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Rare Whale Encounters Baffle Researchers

Daily Astorian

The second of two parts

The encounters with blue whales off the Washington Coast earlier this month caused delight in the scientific community.

But it also raised the question: 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.

The Corliss, a 56-foot fisheries enforcement vessel operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, was out for the day from Westport, Wash., running zigzag transects as part of a collaborative study of whale distributions when six whales were seen about 30 miles west of Long Beach, Wash. Cascadia Research and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife are WDFW’s partners in the NOAA-funded project.

“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,” said John Calambokidis, research biologist with Cascadia Research.

The Guide Canyon, where the whales were found Dec. 8, acts as a sort of funnel that concentrates the upwelling of deep-sea nutrients, creating a delicious buffet of tiny shrimp-like krill.

Washington state biologist Steve Jeffries noted that blue whales 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 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 (Wash.) 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.”

Cascadia has cataloged more than 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 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.

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 Disappointment.

This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.

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