Dolphins In Puget Sound

In the 1940s, harbor porpoise were among the most frequently sighted cetaceans in Puget Sound, but by the early 1970s they had all but disappeared from local waters. Their numbers have since increased, but they remain a Species of Concern in the state of Washington. This in-depth profile looks at harbor porpoise in the Salish Sea, and was prepared by the SeaDoc Society for inclusion in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Harbor porpoises declined dramatically in the Salish Sea in the 1970s but their populations have since rebounded, increasing by more than 10% per year in recent decades. A 2020 report for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound examines harbor porpoise status and trends, natural history and recent policy considerations for the species.
Harbor porpoises were once common in Puget Sound, but had all but disappeared from local waters by the 1970s. Regular and numerous anecdotal sightings in recent years show that populations of these cetaceans are now increasing and may be approaching their former status. The attached document from NOAA Fisheries describes harbor porpoise numbers and their geographic range in Puget Sound as of 2011.Source: Zier, J.C. and Gaydos, J.K. (2015). Harbor Porpoise in the Salish Sea A Species Profile for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. 32 pgs. A 2014 paper in Endangered Species Research suggests that harbour porpoises inhabiting coastal waters of southern British Columbia constitute a single genetic population, which should be reflected in management decisions. The mysterious practice of killing porpoises may have a useful function, but it has yet to be fully explained, according to orca researcher Deborah Giles.

With a population growth of about 10 percent per year in inland waters, harbor porpoises are having an undetermined but growing effect on food dynamics in Puget Sound.
A 2020 paper published in Frontiers in Marine Science describes details of the fungal disease Mucormycosis which has caused the death of harbor porpoises, harbor seals and one orca in Puget Sound in recent years. The authors discuss the implications for local marine mammals, specifically the endangered southern resident killer whale population.

A report from the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program provides an overview of 2013 marine water quality and conditions in Puget Sound from comprehensive monitoring and observing programs.After an almost complete collapse in the 1970s, harbor porpoise populations in Puget Sound have rebounded. Scientists are celebrating the recovery of the species sometimes known as the “puffing pig.”

A 2016 technical report from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Cascadia Research Collective details the decline of the harbor porpoise in Puget Sound in the 1970s and reports that species numbers have increased over the past twenty years likely due to outside immigration.
A paper published in the journal Oceans in 2020 describes cases of prey-related asphyxiation in harbor porpoises along the U.S. West Coast. The findings suggest that a majority of cases involve non-native American shad and that asphyxiation tends to occur more with reproductively active females than other age and sex classes.Harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) are one of the most frequently sighted cetaceans in the Salish Sea. Anecdotal information, possibly supported with stranding encounter rate data, suggests that harbor porpoise may have increased in Puget Sound, or have shifted their distribution back to Puget Sound relative to earlier decades.

The Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program released its fifth annual Marine Waters Overview this week. The report provides an assessment of marine conditions for the year 2015 and includes updates on water quality as well as status reports for select plankton, seabirds, fish and marine mammals.
Harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) are the smallest of 22 cetaceans recorded in the Salish Sea and are probably one of the few that are resident year-­‐round. Excluding the Arctic, their distribution extends throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Their numbers in the waters of Puget Sound declined steeply in the 1970s, but their population has increased in recent years.A study in the Journal of Comparative Physiology shows that muscle development necessary for diving can take several years to mature in harbor porpoises. Scientists argue that this may make immature harbor porpoises more vulnerable than adults to impacts from boat traffic or other disturbances.

Are there whales in Puget Sound?
The waters of Puget Sound are home to a diverse array of marine life, including several species of whales. You can see both resident and transient Orcas, sometimes known as killer whales, in addition to Humpback Whales, Gray Whales, and Minke Whales.
Harbor seals and harbor porpoises in the Salish Sea are showing a relatively high presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A 2021 paper in the journal Oceans suggests that these findings may indicate a wider problem among other species in the region.

Did you know you can embark on a whale-watching tour in a kayak? No prior kayaking experience necessary! Here are three whale-watching kayak tours that operate out of the nearby San Juan Islands:
One excellent Seattle whale-watching boat tour is the FRS Clipper whale watching tour. The FRS Clipper whale watching tour runs from May through October and leaves directly from downtown Seattle. This half-day tour guarantees whale sightings and has an onboard expert naturalist.

