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gray whale

Struggling gray whale being monitored in Puget Sound

Early this morning, Seal Sitters’ first responders followed up on a report by a pilot of a gray whale languishing in the waters south of Alki Point. After repeated scans of the surface of Puget Sound’s Central Basin from the Alki Lighthouse to Lincoln Park, the whale was sighted a couple of hundred yards off of Beach Drive - the mottled gray hump of the whale’s back barely visible in the mottled gray waters. Identification photos were sent to Cascadia Research to see if the whale has been in Washington waters before.

Last night, there was an unconfirmed report of what was believed to be a gray whale, slowly drifting south from Shilshole near Seattle’s Golden Gardens park. Members of the Marine Mammal Stranding Network were put on alert and kept in close contact regarding the animal’s location.

Throughout the morning, Seal Sitters’ volunteers kept a wary eye on the lethargic gray, who was gradually straying out into the main channel shipping lane and at risk for ship strike. Kristin Wilkinson, NOAA’s regional stranding co-coordinator for the West Coast MMSN, was alerted and sent out a notice to the Coast Guard, who broadcast that mariners should avoid the area and keep a distance of 100 yards at all times. Read more about ship strike dangers on our website.

The whale was last sighted on the opposite side of the channel and was being monitored offshore by a State Parks ranger.

Each year, gray whales make the long, strenuous migration from Mexico’s Baja California lagoons, headed for summer feeding grounds in Alaska. Along the way, a number of those grays venture into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the inland waters of Puget Sound. Some, like the whale known as Patch, return annually to forage on the nutrient-rich beds around Whidbey, Camano and Hat islands.

Others are not strong enough to make the 10,000 mile-long journey and perish in our waters. The outcome for this latest gray whale does not look encouraging.

Thanks to our Seal Sitters volunteers who peered through binoculars for hours, keeping tabs on the whale’s behavior and bearings to help keep the animal safe from danger.

Gray whales return to Puget Sound

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The surprise discovery of a gray whale swimming inside Seattle’s Ballard Locks this week startled onlookers and created a media buzz. The thin whale has been seen around the locks since March 21st.

All sightings of whales and other cetaceans should be reported as soon as possible to Orca Network via email. The photo at left shows the typically mottled skin of a gray whale with a distinctive series of knuckles along the back. Humpbacks and other whales have dorsal fins.

If you see the gray whale back in the Locks - or any whale entangled or stranded onshore - please call the NOAA West Coast MMSN Hotline immediately at 866-767-6114, giving location and species information. Gray whales do strand somewhat frequently in our waters.

If a whale is along the shoreline of West Seattle, please call the Seal Sitters MMSN hotline at 206-905-SEAL (7325) and then contact Orca Network. This will help enable our first responders to obtain an i.d. photo if at all possible.

Spring marks the return of gray whales to Puget Sound. Before continuing their 10,000 mile-long migration from the sheltered breeding grounds of Mexico’s Baja California lagoons to their summer feeding grounds in Alaska, these gentle giants detour into our inland waters to forage.

Grays are baleen whales, who forage by scooping up and straining huge quantities of ocean bottom sediment (which contains invertebrates) through their comb-like filters. Along the shores of Whidbey, Hat and Camano islands are beds of ghost shrimp, a favorite food. At low tide, you can often see hollowed out areas of beach where the whales have been feeding. Sadly, a whale can also scoop up human trash that settles on the sandy bottom.

Each year, a number of gray whales take up temporary residency in north Puget Sound, sometimes wandering down into central and south Puget Sound. This spring offers a wonderful opportunity to get out on whale watch boat and observe them from a safe distance. It is imperative that their foraging behavior not be disrupted, so they have the energy to continue their monumental journey north. All marine mammals are protected by Federal law from harassment, the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

UPDATE 4/20/16
A dead gray whale was sighted on the 18th, floating off the waters of Vashon Island. Today, a team from Cascadia Research Collective necropsied the whale, a young male, who has been confirmed as the same gray seen in the Ballard Locks. Read Cascadia’s report here.

Healthy gray whale killed by ship propeller

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The dead gray whale discovered Wednesday night, wedged between pilings underneath Seattle’s WA State Ferries dock, was killed by a large ship propeller.

Yesterday, a necropsy exam was performed by biologists from NOAA’s marine mammal stranding network, led by Cascadia Research and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife with support from interns, marine mammal vets and volunteers from Sno-King MMSN and Seal Sitters MMSN.

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The 6 deep gashes (photo above) along the right side of the female whale caused extensive damage while the animal was alive in Puget Sound. At least one rib was sheared off. It is estimated the 30’5” juvenile died quickly and less than 36 hours prior to her discovery.

