Education

Gray Whale feeding behaviors – and the questions they pose.

2010 was a banner year for whale watching in Edmonds with visits becoming so frequent between mid-April and mid-June that residents would often ask the patrolling rangers, “Where are the whales this morning?” The most memorable and publicized visitation was by a single 30 foot gray whale to Olympic Beach on June 7th, 2010. That morning commuters first reported the animal feeding in the Edmonds Underwater Park shortly after sunrise. Within an hour the whale had moved south to Olympic beach where it remained feeding in the crustacean rich seabed sands until after 6:00 p.m.

Whales

Composite image showing feeding positions of the Gray Whale over 15 minutes on June 7th, 2010. Click to Enlarge.

What was significant about this particular visitation was that so many people witnessed it, and that the awareness of Pacific Gray Whales in Puget Sound grew exponentially that day – at least in our corner of Puget Sound. Evening local newscast also got into the act with live video shot from helicopter. The next day inquiries from the public about that particular whale, and gray whales in general skyrocketed.

The most common misconception that rangers found themselves explaining repeatedly was the notion that because two “fins” showed above water at the same time, that there must then be two whales. A look into the methods Gray Whales use when feeding in sediments illustrates the reasons the “two fins = 2 whales” is not the case.

The illustration below shows a Gray Whale on its side feeding in bottom sediment. Click to Enlarge.

Gray Whale Feeding - Owen Caddy

Gray Whale Feeding illustration by Owen Caddy

The Gray Whales often feed in close to shore, where they turn on their side (usually their right) and suck up huge mouthfuls of sediment containing ghost shrimp and other invertebrates, and then they strain the water and sand out with their baleen plates. The food that remains is swallowed. Their pectoral fin tips (smaller) and tail fluke tips (larger) can often be seen waving around above the water during feeding.

At this time it is unknown how many different whales visited Edmonds during the spring and early summer of 2010, but it was certainly more than one, as video of a mother and juvenile was taken at Marina Beach in April.

Wahel from KOMO Air4

What does seem clear is that for the last few years, a group of whales has been staying longer in Puget Sound than in decades past. It is also unknown if these whales remain due to preference, or whether they were too weakened by their northward journey from Baja Mexico, that they had to spend additional time feeding locally here in Puget Sound before resuming their journey to Alaska. Some have suggested that some Gray Whales may be making the waters off Washington, Oregon, and B.C. their year round home.

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