If you want to ensure that you see a whale, your best bet is to book a boat tour—and be sure you build in time for a potential second trip. Most of the whale-watching boat tours in the Pacific Northwest offer a guarantee that you’ll see a whale. If your first trip isn’t a success, they give you a coupon for a second boat tour!
Looking for more whale-watching locations around Seattle? Check out this website and online map called the Whale Trail. The map will show you places in Seattle and all along the West Coast where you can spot whales and other marine mammals from shore.A second boat tour option is the Puget Sound Express, which offers whale-watching tours that depart from several locations. Their Edmonds tour is a short drive from Seattle and they also have tours departing from Port Townsend and Port Angeles. You can do a half-day, full-day, or three-day tour. This family-run operation also guarantees whale sightings. You can embark on a whale-watching adventure from Seattle, but the San Juan Islands are the best place to look out for orcas as they travel through the area. Mid-May is when the largest number of orca whales pass through the islands. You can reserve a guided tour if you have your heart set on seeing whales and orcas up-close. If orca spotting is on your bucket list, now is your chance! Although orcas, gray whales, and humpback whales can be spotted in the Pacific Northwest year-round, May through October is the best time to look out for southern resident orcas.Note: Whether you take a boat or kayak tour, you can’t leave the San Juan Islands without visiting the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. This museum is an excellent bookend for your trip. You’ll get a chance to learn all about southern resident orcas and the Salish Sea.That said, many Seattle residents have gotten lucky and spotted these majestic creatures from some of our very own parks and beaches. It’s definitely a choose-your-own-adventure type of situation! There is a lot to know about whale watching around Seattle so we put together this compact guide.

Are there dolphins or porpoises in Puget Sound?
Harbor porpoises live in near coastal shallow waters and around the Pacific Northwest. They can be seen from all sites, year round, along The Whale Trail in Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
If you’re not a fan of being out on the water, you can find plenty of whale-sighting spots on land. You don’t even have to leave Seattle to potentially spot a whale. Several of Seattle’s parks and beaches offer ideal vantage points for viewing orcas and whales as they pass by. Alki Beach in West Seattle, Golden Gardens, and Discovery Park are all local spots with excellent potential for whale sightings.

Are there dolphins in the Puget Sound?
Harbor porpoise returned to the Puget Sound around 2000, and sightings of several dolphin species have been increasing since 2010. Sightings of common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins have increased considerably since 2016 and Pacific white-sided dolphins are seen from time to time. Cached
You can ensure the best times to spot a whale before you set out. To do this, follow the Orca Network online. They have a handy whale sighting page that is updated in real time.Tritt’s wife missed the first dolphin encounter. On the following Saturday afternoon he took her out in his boat to check the area near the red buoy. Sure enough, the dolphin reappeared and repeated its performance. “At times he went airborne six feet in the air 10 feet away parallel to the boat, wriggling his tail vigorously,” said Tritt.

Are there dolphins or porpoises in the Puget Sound?
Harbor porpoises live in near coastal shallow waters and around the Pacific Northwest. They can be seen from all sites, year round, along The Whale Trail in Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
UNDERWRITTEN BY NEWSMATCH/MIAMI FOUNDATION, THE ANGEL GUILD, ROTARY CLUB OF GIG HARBOR, ADVERTISERS, DONORS AND PEOPLE WHO SUPPORT LOCAL, INDEPENDENT NONPROFIT NEWSThe animal is a long-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus capensis), a species with a global range in warm-temperate and tropical waters that is the most abundant cetacean in the world, with a population estimated at 6 million. These dolphins are numerous off the coast of Southern California and Mexico, living in groups of hundreds or even thousands of individuals, but rarely do they venture farther north. One male in particular, nicknamed Cinco, has been photographed often over the last year. Usually alone, Cinco is described as being playful and having a breach like a skipping stone. Experts identify individual dolphins by examining photographs of their dorsal fins — something Key Peninsula boaters can aim to record to help the research collective better understand these rare animals. Long-beaked common dolphins eat many types of fish and squid. Individuals often remain loyal to a small area. Unlike many dolphins and whales, their pods are not matrilineally organized. And their playful antics are not confined to speedboats — they have been observed bow-riding large whales.When the dolphin left the other boat, Tritt did a circle of the area. Before long the dolphin appeared just off his bow. As Tritt sped north the dolphin kept pace, at times leaping on either side of the bow. Tritt’s son and his son’s girlfriend lay in the bow of the boat and Tritt watched as the dolphin rotated its body to give them a close look from 4 feet away.

