Every spring, gray whales migrate up the West Coast on a 12,000-mile round-trip from their calving grounds in Mexico to the Alaskan Arctic, where they feed on tiny crustaceans.
Since early 2019, an unusual mortality event has reduced their population by more than 20 percent. Whales wash up severely emaciated or sometimes suffer from ship strikes or entanglements made worse by lack of food.
But researchers in Washington have identified a small group of gray whales that returns to Puget Sound every year in what seems to be a survival strategy.
Nicknamed “the Sounders,” they engage in a risky feeding maneuver in the tidelands around Whidbey and Camano islands. Their ranks appear to be growing.
On the southeastern shore of Camano Island on a recent Saturday, just offshore of a private beachside community called Tyee Beach, the carcass of a gray whale lay washed up in shallow waves. A remodeling project is underway in one house, the workers there undeterred. Other people seem to be just going about their business despite the huge creature, stranded less 20 feet from the sand. You can see it resting on the bottom near a couple of boats and buoys, floating on its side with an upturned eye and various appendages flapping in about 5 feet of water.
An offshore wind sends a whiff of death toward a couple that has come out for a look.
“It stinks to high heaven, according to the people down the beach,” says Glen Brechlin. He and his wife, Martha, live nearby. He says it’s been drifting along the coast. Just yesterday, it was in front of their house.
“And we were hoping it wouldn't get caught in the buoys right out in front. And the tide brought it down here,” he says.
Despite some sadness at seeing this dead whale, the Brechlins say it’s just part of life here. Martha says they love to whale watch and sometimes see as many five at a time, feeding right offshore.
“Oh, yes. We’ve seen more this year than we’ve seen in a long time,” she says.
Glen adds that he likes to watch them feed.
“It’s funny watching them swim sideways. You just see the one side fin and part of the tail as they’re digging into the mud for ghost shrimp. Funny looking. Then they roll over and blow, and they go back and do more,” he says.
“Oh, yes. We've seen it many times. They roll on their side, and they come into water that is sometimes no deeper than they are thick,” says Howard Garrett, co-founder of Whidbey Island-based Orca Network and the Langley Whale Center.
“You know, they can come into six or eight feet of water. And that's about how wide a gray whale is. So, when they're on their side, their flukes and their pectoral fins are out in the air,” he says.
And there’s a risk of stranding if they don’t time it right with the tides.
This intriguing behavior is unique to a small group of whales that scientists and locals have come to call the Sounders. For about 30 years now, they’ve been observed taking a detour from the coastal migration route every spring, to the tidelands of north Puget Sound, where they feed on ghost shrimp that burrow beneath the sand. The nearly 3-inch-long crustaceans aren’t fat enough for humans to use for more than bait. But they’re meaty compared to many of the copepods the gray whales normally eat.
A core group of about 12 known individuals that have been numbered and catalogued make up the Sounders. Those that are successful fatten up while they’re here.
"Their number seems to be growing a little bit," Garrett says, adding that the Whidbey basin is fed by glacial rivers that pour sediment into rich organic mudflats that are protected from currents and especially rich with burrowing shrimp.
“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.
“It's a very unique ecosystem here. And they've discovered it,” he says.
Garrett is standing just down the street from the Whale Center in Langley’s Whale Bell Park, where an elegant sculpture and bell pay tribute to the local whales. Whenever someone sees a whale, people are invited to ring the bell and alert others to come out for a look. That can be a daily occurrence at the height of spring, when the Sounders are in town. They also leave their marks in the mudflats that surround the island. It’s low tide, and the sand beneath us is full of what locals call "whale pits."
“You can see what would be just flat mud -- sandy mud -- is marked with all these little potholes that are maybe eight or 10 feet or across,” Garrett says.
He says gray whales are easily overshadowed by the charisma of local orcas or the beauty of humpbacks. But the Sounders and the rest of the gray whales have gained appreciation in recent years as people learn about the risky feeding strategy that takes place here and which more and more of them seem to be attempting.
“They're very courageous. The way they come into these very shallow mudflats, it's a skill they have to learn," Garrett explains. "And the ones that don't know how, don't eat. We have some that straggle in here. They don't know how to use this banquet table, and sometimes they don't make it.”
Out on the water, evidence of the Sounders is harder to find. Naturalist Jill Hein says we’ll have to look for blows that will shoot up 10 to 15 feet above the calm sound. A disturbance in the water or birds feeding on scraps along the shore left by Sounders might be other clues.
“Gray whales don't show a lot of themselves. They don't have a dorsal fin, they have a dorsal bump,” she says, constantly scanning the water with binoculars.
First, we find the carcass of the gray whale I had seen the weekend before, the skin on its bloated body now peeling off as it drifted north up the beach. Hein says it was probably a newcomer who hadn’t yet mastered the skill of scooping ghost shrimp from the shallows.
“It's been dead well over a week. I don't know how long. But it's not a known whale – not one of our Sounders, at least,” she says.
Scientists were planning to tow it to a final resting place and do a necropsy the next day. So we motored on, continuing our elusive quest. We met a kayaker who said he saw five gray whales heading southwest earlier. We headed in that direction. After several hours looking and nearly giving up, we finally see a blow far ahead of us near the shoreline.
You can barely hear it, but it tips off Hein, who holds a camera at the ready.
“That was a nice look at his head,” she says as it vanishes again. We idle, waiting to see where it will go. Suddenly, the whale appears right in front of our boat, and flukes -- its huge tail emerging briefly -- before it dives beneath the waves.
A collective gasp rings out from the deck of our small boat at the sheer size and grace of that tail. It leaves a big impression, despite the fleeting glimpse.
“I think it's Dubknuck,” Hein exclaims excitedly.
Dubknuck, number 44, is her favorite Sounder. She confirms his identity using photos and comparing the unique scar patterns and markings left by barnacles on his skin.
We spend the next half hour watching him feed intently, on his side, swiftly working the shallow water along the shoreline, his body mostly submerged, just part of his fluke bobbing along. She says this is pretty typical. These whales are hungry and focused.
“They're not the kind of whales that are going to be jumping and breeching and doing all kinds of fancy stuff. But they’re just special. Because we know them, they're familiar,” Hein says. “It's like homecoming when they come back: 'Oh, good, 531’s here! Oh, good! 49 isn't here. Where is he?’ You know, we've become attached to them.”
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 and started doing surveys of them in 1991. He says Dubknuck was first seen in 1991, meandering around south Puget Sound near Olympia.
“... almost wandering around. 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 [that he] started feeding there,” Calambokidis says.
“And now every year he knows to come back just to that spot. We don't see him wander around anywhere, makes a beeline right for that spot. And then when they leave, they disappear out of the area," he says.
Not all gray whales who attempt this succeed. In collaboration with researchers from SR3, who use drones and aerial photogrammetry, Cascadia Research and colleagues have been able to document the body condition of the whales over time and see and see who gains weight. Some get skinnier.
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 are linked to a lack of food for gray whales, perhaps because of the warming Arctic waters where they normally feed. What impresses him is that all of the known Sounders, who show up here year after year, 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.”
Calambokidis says in the 30 years since he started studying gray whales, his opinion of them has shifted radically. He used to think of them as extremely regimented, feeding only on amphipods in the Arctic. He now thinks they’re incredibly adaptive and versatile because he’s seen the Sounders learn to veer more than 150 miles off their migration route every year and master the timing of the tides to discover a new source of food.