Record-breaking year for whale sightings near Puget Sound

Environment

Researchers say they also saw a baby boom among some whale species

New Bigg’s orca calf T124A7 – Karac Lindsay, Eagle Wing Tours, PWWA

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – The year 2021 was one for the whales in the Salish Sea. From South Puget Sound to North Vancouver Island, plenty of whales made their presence known and the Pacific Whale Watch Association said that’s a good sign. 

The PWWA said Bigg’s killer whales, which feed on marine mammals like seals and sea lions, were what they saw and documented the most of in 2021. They were in the Salish Sea – the area that includes the Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound, and San Juan Islands – for 90% of the year.

The Orca Behavior Institute on San Juan Island confirm there was a record-breaking presence of Bigg’s Killer whales in the Salish Sea in 2021. There were 1,067 unique sightings throughout the year, beating the previous record of 747 unique sightings in 2019.

Humpback whales were in the region almost as frequently, for 301 days of 2021. 

The PWWA also saw gray whales and minke whales.

“The nice thing about whales as opposed to you know, studying sharks or fish or things like that is the whales have to come up for air eventually, right?” Erin Gless, executive director of PWWA said. “We’ve got a lot of eyes on the water. So we’re pretty confident that we’re getting a good idea of what the population is doing.” 

Gless said the PWWA said they recorded 11 new Bigg’s killer whale calves in 2021. 

Humpback whales didn’t want to be outdone. PWW said there were 21 humpback whale calves recorded in the region last year, a huge increase from the 11 seen in 2020. 

Breaching humpback whale – Simon Pidcock, Ocean Ecoventures, PWWA

Gless said what happens in 2022 will tell them if 2021 was an anomaly or if these whale populations are really thriving. She believes humpback whale and Bigg’s killer whale populations have been steadily increasing over the last decade thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which went into effect nearly 50 years ago. 

“Because we put those protective measures in place, we’ve been seeing these types of whales rebound in this area,” she said. 

The one group of whales that didn’t do as well in 2021 were the endangered southern resident killer whales. They were spotted in the Salish Sea only 100 days in 2021. This group of whales feeds on salmon, which is becoming harder to find in the area, Gless said. 

The whales are instead spending more time looking for food in places they wouldn’t normally be found. 

Gless said there are a lot of proposed pieces of legislation in Washington that are coming up for debate that would impact Salmon habitat restoration, protection and research. She said if passed, some of these laws could in turn benefit whale populations. 

The PWWA is also doing what it can to help protect whales. For the first time, it monitored how often it took sentinel action, meaning it notified vessels when whales were nearby and asked them to slow down and maintain their distance. Gless said that happened nearly 900 times. In 2022, the association looks forward to continuing their active role in helping protect whales. 

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