A week later they had a final sighting while having an outdoor dinner at a friend’s house. From the high bank property, which has a commanding view from Pitt Passage to the Nisqually Flats, they saw an inflatable with two people aboard.
“We went to our home around the corner on Filucy Bay. The inflatable actually led the dolphin into the bay. Many people were outside their homes enjoying the weather. The dolphin continued to go airborne accompanied by the cheers of those watching from shore with incredulous eyes!”

“The acrobatics I witnessed were incredible and unlike anything else outside of Sea World,” said Longbranch resident Jeffrey Tritt. His string of encounters with the rare cetacean began July 18, on the return leg of a boat trip to Olympia.

What dolphins are in Seattle?
8 Types of Dolphins Found in Washington! (state)#1. Pacific White-sided Dolphin.#2. Northern Right Whale Dolphin.#3. Striped Dolphin.#4. Long-beaked Common Dolphin.#5. Short-beaked Common Dolphin.#6. Rough-toothed Dolphin.#7. Harbor Porpoise.#8. Dall’s Porpoise. Cached
Far more likely to be seen than any kind of dolphin in Puget Sound are harbor porpoises. Historically native to the Sound, harbor porpoises had all but vanished by the 1960s before they began to reappear after 2000. Today they are quite common.Harbor porpoises are small and dark. They often travel in groups of three to 10 and make a gasping noise when they surface. Unlike the curving, swept-back dorsal fin of dolphins, they have a triangular dorsal fin.

He was passing the red buoy off Devil’s Head when another boat appeared. “Two people stood in the boat laughing and pointing at a dolphin weaving across their bow and at times going completely airborne,” he reported. Tritt has enjoyed encounters with porpoises over the years, but this animal was something special.
The first, the more well-known bottlenose dolphin, reached Puget Sound a handful of times over the last few decades, most notably in the fall of 2017 when five or six individuals spent several months in Washington waters. One of them was photographed well enough in Hale Passage to be identified by researchers in California. Incredibly, it was a female named Miss who was first photographed in Orange County in 1983. Miss has a long record of expanding the range of bottlenose dolphins northward, being one of the first to reach Monterey Bay and, later, San Francisco Bay. To reach Puget Sound was a significant leap.

Does Puget Sound have porpoises?
In the early 2000s, harbor porpoise made a comeback to Puget Sound. Cached
In 2016, according to Cascadia Research Collective, two pods of these dolphins made an unprecedented excursion into Puget Sound, finding their way to its southern reaches. Most soon exited, but a handful of individuals stayed behind and have been living in South Puget Sound ever since, spending much of their time in Case Inlet, near Olympia, and around Anderson Island, with occasional forays as far north as Tacoma.Again and again the dolphin launched itself into the air around the tiny boat. The inflatable went back and forth and the dolphin showed no signs of tiring as it leapt. Below, you will find pictures and descriptions of the kinds of dolphins in Washington. I’ve also included RANGE MAPS and fun facts about each species. And keep reading to the end of the article for the differences between Dolphins and Porpoises! Short-beaked Common Dolphins are gregarious and usually observed in huge pods of hundreds of dolphins. However, they can occasionally form super pods of up to 10,000 individuals!Harbor Porpoises can be found in shallow, sheltered coastal areas, which is how they got their name. Unfortunately, this habit of living in such proximity to humans puts them in a lot of danger of boat strikes, being caught in fishing nets, and suffering from chronic issues like pollution. They are an active and playful species that engages in breaching, bowing, and other aerial displays. They’re well-known for their acrobatic somersaults, flipping head-over-tail in the air. Though they are mistaken by many for baby dolphins, Harbor Porpoises are very different animals. For example, Harbor Porpoises have spade-shaped teeth as opposed to dolphins’ conical, pointed teeth. Additionally, they don’t use sound to communicate the way dolphins do.Northern Right Whale Dolphins are often confused with other animals, either because of their name or the way they look. While reading about it, it’s easy to confuse this dolphin with the much larger North Pacific Right Whale, which inhabits much of the same area. While observing, people often mistake them for sea lions because of their sleek surfacing style and finless, dark appearance. Short-beaked Common Dolphins are highly adaptable and abundant. They inhabit a wide variety of environments, from tropical seas to cool temperate waters. However, they primarily live offshore, from the continental shelf and beyond to deeper waters. This habitat preference is slightly different from their long-beaked relatives. They are also far less playful, agile, and showy than many other dolphin species. Instead, they use their energy for speed, surfacing with a subtle skimming movement.Rough-toothed Dolphins prefer warmer water in Washington. However, they’re pelagic, so they live away from the coast in water over 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) deep.