A thick, oily layer of blubber (right) and food in the intestines indicated the two - three year old whale was in excellent health. It is a bit unusual for a gray whale to be inside Puget Sound in January. The gray was assumed headed south to Baja California’s warm winter breeding grounds after a successful season feeding in the rich waters of Alaska’s Bering and Russia’s southern Chukchi seas. Watch a video here that shows typical feeding behavior of a gray whale, scooping up large mouthfuls of ocean sediment and straining invertebrates through a comb-like filter of baleen. In the spring, on their 10,000 mile roundtrip migration back north, it is common for gray whales to venture into inland waters to feast on ghost shrimp around Whidbey Island.

Washington State averages about a half-dozen gray whale strandings each year. Thanks to the Port of Seattle for providing a secure location to perform the examination. The whale will be sunk to decompose and nourish the marine ecosystem.

Read Seal Sitters “Gray Whale Facts” here.

Gray whale strands on Tulalip Reservation

     
(see updates at end of story)
The Everett gray whale stranded yesterday in Tulalip Bay on the Tulalip Reservation. Members of Seal Sitters, Sno-King Marine Mammal Stranding Network and WDFW responded to the scene. The mud flats of the bay restricted access to the whale which lay exposed to the extreme sun and heat. As the tide came in, however, the Tulalip Bay Fire Department zodiac managed to get a pump close enough to keep the whale wet and cool. A borrowed canoe allowed a stranding team member to get sheets to the scene so the whale could be covered and more protected. The tide finally covered the whale about 2pm. The Tulalip tribes honored the whale and prayed for him to get well. The repeated stranding behavior of this adult whale is indicative that he is most likely dying. The gray was spotted by NOAA on Saturday at 4:30 at Spee-Bi-Dah heading north into Port Susan. See related gallery of photos.

UPDATE:
7/13/10 Transient orcas were seen attacking the gray whale yesterday afternoon (Monday). Related story and video.
7/12/10 The gray was spotted this morning (Monday) at 6:30 am heading east toward Camano Island.

Gray whale strands in Everett

     
A gray whale stranded yesterday morning in Everett off Harborview Park. It is believed to be the same whale that has been feeding in the Everett area for some weeks now. NOAA had responded to earlier reports of a stranding at this location, but the whale had managed to swim free before the stranding expert arrived.

Yesterday, however, the whale was marooned on the beach at low tide. Concerned neighbors in shorts and swimsuits assisted in keeping the exposed whale wet and cool. However, as the water rose and the whale became more active it became too dangerous for them to continue to help. Members of the NW Stranding Network (above photo from left, Jessie Huggins of Cascadia Research, Kristin Wilkinson of NOAA, and Brian Chittick of Snohomish-King County Stranding Network) labored for hours pouring buckets of water over the whale - until finally the incoming tide created a water level deep enough that he could swim free. They then boarded a boat with a team from WDFW Marine Mammal Investigations and monitored the whale until 2pm when he finally left the shallower waters and headed out into the strait.

Early this morning the whale stranded again and the Stranding Network responded. Approximately 2:30 this afternoon he was in 7-10 feet of water as the tide came in. NOAA is not optimistic about the whale’s survival based on his behavior and weakened condition.

Early morning wake-up call

     
On her 6am beach sweep this morning looking for seals, our photographer and first responder was shocked and angered to find Alki Beach by the bathhouse littered with trash. Four barrels were surrounded by garbage - paper plates smeared with ketchup and mustard, cups, plastic bags, plastic forks, plastic coke bottles. Seagulls were picking through the litter trying to find food. Small plastic ketchup packets were strewn over the sidewalk and beach. Our volunteer picked up all the trash that was scattered on the beach and along the water’s edge. The irony did not escape her when she picked up paper wrappers labeled “Spud’s Fish and Chips” on virtually the same spot of beach where our first seal pup, Spud (named for the restaurant), hauled out.

     
After the high profile and disturbing necropsy of the gray whale whose stomach was filled with human trash (ranging from sweat pants and plastic bags to a golf ball - photo at left), one would hope that it would have been a wake-up call to people of the dangers of polluting our waters - and the tragic impact it has on our marine mammals and other wildlife. Countless sea birds have died worldwide with stomachs full of plastic bottle caps. Litter that is on the sidewalk and beaches blows into Puget Sound and Elliott Bay, becoming marine debris that harms sea life. There is a swirling mass of plastic trash twice the size of Texas in the Pacific ocean, dubbed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Please consider getting involved to help keep our West Seattle beaches and coves free of dangerous litter. Last spring, after reading on our website that seals and other marine mammals ingest plastic bags and suffer an agonizing death, second grader Etienne and her Bush Middle School class organized a beach cleanup field trip to Alki Beach.
     
Perhaps other local schools would like to follow suit. If you run or walk along Alki with friends, take a few minutes before or after your exercise and pick up some litter. Parks Dept. can only do so much and they don’t have staff on early weekend mornings or in the evenings. If you have a business on Alki (or are involved with a local school or civic group) and would like to work with Seal Sitters to organize “Adopt Alki Beach” for a day a week/month, please contact us. Something needs to be done now to protect our wildlife from pollution.
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