CAMANO ISLAND IS WHALEY GREAT!
One day in 1990, two adventurous gray whales arrived in Puget Sound, taking a detour on their long migration route from Baja to Alaska. What they discovered started an annual tradition of gray whales visiting our Puget Sound waters. These visitors known as “Puget Sounders”, “Sounders” or “Saratoga Grays” visit us every year to feed on the abundant ghost shrimp in Port Susan and Saratoga Passage. Scientists believe the two gray whales now named Earhart and Shackleton (named after Amelia Earhart, the female airplane pilot and Ernest Shackleton, the famous polar explorer) were searching for an alternate food source which they happened to discover in our waters. Over 300 gray whales travel the 10,000 mile round-trip journey from the Baja calving lagoons to the Alaska feeding grounds and only an exclusive club of 12 know Earhart and Shackleton’s little secret. The “Sounders” can be found feeding on ghost shrimp around Camano Island from late February to early June.
If you have walked in the tidal zone on a local beach at low tide and your foot suddenly sinks in the sand, you can thank ghost shrimp for the somewhat unsettling experience! Reaching 4 inches in length, ghost shrimp have a pale white and pink shell with one pincer noticeably larger than the other. They burrow in the sand as they feed on detritus, helping keep our ocean floors healthy and clean. Ghost shrimp are not tasty to the human palette; the shrimp tend to be mushy with an unpleasant taste. Gray whales however, find them irresistible! Gray whales are filter feeders also known as baleen whales. Baleen is a filtration system inside a whale’s mouth. A baleen whale will open its mouth and take in water. As they push the water out, the baleen traps small particles of food inside the whale’s mouth.
Gray whales are not only baleen whales, they are also the only known bottom feeding whale. Their Alaskan feeding grounds have an abundance of food in the ocean floor as do our ghost shrimp beaches and at high-tide the grays come in close to shore to feed on the ghost shrimp.
Gray whales start their migration from the warm calving lagoons in Baja Mexico in late winter and start their long journey north to the feeding grounds of the Bering and Chukchi Seas in Alaska. Gray whales have the longest known migration of any animal on earth and one-way of their journey takes 2-3 months.
You can’t blame a whale for wanting to take a break and have a snack before continuing on! In October, the grays start their return journey to Baja to calve in
the warm waters.
Gray whales are considered slow and steady swimmers, with an average speed of 5mph, reaching speeds of 11mph when in danger.
Boaters should be extra careful in our waters and keep a watchful eye out for these beautiful animals and other whale species. Running into a whale can cause serious risk to the animal and to the people on board the boat. Boaters should remember to keep a respectful distance of at least 100 feet from gray whales (and 200 feet for orcas). Never get between a whale and their calf! Gray whales were nick-named “Devil-fish” by whalers because these gentle and friendly creatures would violently attach whaling
boats to protect their young.
Gray whale populations were hunted to near extinction, especially after the discovery of the birthing lagoons in the 1800s. Thanks to laws protecting these majestic animals and an appreciation of their beauty by thousands of people, their population has made a remarkable recovery and the world population of gray whales is thought to be 26,000 strong.
If you are walking along a local beach between late February to early June, listen for the distinctive “poof” of a whale blow. It is a magical experience to see these giants of the ocean swimming languidly by, or even engaging in some energetic feeding. You may even be lucky enough to catch them spyhopping, when they vertically stick their heads out of the water to take a look and listen. There is so much we can learn from watching and enjoying these magnificent animals.