Dall’s Porpoises live in fairly small pods of 2 to 12 individuals. But, they are very gregarious creatures and are known to socialize with dolphins, pilot whales, and even larger baleen whales. They also enjoy bow riding alongside boats.
These dolphins live in small pods of less than 20 individuals. In some populations, the average pod size is as small as three. However, they are very social animals and are often seen interacting with other dolphins and whales.Long-beaked Common Dolphins can live for up to 40 years. They are usually pregnant for around 11 months and give birth during the spring and early summer. I don’t think there is anything better than watching dolphins! Their playful, gregarious nature makes them one of the most beloved animals in the world. If you find a pod, it’s likely to contain more than one species. For example, Northern Right Whale Dolphins commonly socialize with Risso’s dolphins and Pacific White-sided Dolphins. They’ve even been known to travel in super-pods of up to 3,000 individuals!They can dive over 1,600 feet (488 meters) to catch their prey, consisting of various fish and squid. They are also shockingly fast! They can swim up to 34 miles per hour, which is impressive given their small size and rotund build.

Does Puget Sound have whales?
Buckmaster, states: “The gray whales of Puget Sound are called the ‘Sounders. ‘ They are the same 10 or so gray whales that return to this area almost yearly. The males return every year, while the females usually visit biennially.
Rough-toothed Dolphins eat fish and squid as other dolphins do but are also highly skilled at hunting larger fish. Research suggests that they could be specialized hunters of mahi-mahi or “dolphin fish.”Look for Pacific White-sided Dolphins in Washington in the temperate waters of the northern Pacific Ocean. This species is pelagic, meaning you’re unlikely to see them close to the shore and will need a boat to observe them.

These dolphins are playful and acrobatic, often putting on a show for humans on dolphin-watching excursions. They race in the bow waves of ships and often break the water’s surface to spin in the air. They are incredibly fast and can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour!They form close social bonds with their pods, usually made up of 25 to 100 individuals. They occasionally form super pods, but not as often as other dolphins in Washington. Striped Dolphins rarely interact with other dolphin species or whales.

Dolphins are outgoing, make a lot of noise, and can be aggressive toward Porpoises, even “bullying” them in the wild. Porpoises prefer to avoid Dolphins altogether, and they’re much warier of humans and other animals. Additionally, humans can hear Dolphins’ whistles and chirps, but Porpoises vocalize in a range that we can’t hear. You’ll likely see these dolphins working cooperatively to hunt schooling fish like capelin and herring. They need to eat a lot of food, consuming around 20 pounds (9 kg) of fish per day. Pacific White-sided Dolphins live in pods of up to 50 individuals. Long-beaked Common Dolphins inhabit warm water near the coast in temperate, subtropical, and tropical seas. They hunt in fairly shallow water, so they’re easier to observe than other dolphins in Washington. This species is great at working together to round up schools of fish such as sardines and anchovies.Despite their stealthy movements, Northern Right Whale Dolphins can be acrobatic when they want to! They can launch themselves into breaches over 20 feet (6 meters) high, and love to side-slap the water and belly-flop loudly.

