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Special group of gray whales shows up earlier than ever in Puget Sound

Sounders Gray Whales 1 -2022
Brian Spanton
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A pair of Sounders Gray Whales seen swimming in Saratoga Passage west of Camano Island, WA on March 12th, 2022. Image captured via drone.

A special group of gray whales takes an annual detour from their coastal migration to feed on ghost shrimp in the tidelands of Puget Sound. They’re known locally as “the Sounders” and most often seen near Whidbey Island.

Normally they start showing up in March and feed for a few months before continuing north to their feeding grounds in the Alaskan Arctic. But they have been arriving early for the past two years and growing in number.

And this year, they’re exceptionally early, says John Calambokidis. He’s a research biologist with Cascadia Research Collective and has been studying the Sounders for more than 30 years.

This year we had two of our regular Sounders overwinter– you know, feed through the winter – here. (They) didn't seem to make the southern migration," Calambokidis says.

This year, the Sounder known as “Little Patch” showed up in December - followed soon after by one of the very first Sounder pioneers, “Earhart.”

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Orca Network/Janine Harles
The gray whale known as “Earhart” arrived two months earlier than usual, skipping the remainder of the southbound migration to come feed.

“And then we had quite a few of the other animals show up early, in February. Now, here we are in mid-March, and we have most of the complement of Sounders present -- up to 14 or 15 different individuals right now.”

Calambokidis says this change in behavior began around the same time as an unusual mortality event – a mass die off of gray whales along the entire west coast in 2019 – that’s linked to changing food availability in the Alaskan Arctic. Scientists who have been tracking the whales using drone photography say they arrive here thin - and quickly bulk up.

“Over a period of just a week or two, the Sounders whales, are noticeably getting a better body condition,” Calambokidis says, as they gorge themselves at high tide in the shallow mud flats where the shrimp burrow.

It’s additional evidence of how adaptive the whales are, he says, and it’s remarkable to see the growing ranks of Sounders – as some are either learning from their compatriots or figuring out on their own that Puget Suond offers an alternative food source. But Calambokidis says there may be limits on how many gray whales the local supply of ghost shrimp can support.

And that'll be the big question as we have more gray whales arriving earlier and staying longer.”  

He says this year they appear to be expanding into some new feeding areas in Skagit Bay.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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