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A Group Of Gray Whales Survives Die-Off With An Annual Detour To Puget Sound

The gray whale known as Dubknuck has been coming to Puget Sound since 1991. Scientists believe a small pod of these whales has survived several die off events by developing a new feeding strategy.
Parker Miles Blohm
The gray whale known as Dubknuck has been coming to Puget Sound since 1991. Scientists believe a small pod of these whales has survived several die off events by developing a new feeding strategy.

If you take a beach walk in springtime around Whidbey or Camano Island, north of Seattle, there's a good chance you could spot a 40-foot-long gray whale, feeding in the shallows just offshore. Or you might just see a fin or part of one's tail bobbing along the waterline.

It's a risky maneuver, done at high tide.

"They roll on their side and they come into water that is sometimes no deeper than they are thick," says Howard Garrett, a co-founder of the Orca Network and the Langley Whale Center on Whidbey Island.

"So, when they're on their side, their flukes and their pectoral fins are out in the air," he says, adding that there's a danger of stranding if they don't time it right with the tides. Garrett says this intriguing behavior is unique to a small group of gray whales that scientists and locals have dubbed "the Sounders."

Every spring, gray whales migrate up the West Coast, on an epic 6,000-mile trip from their breeding grounds in Mexico to the Alaskan Arctic, where they feed. After decades of conservation, the species came back from the brink of extinction caused by commercial hunting.

Scientists are now monitoring what they call an unusual mortality event that's been reducing their population again. But, a small group is surviving the die-off by taking an annual detour into Puget Sound. Researches call this group the Sounders.

Normally, gray whales wait till they get to the Arctic to eat. They feed on tiny crustaceans, all summer long. But for about 30 years now, researchers have observed this small group in North Puget Sound every spring, feeding on ghost shrimp that burrow beneath the sand. The Sounders are made up of a core group of about 12 known individuals.

Naturalist Jill Hein (r) and her husband Clarence scan the horizon looking for signs of gray whales feeding in the shallows between Whidbey and Camano Islands in North Puget Sound
Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX
Naturalist Jill Hein (r) and her husband Clarence scan the horizon looking for signs of gray whales feeding in the shallows between Whidbey and Camano Islands in North Puget Sound

"So these few, a very few out of about 20,000 or so that are out in the Pacific, know that this is where they can grab a good snack, hang out for a month or so, fill up and then continue up to the Bering Sea," Garrett says.

In their wake, they leave marks in the sand that locals call whale pits — visible all over the beaches around the Whidbey basin in springtime at low tide.

"And you can see what, you know, would be just sort of flat mud, sandy mud, is marked with all these little potholes that are maybe eight or 10 feet or across," he says.

Watching and waiting

Out on the water, signs of the whales are harder to find. From her boat off Whidbey Island, naturalist Jill Hein scans the horizon, looking for the Sounders. She says you have to wait for sprays of water, some up to 15 feet high.

"Gray whales don't show a lot of themselves. They don't have a dorsal fin, they have a dorsal bump," she says.

It takes hours of scanning. Hein nearly gives up. But after getting a tip from a kayaker who saw a group of whales traveling southwest, she heads in that direction and finally sees a blow far ahead, near the shoreline. She gets a brief glimpse of its head. Then the whale disappears. Hein idles and waits.

And then suddenly, the gray whale surfaces, right in front of the boat, and its huge tail emerges briefly. Everyone on board gasps at the sight as camera shutters go wild.

"I think that's Dubknuck!" Hein exclaims. "Did you get it? I took my camera down. I think it's Dubknuck."

She confirms his identity using photos to compare the unique scar patterns and markings left by barnacles on the whale's skin. Dubknuck, number 44, is Hein's favorite Sounder.

"They're not the kind of whales that are going to be jumping and breaching and doing all kinds of fancy stuff," Hein says. "But they're just special. Because we know them, they're familiar. You know, we've become attached to them."

Thirty-year pattern

That familiarity is thanks to three decades of work by John Calambokidis, a research biologist and founder of Cascadia Research in Olympia. He discovered the first pair of Sounders and their distinctive feeding behavior in 1990.

He says Dubknuck was first seen in '91, meandering around south Puget Sound, near Olympia, almost aimlessly.

"And it wasn't until he seemed to arrive in that northern Puget Sound area around Whidbey Island, obviously ran into some of the other Sounder gray whales, and stayed there, and started feeding there," Calambokidis says.

"And now every year he knows to come back just to that spot." he says. "We don't see him wander around anywhere — makes a beeline right for that spot."

Not all the gray whales who come into the sound looking for food succeed. But Calambokidis says they've noticed an increase in the number of newcomers who try during unusual mortality events like the one that's going on now. These deaths are linked to a lack of food for gray whales in their normal feeding grounds in the Arctic, perhaps because of warming oceans.

What impresses Calambokidis is that all of the known Sounders, every one of them, have survived the mass die-offs.

"The whales that we started documenting in 1990-91 have now been through two unusual mortality events. And what's remarkable is their degree of longevity and survival of that," he says. "And I think that's a testament that this is a really successful strategy for them."

It's a testament, Calambokidis says, to how adaptive the Sounders are: they knew they were hungry and have figured out how to find a new source of food.

Copyright 2021 KNKX Public Radio