Do sharks live in the Puget Sound?
The Sixgill Shark is found all over the world including Puget Sound. They have been observed as deep as 6,000 feet but are commonly found around 300 feet. They are a rare sight in Puget Sound, so if you’re diving and you see one, don’t feel scared … feel lucky!
You can see the Northern Right Whale Dolphin off the coast of Washington. They prefer the cooler waters along the edge of the continental shelf and are unlikely to be spotted near the shore. However, they may venture closer to land when deep water is available. For example, look for this species in areas where underwater canyons run near the coastline.Although there are tons of interesting facts about dolphins, I kept each description brief to cover all the species. So, you may want to consider purchasing the book below if you want more information or need help with additional identification.Striped Dolphins are an extremely adaptable and widespread species. You can see these dolphins in temperate, tropical, and subtropical seas. However, they prefer deep water and are usually far from shore. You may spot them near the coast if there are underwater canyons or trenches to provide a deeper habitat.Short-beaked Common Dolphins are also very social and confident around large whales and boats. You’re likely to observe them bow riding and wake surfing on both ships and whales. In addition, they are often seen with pilot whales, spinner dolphins, and seabirds.

In addition, Harbor Porpoises are much shyer and more reserved than dolphins. Though social, they aren’t showy and usually group in tiny pods of 2 to 5 individuals. Because they’re far less boisterous, Harbor Porpoises are often bullied by dolphins.
Dolphins are long, lean, and streamlined with extended noses, while Porpoises are shorter and stocky with blunt noses. Dolphins have a much wider range of colors, including brown, gray, silvery blue, white, and pink. Porpoises, on the other hand, are more monochrome in shades of black, white, and gray. Porpoises have spade-shaped teeth and upright dorsal fins, but Dolphin teeth are cone-shaped, and their dorsal fins are curved.

Despite their relatively small core pods, they can frequently be seen gathered together in much larger numbers when food is abundant. These huge groups are made up of thousands of dolphins called “super pods.”
Dall’s Porpoises are numerous and widespread in the Pacific Ocean. However, they are an offshore species that hunt in deep, cold water. This makes them more difficult to observe.

Are dolphins in Washington?
In the United States, Pacific white-sided dolphins live off the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. They can be seen traveling in schools of thousands, but group sizes are usually between 10 and 100 animals.
While they’re not as active or acrobatic as dolphins, their proximity to the shore and slow, predictable behavior means that patient observers can easily spot them. They can be seen in bays and harbors along the coast.Harbor porpoises have a dark gray, rounded head and a dark gray topside which gradually turns lighter gray along the front half of the body. The dorsal fin is medium-sized relative to the body and triangular. The throat and belly are white. Their length ranges from about 5 to 5 ½ feet and their weight is about 135 to 170 pounds. Males are slightly smaller than females.

In Washington, harbor porpoise were a common year-round resident in the Puget Sound in the 1940s. By the 1970s, however, they had disappeared from the Sound, and their numbers were greatly reduced in the Straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca, and around the San Juan Islands. In the early 2000s, harbor porpoise made a comeback to Puget Sound. The results of WDFW aerial surveys, over a period of two decades, documented both increasing trends followed by stabilization of the harbor porpoise in the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound, as well as their expansion into the previously abandoned waters of the Puget Sound and the waters of the Eastern Strait of Georgia.
Two stocks are known to occur in Washington: Northern Oregon-Washington Coast Stock and Washington Inland Waters Stock. A variety of factors lead to the near extirpation of harbor porpoise from Puget Sound. The species’ interactions with fisheries and pollution are two threats that were a known problem in the inner marine waters during the period of harbor porpoise decline during the 1970s through 1990s. Changes have been made in recent decades to reduce the impact of these threats, allowing the Washington Inland Waters Stock of harbor porpoise to increase to its current level.Females become sexually mature at about 4 years of age. Breeding mostly occurs in summer, and gestation lasts about 11 months. Calves are mostly born between May and July.

