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Lone beluga whale spotted around Puget Sound, first documented sighting here since 1940

A beluga whale peeks out of the water in Puget Sound.
Orca Network
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A beluga whale is spotted in Puget Sound in Tacoma this week. It was seen in Elliott Bay and by Fox Island, the Bremerton shipyards, and the Port of Tacoma.

Surprise and wonder and sometimes shock. That’s how local whale expert Susan Berta says she feels about seeing new species exploring Puget Sound. Berta is a co-founder of the Orca Network on Whidbey Island. Her group is part of a team of nonprofits and community scientists that are helping federal authorities solve a mystery this week.

They’re trying to understand how a bright white beluga whale found its way to Puget Sound. And with photos and video, they hope to capture clues to its identity and assess its health.

Beluga whales are normally seen in Alaska or the Arctic. But whale watchers this week spotted one at several points around Puget Sound. The sightings included Seattle’s Elliott Bay, Fox Island south of Tacoma, the Bremerton shipyards. On Thursday and Friday, it was seen in Commencement Bay, swimming back and forth near a grain terminal in the heart of Tacoma’s shipping industries.

They’re one of the most charismatic of the whale species that are familiar to people who visit public aquariums. Belugas look kind of like large dolphins. They’re undeniably cute. They have large bulbous heads and — unlike other large whale species — can turn their heads slightly, because their vertebrae aren’t fused.

They like to eat squid and shrimp and other smaller seafood. And they’re known for the incredible variety of sounds they can make, as seen in this YouTube video from Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.

But in the wild, they normally travel in large groups like orcas do. They’re very social. So people in the Puget Sound region are concerned to see one wandering around the Salish Sea by itself. A similar story of a beluga traveling by itself off the coast of San Diego last year did not end well. That animal is likely dead.

“So we're hoping it will find its way out of Puget Sound and back north,” says Susan Berta, co-founder of the Orca Network on Whidbey Island.

“But we're very happy that, you know, through a citizen sighting report, we were able to re-locate it and get researchers on it, to hopefully get more information,” Berta said Thursday.

A team from World Vets is working under a permit from NOAA Fisheries to get images of its body condition and determine whether it’s one of less than 300 belugas from Cook Inlet, Alaska, that are part of an endangered population.

Berta says it’s scary to think about what the whale is going through. But she’s excited to see the network of community reporting – citizen science – in action. And this new sighting reminds her a little bit of the excitement she felt when she saw a fin whale in Admiralty Inlet for the first time a couple of years ago, traveling right past her house.

“That was something I never thought I would see,” Berta says.

“And, you know, 10 to 15 years ago, seeing a humpback was like a totally rare occurrence. And that's another species change we've seen — for 20 years. And we never used to see humpbacks at all.”  

She says the humpbacks are repopulating areas where they thrived prior to the whaling era.

Book excerpt about a 1940 beluga sighting in Puget Sound
Michael Milstein
An account of a 1940 beluga sighting in Puget Sound

But it remains mysterious why belugas are here. They could be looking for new sources of food, or a new niche in the ecosystem – the way gray whales and salmon do.

The last time a beluga was seen in Puget Sound, for which we have a report documenting it, was in 1940.

Orca Network collects sighting information via 1-866-ORCANET. They welcome all reports from people concerned about the welfare of marine life in the Salish Sea.