A group of Pacific gray whales that feed in the waters off Whidbey each spring has returned. The gentle giants include a well-known gray that has been coming back each year for 30 years, as well as a possible newcomer.
“They’re definitely here,” said Howard Garrett, co-founder and board president of the Orca Network.
The nonprofit group has recorded sightings of at least six known whales this year, he said. The organization lists the sightings of the many types of whales seen in Puget Sound on its website while educating the public about the nomadic marine mammals.
During their annual migration north, a group of gray whales known as the Sounders makes a pit stop on the journey north near Whidbey to grab a bite of ghost shrimp, a favorite food they consume by the hundreds of pounds a day.
Garrett said gray whale sightings occur up and down the Saratoga Passage, including the waters off Greenbank, Holmes Harbor, Honeymoon Bay, Hidden Beach, Baby Island, Beverly Beach and Freeland Park.
“There are some suspected feeding pits there, in fact, right up next to the park, and that’s kind of unusual if not unheard of,” Garrett said of recent sightings at Freeland Park.
However, it could have just been an “exploratory drill” to find the tasty critters that live in the sand, he added.
Someone saw the marine giants as recently as March 4, according to the Orca Network’s website.
A few whales have been consistently visiting the area since 1991, according to Cascadia Research Collective records. One of these longtime visitors is named Little Patch, also called CRC-53, who is known for a small patch of white on his left side. He has been known to linger in the area.
This year, Little Patch has been swimming around Whidbey since early February, according to Orca Network records.
There is also a whale named Patch, or CRC-49, who has a bigger patch of white on the right side of his back.
Garrett said there were rumors of a mystery whale after a photographer saw a whale with an unknown fluke pattern on its tail. He said the Orca Network was checking with the Cascadia Research Collective to identify the potential newcomer.
John Calambokidis, a senior research biologist and founder of the Cascadia Research Collective, however, said he had seen the photo and thought it may not be a new whale. The photo may simply be showing the fluke pattern upside down or from an odd angle, he explained.
But he didn’t rule out the possibility.
“It’s entirely possible because they’re arriving on a daily basis,” he said.
To learn more, there is a free Zoom lesson on March 17 for youngsters to learn more about gray whales and the Orca Network’s “Welcome the Whales” virtual festival for all ages will be on April 17. Find information on orcanetwork.org.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.