Except for 2007, since 1994, WDFW has conducted annual winter aerial marine bird surveys that cover all of the Washington inner marine waters from southern Puget Sound to the Canadian border, out to the west entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. All marine mammal observations were also consistently recorded; this almost 30-year dataset provides a record of increasing harbor porpoise numbers in the northern portion of the survey area in the early years, followed by their expansion into the waters of the Puget Sound.
Harbor porpoise are mostly found in coastal waters, including bays and estuaries. Harbor porpoises are relatively solitary, often seen alone or in groups of a few individuals. They keep a low profile in the water and do not splash when traveling or surfacing.Marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. To report a dead, injured or stranded marine mammal, please call the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) West Coast Region Stranding Network hotline: 1-866-767-6114. Harbor porpoise were considered the most common cetacean in the inner marine waters of Washington State including Puget Sound in the 1940s, the most common cetacean in Washington state-wide, and seen year around in the Puget Sound. Research and observations from the 1970s through the 1990s, however, revealed harbor porpoise were virtually absent from Puget Sound. Reports of harbor porpoise within the Puget Sound began in the early 2000s, with regular sightings in southern Puget Sound starting in 2008. The return was monitored by National Marine Fisheries Service, WDFW, Cascadia Research Collective, and the Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Harbor porpoises are found in northern temperate, subarctic, and arctic coastal and offshore waters. Harbor porpoise in the eastern North Pacific Ocean are distributed almost continuously along the west coast of the United States and Canada. They are considered non-migratory and relatively resident to specific areas with National Marine Fisheries Service recognizing six different management stocks along the U.S. West Coast.For maps of range-wide distribution and conservation status, check out NatureServe Explorer and the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List.Very limited information is available regarding the sensitivity of the Pacific harbor porpoise to climate change, particularly for Washington populations. Their overall sensitivity is likely to be influenced by prey availability (e.g., small forage fish like herring, zooplankton). Porpoises prefer areas with high prey density; thus, any changes in prey density, which could be prompted by climate factors like increasing ocean temperature or declines in pH, could limit prey availability for porpoises. Studies in other regions have shown that porpoises tend to be generalists and can switch between different types of prey depending on abundance and interannual fluctuations; the ability to switch prey may decrease the overall sensitivity of harbor porpoises.The harbor porpoise has increased in abundance in the Washington’s Salish Sea during the past 20 to 25 years. It is now considered common in this area and may be at historically high population levels.It’s not something you see every day. A couple exploring the Puget Sound waters were surprised when some unexpected visitors joined them — three common dolphins. This isn’t Monson’s first time seeing marine life up close. She and her husband have been lucky enough to see “lots of sea lions, seals, porpoises, even a humpback once when we were jet skiing.” Karen Monson and her husband Jon were just outside the Port of Olympia in Budd Inlet on August 7, when the dolphins jumped out of the water about 100 feet in front of them. Monson said the dolphins came right up to the boat after they cut their engine.

Earlier this year a group of bottlenose dolphins, which are also native to California waters, were spotted in Puget Sound. Researchers say the dolphins, called “Miss” and Stump,” were nearly 1,000 miles from their home in the San Francisco Bay area.
“There was a sailboat sitting with kids on the front. At one point the dolphins went over to the front of their boat and put on quite a show for the kids,” Monson said.

Monson shared her video on the Orca Network Facebook page, hoping someone could help identify the dolphins. The Orca Network confirmed they were common dolphins from California waters and are not native to the area.
The Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, forcing institutions of higher education to look for new ways to achieve diverse student bodies.A group of bottlenose dolphins have been seen in Puget Sound since September, 2017. This is quite an unusual occurrence because bottlenose dolphins tend to live in warmer temperate and tropical waters and are not usually found in the colder waters of Puget Sound. With the help of members of the public, and dolphin researchers in California, Cascadia Research is able to confirm that this group of bottlenose dolphins are a part of the California coastal stock. After receiving a high quality photo of one of the animals, our colleagues in California were able to match the unique markings on the animal’s dorsal fin with images in their photo identification (photo ID) catalogs. San Francisco-based Golden Gate Cetacean Research (GGCR) and Monterey-based Okeanis identified the individual as “Miss”, a well-known dolphin first photographed by researchers in 1983.

