GUIDE CANYON — “On the wow-factor scale, it’s a big wow,” Washington state biologist Steve Jeffries says of a surprise sighting of six gigantic blue whales grazing above this vast undersea canyon 30 miles due west of the Long Beach Peninsula.
These endangered leviathans, thought to be the largest animals to have existed since the dawn of time, weren’t known to spend much time in Washington waters.
“This is the most blue whales we know of ever being sighted off Washington and only the third confirmed sighting in the last 50 years,” said John Calambokidis, research biologist with Cascadia Research.
The blue whale encounter happened on Dec. 8, one of this December’s precious sunny days. The Corliss, a 56-foot fisheries enforcement vessel operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, was out for the day from Westport running zigzag transects as part of a collaborative study of whale distributions. Cascadia Research and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are WDFW’s partners in the NOAA-funded project.
The scientists are used to seeing humpback and fin whales off the south Washington coast, in addition to the numerous gray whales observed closer to shore during their annual north-south migration seasons. But these blue whales are a real reward for endless days of cruising back and forth across the ocean, Jeffries said last Friday. “A blue whale is the reason we’re out there,” he said.
The Corliss is little more than half the length of an adult blue, and the 19-foot rigid runabout used to get closer to the whales puts their vast size even more into true perspective, Jeffries said.
“It’s really awesome. You don’t even want to think about it. You’re riding in a little speck compared to these whales — it’s pretty intimidating,” he said. A special federal permit provides the researchers with a unique opportunity to get close to them.
“We do strongly recommend against people trying to go out to see them because their chance of success would be extremely low, it would be risky for most boaters, and having boats try to follow them around could interfere with their feeding. Approaching whales closely without a research permit like we have is also illegal,” Calambokidis said Friday.
For experts and ordinary boaters alike, blue whales are easy to identify. Blues can reach more than 100 feet in length and weigh as much as 400,000 pounds, or up to twice as large as the biggest dinosaur. An old photo shows a dead blue whale occupying three entire railroad flatcars. An adult’s heart alone weighs 1,300 pounds, heavy as a great white shark.
Their size makes them easy to identify, but they also have distinctive mottled skin that picks up reflected blues of the sky and sea, the origin of their common name.
Jeffries noted their “blow,” or vaporous exhalation, is good way to tell a blue from a distance. “They are so big and the volume of the blow is so big even in a wind, they just hang there,” Jeffries said. “Blowing as soon as its head begins to break the surface, the blue whale produces a spectacular column of spray rising to 29 ½ feet or more. The tallest and strongest blow of all whales, it is noticeably slender and upright,” according to reference book “Whales, Dolphins, & Porpoises.”
Why are they here?
It’s unknown whether blue whales are expanding their range into this area, whether this was a one-off encounter, or if they are here every December but nobody sees them because it is so rarely possible to spend meaningful amounts of time looking for them in the wintertime in our stormy waters.
“I think the sightings are likely the result of a combination of factors that may include that there are favorable conditions that have created krill for them to feed on, that sightings are likely fairly rare, but perhaps not as rare as we thought due to the lack of winter effort offshore,” Calambokidis said. The Guide Canyon acts as a sort of funnel that concentrates the upwelling of deep-sea nutrients, creating a delicious buffet of tiny shrimp-like krill.
Jeffries noted that they are still slowly recovering at a rate of about 2 or 3 percent a year after having been hunted to the verge of extinction. There are now an estimated 14,000 blues at most worldwide. They are rather commonly sighted off California. Before industrial whaling started, estimates place their population at about 275,000.
Blues are no longer hunted anywhere in the world. There were, however, whaling stations at Bay City in Grays Harbor County in the early 1900s and one in the Astoria area that operated into the mid-20th century. Calambokidis said of the Bay City station that, “while it primarily took humpback whales, it did take small numbers of blue whales although it did not operate in winter months.”
IDing individual whales
Cascadia has cataloged over 2,000 on the West Coast based on photos of their mottling patterns and unique dorsal fin shapes.
Four of the six spotted here have been previously photographed — one in 1987 off Monterrey Bay, Calif.; one most recently seen in 2009 in the Santa Barbara Channel in California; one seen several times in the Santa Barbara Channel, most recently in 2007, and once off Crescent City, Calif., in 2005; and one last seen off Crescent City in 2004.
Researchers tried to place satellite tags on the whales seen here, but were unable to get close enough. Jeffries said the tags, smaller than a cigarette pack, are a minor intrusion on the whales but provide big payoffs in terms of ongoing information about the whales’ locations.
Crabbers and other fishermen rarely have any cause to venture far enough away from shore to have any chance of encountering the blue, fin or humpback whales. “There’s nobody but us out there,” Jeffries said. Even on a “nice” winter day, there is a 6- to 8-foot swell and perhaps a 20 to 30 mph wind.
Shore sightings unlikely
The blues are unlikely to be seen from shore here, Calambokidis said. “Sightings from shore occasionally occur in some areas including a few areas off California but generally they are out closer to the shelf edge and well out of range of being seen from shore.” Jeffries thinks it’s possible observers might spot blue whale blows from high observation points like Cape Disappointment or North Head.
Humpback whales are more likely to be seen close to shore in our area. Last summer, 30 to 40 “humpies” were seen together off Tillamook Head. This May, a breaching whale landed atop a sailboat that had to be escorted back into port by a 47-foot motor lifeboat from Station Cape D.