On August 14, I was on the phone dealing with a seal call, gazing out at the Sound, when I saw a huge splash – and another and another, about 15 in a row -- off the Point Defiance shoreline. I scoped with binoculars to see who was breaching so vigorously. The enchanting creature displacing so much water was a Humpback whale calf! Judging from the body size, s/he is this year’s calf -- still a tot. Anyone at Owens Beach got an eyeful of baby whale hurling her several-ton frame out of the water.
The other gigantic clue to the calf’s age soon materialized. Baby regrouped for a breather, and there beside the calf’s petite blow was Mom’s towering blow. The unprecedented sight of a Humpback mother and calf pair in Vashon-Maury waters exhilarated us at Chez VHP. Junior’s breaching attracted every nearby fishing boat. I kept the NMFS enforcement number handy; fortunately, I did not observe any egregious harassment.
For 90 minutes, the sweet duo crept along the Tacoma shore toward Commencement Bay, with Baby breaching and Mom fluking periodically. Except when breaching, the youngster was always at Mom’s side in her slipstream – another indicator of the calf’s age. All baby whales swim beside their mothers in this fashion. Alas, the whales were too far away to get decent photos of Junior’s breach-a-thon or the pale ventral (under) side of Mom’s tail flukes.
I lost sight of our visiting dignitaries for two hours. Instead of going into the busy bay, I surmise that they rounded Neill Point to investigate outer Quartermaster Harbor, where Humpbacks could forage on schooling fish in August. The whales reappeared in the early evening, heading west and closer to Vashon. Odin and I took sedate dorsal photos of the pair for ID, just before they exited our field of view into Colvos Pass.
Many thanks to Deanna at Reddings Beach, who called in the last known sighting of the whales at dusk. Evidently, 30 or so tons of mother and baby Humpback can keep a low profile in Greater Puget Sound by traveling in heavy fog.
This week’s photo is a Mark Sears classic of young Dalco the Humpback. The August 14 calf breached once in the same place as Dalco did when s/he was here nine years ago. Based on her travel pattern, I suspect the mother whale is familiar with this area. Maybe our Humpback mother is Dalco!
I am seeking more information from large whale experts at Cascadia Research -- www.cascadiaresearch.org -- on the occurrence of Humpback mom/calf pairs in lower Puget Sound. When I called Cascadia on the 14th, I learned that our pair was near Olympia that morning. Perhaps our photos will aid in determining the identity of these whales.
The Humpback whale is an endangered species. Humpbacks were hunted nearly to extinction in the early 1900s. A whaling station in Georgia Strait eliminated Humpbacks in the Salish Sea for decades. Before the commercial whaling ban in 1966, less than 1,400 North Pacific Humpbacks remained. Sporadic sightings of Humpbacks in Puget Sound resumed in 1976; sightings have gradually increased since then.
North Pacific Humpbacks are slowly recovering; more whales now venture into local waters. The current North Pacific population is about 20,000. Over three decades, Mark Sears has documented several sightings of individual Humpbacks in the Central Sound. I have lived on Vashon since 1994, and I did not see a Humpback here until 2004. All of my previous Vashon-Maury sightings were of solo Humpbacks. Mark and I do not know of verified mom and calf pairs in Island waters before. Hence, the August 14 sighting is a BBD - big breaching deal.
Another seal issue emerged last week. Seals hauled out on floating platforms flee into the water – a sign of disturbance and violation of the MMPA -- when approached too closely by kayakers, paddleboarders, et al. Call us for guidance and save a seal.
Please support the work of the Vashon Hydrophone Project (VHP): REPORT LOCAL WHALE SIGHTINGS ASAP TO 463-9041, as well as seal pups and sick, injured, or dead marine mammals on Island beaches. Prompt reports to the VHP expedite vital data collection efforts by Mark Sears and other researchers, and sustain an accurate record of whale sightings for Vashon-Maury initiated 30 years ago. Check for updates at Vashonorcas.org and send photos to Orca Annie at Vashonorcas@aol.com.