As with the different ecotypes of killer whales that we are familiar with in Washington (resident, transient and offshore), there are two ecotypes of bottlenose dolphins off the west coast of the United States (coastal and offshore). The coastal animals are generally smaller, a lighter grey, and stick to the warmer shallow waters near shore, while offshore animals are larger and usually darker grey, sometime appearing black.The sightings in the Puget Sound of several animals suggest a possible significant expansion of their range if they remain in the area, as the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca is almost 800 miles north of their range as defined by the current stock assessment report for this group of animals, and almost 1000 miles by water to get to the southern Puget Sound. Such long distance travel outside their traditional range may be due to long term changes in climate, and shorter term fluctuations in coastal water conditions, such as El Niño events. It is unclear whether the animals are here to stay, or if they are just here for a brief visit, as has happened in the past (1988, 1998, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011).

The California coastal stock of bottlenose dolphins is a genetically distinct population of about 500-600 animals that remain in a narrow corridor up to approximately 1 mile offshore between Ensenada, Mexico, and Sonoma County, California, just north of the San Francisco Bay. By using dorsal fin photos to track them, researchers have found that some individuals in this population can be highly mobile, engaging in long-distance movements north and south across their range in California. This stock has been expanding its range since the El Niño event of 1982, when they were rarely seen north of Santa Barbara. Sightings in San Francisco Bay began in 2001, where they are regularly seen today.
Miss was first observed in southern California in the 1980s. She moved to Monterey Bay in the 1990s and then to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2012. This is the first time that an individual bottlenose dolphin that has appeared in the Puget Sound has been traced to a specific population! It is unknown how many dolphins are part of this current influx, but we suspect that there are at least 5-6 individuals based on photographic evidence and the locations and timing of different sightings.

You can report any sightings of any dolphin species within the inland waters to Dave Anderson ([email protected]). Clear photographs or videos of the animals are helpful for identifying species and the body condition. Higher quality images of the dorsal fin are also useful for identifying individual animals, and can be compared to catalogs from other areas. If you have a DSLR or point and shoot camera with a good zoom on it, consider bringing that on your trips out onto the water or to the beach, as the improved detail in the images is helpful in identifying the animals.

Three of the past bottlenose dolphins in the Puget Sound were later found stranded (1988, 2010 and 2011). All of the animals were genotyped, and with both coastal and offshore individuals showing up in the past. Whenever a species, such as these coastal bottlenose dolphins, are found so far outside their range, there are reasons to be concerned about their health. Animals may travel outside their normal range for many reasons beyond environmental change, such as confusion caused by disease or hunger, often leading to death of the animal. The earlier stranded bottlenose dolphins are an example of this, and there is cause to be concerned about at least one of the bottlenose dolphins in the current group that is suffering from a severe skin condition.As the stock continued its northern expansion, Miss spent less time in Monterey Bay. In 2012 GGCR started spotting her in the San Francisco Bay, where she was seen several times over a period of two years. After 2015, she was only seen along the coast north of San Francisco, often pushing the limits of where members of this population are expected to be seen. According to Bill Keener of GGCR, Miss was seen as far north as Point Arena, Mendocino County, California in 2015, before returning south into Sonoma County, where she was last seen in late-March 2017. Around 6 months after this last sighting, Miss was one of the dolphins that showed up in the Puget Sound.

Remember that dolphins are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends that boaters and paddlers maintain a 300-foot distance to prevent harassment. A small group of dolphins appear to have traveled north from their usual habitat in northern California and entered Puget Sound sometime in September 2017, when the initial sightings were reported to Cascadia. Since then, members of the public and organizations including Orca Network, Orca Conservancy and a local whale watching company, Island Adventures, have all spotted the dolphins. A photo taken by an Island Adventures naturalist, Tyson Reed, in Hale Passage on November 4, 2017 showed one dolphin with quite unique notches on its dorsal fin. This photo was sent to researchers in California where it was compared to three different photo-ID catalogs and the animal’s identity was confirmed as “Miss”. During the early-1990s, Daniela Maldini of Okeanis sighted Miss numerous times during her Masters work studying the northern range expansion of this stock as they moved into the Monterey Bay area, where Daniela’s catalog from those early years show pictures of miss every year from 1990-1995). In fact Miss was one of the pioneers in the area, earning her the ID #2 in the photo-ID catalog for Daniela’s study area.

