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Gray whale and transient orcas visit Vashon’s waters

These transient Orca whales were spotted off Vashon’s shores in March. - Mark and Maya Sears photo
These transient Orca whales were spotted off Vashon’s shores in March.
— image credit: Mark and Maya Sears photo

Several whales have been spotted around Vashon in recent weeks, including two sightings on Easter Sunday, one of a gray whale off Jensen Point in Quartermaster Harbor and another of a group of transient Orcas off of Dolphin Point.

Islander Jim Westcott and his family were at the beach at Jensen Point Sunday afternoon, when he and his daughter saw the whale not far off the Burton park’s boat ramp.

“I saw it blow,” Westcott said. “I saw the water coming up, then I saw a long gray shape in the water.”

His 11-year-old daughter Calla had witnessed it too, but thought maybe the curved gray object was a just a wave from a boat. In all, they stayed to watch for 45 minutes and saw the whale surface about 10 times.

By Monday morning, the whale had made its way to Quartermaster Yacht Club and had swum underneath the club’s dock, according to Island whale expert Anne Stateler, who runs the Vashon Hydrophone Project, which records whales’ vocalizations.

While those who saw it were surprised to see the whale that far into the shallow bay, Stateler said the sightings of gray whales this time of year around the Island are typical, and the whale might simply have been looking for food in Quartermaster.

“Gray whales do feed in shallow water,” she said. “That is part of their natural feeding behavior.”

Unlike Orcas, gray whales are filter feeders and eat mainly amphipods, small shrimp-like bottom-dwelling creatures. Sometimes when gray whales come to the Island’s waters, they stay for a few days if there is a good food source. Other times they pass through quickly, Stateler said. There is no set pattern in this part of the Sound.

While this whale may be behaving normally, Stateler thought it was also possible that it might be in poor health. An emaciated gray whale was seen in Elliott Bay recently, and she wonders if it is the same whale. Stateler had not seen the whale so could not be certain of the situation, but she noted that the food supply for gray whales has been affected by global warming, La Niña and El Niño.

Because of some other animal sightings, including a brown pelican on March 15 — the earliest sighting ever for that species here, according to ornithologist Ed Swan — and a Humboldt squid, a rarity in these waters, Stateler said she wonders if these are signs that the food supply is out of balance.

If the whale is sick, she would like to assess it and figure out if they should let nature take its course or if some intervention is needed. She also noted Quartermaster Harbor has crab pots and other fishing supplies that might pose a danger to the whale.

“We don’t want a large whale getting entangled in fishing gear,” she said.

The Island’s other whale visitors might have played a role in the gray whale’s trip to the quiet waters of Quartermaster Harbor; transient orcas sometimes kill gray whales, Stateler said.

“A wise marine mammal would give transient killer whales a wide berth,” she said.

Transient orcas have been spotted several times off the north end of the Island since mid-March, Stateler said, including on Easter Sunday, and observers have seen them working together to kill seals and sea lions. Transients can visit at any time of the year and range from southeast Alaska to southern California.

These mammals are not to be confused with the salmon-eating Southern Resident orcas of J, K and L Pods, which come here in fall and early winter.

“Transients and residents are different killer whale ecotypes,” Stateler said. “Transient orcas eat other marine mammals.”

Transient and resident Orcas are listed as endangered species in Washington, and boaters should maintain a 200-yard distance from them, she said.

Islanders who see whales should call Stateler at the Vashon Hydrophone Project at 463-9041.

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