Gray Whales visit Puget Sound

Gray Whale photo by Merrill Gosho

When people hear of Puget Sound, they often think of Orcas, but we also have many other different types of whales that stop by Puget Sound throughout the year. One of these is the Gray whales. A small sub set of Gray whales come to Puget Sound each spring to feed on Ghost shrimp in the waters near the south end of Whidbey Island.

Gray whales can grow up to 50 feet in length and weigh 40 tons, or about the weight of 20 average US cars. They have one of the the longest migrations of any animal, traveling between their birthing lagoons in Baja California and their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. Gray whales feed by scooping up mud on the bottom of the ocean and using their baleen to filter out small invertebrates. They primarily feed on Crustaceans such as crabs, lobsters, crayfish, krill, barnacles, and, of course, Ghost shrimp.

The Gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus) are in the order Cetacea, which includes Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises. The North Pacific population is estimated to be between 20,000 and 22,000. Gray whales can be seen along the west coast of the United States as they migrate from their birthing lagoons in Mexico to summer feeding grounds near Alaska.

Gray Whale "little patch"

Gray Whale “Little Patch” near Whidbey Island

Gray whales are a dark slate gray color with light gray scars left by parasites. They also have two blowholes on top of their head and lack a dorsal fin. Newborns are dark gray to black in color.

Gray whales have been granted protection from commercial hunting by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) since 1949, and are no longer hunted on a large scale.

Gray Whales Have Returned to the Northwest

Grey Whale breaching

Gray Whale breaching

March is the month gray whales make their annual migration up the Pacific coast from their calving grounds off the coast of Mexico to Alaska. Gray whales typically spend several weeks near the San Juan Islands, just north of Puget Sound, feeding on ghost shrimp and other crustaceans. One of the best scuba diving sites to catch a glimpse of a gray whale near Seattle is Alki Junkyard, at the west end of Alki Beach Park.  On the street overlooking the park and water, we have observed gray whales breaching close to shore while on surface interval between scuba dives. Another great dive site to observe gray whales is at Bruce Higgins Underwater Trails (formerly known as Edmonds Underwater Park) in Edmonds, WA. The shallow, muddy bottom just off shore provides great feeding habitat for gray whales to find ghost shrimp.

The west coast population of gray whales is thought to be between 20,000 and 22,000 individuals.