidis for coming out to speak to our chapter! John is one of the founders of Cascadia Research Collective (a local non-profit that conducts valuable research on marine species) and literally wrote the book on Marine Mammals in the Puget Sound! Not only that, but he came out on his birthday! We can’t thank him enough for sharing his knowledge of these amazing creatures we share our waters with, and for his decades of hard work conducting the science we need to protect them. Below are some highlights of his talk.

The return of Humpback, Blue, and Gray Whales to Puget Sound and the threats they face

Cascadia Research photographs and catalogs thousands of individual whales, identifying them by characteristic features such as their flukes, fins, and scars (such as your friendly neighborhood gray whales). For years it took dedicated people staring at thousands of photographs to match images to known whales in the database, a time consuming and tedious process. Only in the last few years has technology advanced enough for computers to be able to identify individual whales as well as a human can.

Gray whales migrate from Baja California to the Arctic, one of the longest migrations of any mammal on Earth. But the Pacific Coast Feeding Group includes a few hundred individuals that don’t keep heading north, opting instead to hang out here in the PNW. So much so that they’re genetically different!

An even more exclusive clique are the dozen or so whales, affectionately named The Sounders, that use a unique but high-risk feeding strategy right here in Puget Sound! These whales venture onto shallow tidal flats at high tide to filter feed on ghost shrimp in the sediment, sometimes in water as shallow as 6-8 feet deep.

One of the founding Sounders, nicknamed Earhart after the pioneering spirit of Amelia Earhart, was one of the first whales recorded feeding this way. Since then, she’s shown the ropes to other whales, teaching them where and how to get at some tasty ghost shrimp. This behavior was first seen during years of increased gray whale mortality and is presumably an adaption to low food supplies in their normal feeding areas. Necessity is the mother of invention, so they say.

One of the coolest facts we learned about Earhart was that every few years she disappears from the Sound. These gaps align with the normal calving and rearing period for gray whales, and she’s never been seen with a calf in the area. It sure seems like she’s a responsible mother who doesn’t bring her new calf with her into the dangerous tidal flats!

Unfortunately, Earhart was reportedly hit by a boat off of Whidbey Island on April 23rd, 2017. While some populations of whales are increasing, and as feeding areas shift with changing climate and prey distributions, we will likely see increasing human-whale conflicts. Often this takes the form of collisions, entanglement in fishing gear, and increased stress due to noise from boat traffic.

The work that Cascadia Research does, including tracking where these whales are moving and feeding, is vitally important for informing policy so that we can share our resources with these creatures. For more information on their current projects, as well as opportunities for graduate research and volunteer work, visit Cascadia Research Collective.

Above is some footage of Earhart and three other Sounders, filmed in 2015 off of Everett. Scientists were unaware of just how much contact these whales had with each other before cameras showed them socializing so closely.
Here’s a great video of how these suction cup cameras are deployed, as well as some awesome whale’s-eye footage of humpbacks feeding on a school of anchovies off Monterey, California. According to our presenter, these whales were not as cooperative as other humpbacks seen feeding in Alaska. Maybe we’re not so different after all – even in whale culture, some are better at working together than others!