Gray whales make their annual return, though a bit late

Gray whales have been spotted near Whidbey and Camano islands, part of their annual spring layover on their way from Mexico to Alaska.

You don’t necessarily have to board a boat to see their heart-shaped spouts and their V-shaped flukes.

They can be spotted from shoreline areas in Snohomish County and from spots such as Cama Beach State Park on Camano Island and Ebey’s Landing beach and bluffs on Whidbey Island, according to the Orca Network.

The whales’ return was just a tad off schedule this year, said John Calambokidis, a research biologist for Cascadia Research, an Olympia-based nonprofit which studies marine mammals.

“We were just a little nervous that some didn’t show up,” he said. A group of about 10 whales can sometimes stop over in the Whidbey and Camano island areas in mid-February or early March. “The earliest we had one of these whales was the first weekend in March,” he said, with more arriving by mid-March.

The core group sometimes is joined by other whales intermittently, he said.

“This is just some sort of in-between pit stop for them,” Calambokidis said. “They’ll often be here for several months.”

The stop is off their migration route, which continues north, he said. The ones that stop have learned that there’s something good to eat here — ghost shrimp.

Susan Berta, co-founder of the Orca Network and the Langley Whale Center, said the whales usually remain in the area through May. About six whales have been seen so far, she said. Sightings often are reported in Possession Sound, Saratoga Passage and offshore areas of Island and Snohomish counties, she said.

A bell rings in one of Langley’s parks when whales are spotted. The town hosts an annual Whales Festival, scheduled this year for April 18 and 19.

The same group of 10 to 12 whales makes an annual local stop on their migration route from Baja, Mexico, then continues their trek north to the Bering Sea, she said.

There’s never been a confirmed sighting of a calf during the time the whales make their local stop, Calambokidis said. They’re predominately males, but three females have been identified in the group. The females “tend to have little more spotty history of showing up here,” he said. “We suspect that may be because in the years they have calves, they don’t make this stop.”

One gray whale seemed to accidentally discover the marine feast of the local ghost shrimp feeding grounds, he said. “He wandered around Puget Sound for a while in the early 1990s before discovering how rich the areas around Island County are for ghost shrimp. “Now he comes back directly to that spot,” Calambokidis said.

Cascadia Research plans on doing some study later this month on what proportion of the whales’ total diet while they’re here is ghost shrimp, particularly in the intertidal areas where people harvest the shrimp for bait.

The nonprofit is working with the state Department of Natural Resources to investigate how much competition there is between the needs of the gray whales for the shrimp and people’s harvest of the shrimp, he said.

Gray whales are thought to live up to 50 years and weigh about 20,000 pounds.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

Learn about whales

The Langley Whale Center is at 117 Anthes in Langley on Whidbey Island and is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Learn more by calling 360-331-3543 or going to http://tinyurl.com/orcanetwork.

The annual Whales Festival, scheduled April 18 and 19 in Langley, includes a parade, education displays and a blessing of the whales.

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