Humpbacks returning to Puget Sound in big numbers

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A humpback whale breaches last week off Friday Harbor, Wash. (Photo by Traci Walter, Western Prince Whale and Wildlife Tours)

SEATTLE — When you think of whales in Puget Sound, the legendary black and white orca seen often in local waters is what usually comes to mind.

But lately, whale watchers say it’s the huge humpback that has taken center stage in the Pacific Northwest, by showing up throughout the Sound and straits.

The whales have been providing spectacular shows above the water, breaching the surface, and splashing down again.

“These sightings of humpback whales are really encouraging,” said marine zoologist Anna Hall, science adviser to the Pacific Whale Watch Association.  “The population of southern British Columbia and northern Washington State was locally destroyed by commercial whaling about 20 years ago, and now they’re not only back in these waters, they’ve actually expanded their temporal use.  We’re seeing them almost every day out there, sometimes doing spectacular things.”

She says local boaters are seeing a wide range of feeding behaviors among humpbacks, as the huge mammals forage for different types of prey.

Experts say one method the humpbacks use is called “lunge feeding,” when they move quickly toward a school of prey with their mouths wide open, then closing their mouths and filtering the salt water out.

Another technique is called “bubble feeding,” where two or more whales swim in a shrinking circle blowing bubbles below a school of prey, creating a ring of bubbles that circles the school and pushes it into an ever-smaller cylinder.  Then the whales suddenly swim upward, swallowing thousands of fish in one gulp.

“We had up to five humpbacks here for about 10 days in May,” said Tom Averna of Deer Harbor Charters on Orca Island.  “And we’re continuing to see them into June.  I don’t recall having humpbacks in the (San Juan) Islands like this in the 25 years I’ve been running trips.”

Marine zoologists say humpback mothers are also starting to bring young calves into the Puget Sound region.  They say that’s an indication the Sound is once again an important place for the young whales to feed and grow.

“The mothers seem to feel this is a safe place to take the calves,” Hall says.  “There appears to be plenty of food for her to sustain herself, while also weaning her baby, teaching it how to feed.  This is great news.”

It’s estimated 1,600 humpback whales feed off the west coast of North America and as many as 500 off Washington and British Columbia.

The whales feed from spring to fall before migrating in the winter to calving areas in Mexico, Central America and Hawaii.

Researchers believe there are more than 18,000 humpbacks now in the North Pacific, up from about 1,500 when whale hunting was banned in 1966.

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