Does Seattle have whales?
It’s whale-watching season in Seattle! If orca spotting is on your bucket list, now is your chance! Although orcas, gray whales, and humpback whales can be spotted in the Pacific Northwest year-round, May through October is the best time to look out for southern resident orcas.
Miss has been around for quite a while, with the earliest sightings in 1983 in Orange County, almost 35 years ago. She was later sighted in San Diego in 1985 (NOAA catalog, pg 413, warning large 1300 page file), and Santa Barbara in 1987. These sightings were all within the traditional range of the California coastal bottlenose dolphin stock, but with the warm waters of the 1982 El Niño, animals started moving north of Santa Barbara.If you see unusual marine mammal species, please contact Cascadia Research. We are interested in tracking the presence, behavior, and condition of these animals. Pictures and videos are appreciated, especially if they are in focus and have enough detail to identify the species or to see marks or nicks on the animal’s fins or bodies. These can help identify individual animals and to monitor their overall body condition. Email reports of sightings to David Anderson or call Cascadia’s office at 360-943-7325.

A few species of animals can look a lot like a dolphin, especially from a distance. We have created this short video to help people identify which species they are seeing. It combines information about distinguishing features and video clips of six marine mammal species including harbor porpoise, common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, Dall’s porpoise, Pacific white-sided dolphins, and killer whales. Many of these species, except for the harbor porpoise, are not commonly sighted in Puget Sound.
Remember that dolphins are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommends that boaters and paddlers maintain at least 50 yards away from dolphins and at least 300 – 400 yards away from killer whales to give them room to feed, travel, and stay together.In the late 20th century, the only small cetaceans you were likely to see in the Puget Sound were Dall’s porpoise. Harbor porpoise returned to the Puget Sound around 2000, and sightings of several dolphin species have been increasing since 2010. Sightings of common dolphins and bottlenose dolphins have increased considerably since 2016 and Pacific white-sided dolphins are seen from time to time.

When seeking out the magnificent creatures that call the Pacific Ocean home, it is important to bring along the proper gear. Weather in the Pacific Northwest varies greatly by season. Temperatures are usually cooler on the water, even during peak summer months and particularly during morning hours. Be sure to dress warm with extra layers handy to adjust to changing temperatures.
As of January 1, 2021, there were 74 salmon-eating orcas. There are several reasons why the numbers of our cherished whales may be dwindling. Yet, their diminishing food supply is clearly a leading cause and having a drastic impact on the species’ ability to survive. Salmon-eating orcas rely specifically on the Chinook salmon for more than 70% of their diet. An adult resident orca needs 100-300 pounds of food a day, which is about 40 salmon a day.There are few places in the world like the Pacific Northwest where one can find gray, minke, humpback as well as two types of orca whales all within reach on a Seattle whale watching trip. Let us introduce you to these remarkable mammals as you explore our Seattle whale watching guide.

Primarily solo travelers, but occasionally seen in groups of up to three whales, minke spend most of their time feeding. To eat, the whale takes in a huge gulp of water. Then, using its tongue, pushes the water back out of its mouth catching small fish and plankton in its bristly baleen “strainers.”Additionally, keep an eye out for their massive, 10-foot-wide tails when they start a dive. Similar to a fingerprint, the clusters of barnacles speckling their tails, head and bodies vary in shape, size and color and are unique to each animal.

One of the most impactful ways to help protect the ocean and our salmon-eating orca whales is through responsible wildlife viewing, by following the Pacific Whale Watching Association’s (PWWA) safe viewing guidelines. Whale watching vessels are often the first to spot and report problems involving whales, such as whale injuries or entanglements. The vessel also alerts nearby boaters to slow down and use caution when whales in the area via active radio communications and by flying the whale watching warning flag.
Buckmaster explains the mature whales have a risky feeding strategy to get ghost shrimp. She says, “Ghost shrimp are found very close to the shore, so gray whales will get right up to the beach during high tide when the water is at least 10 feet deep — just deep enough to submerge a gray whale. They then turn over onto their side, suck up a large mouthful of mud and silt from the sea floor and filter it out their baleen. This activity would be hazardous for a baby.”Buckmaster, states: “The gray whales of Puget Sound are called the ‘Sounders.’ They are the same 10 or so gray whales that return to this area almost yearly. The males return every year, while the females usually visit biennially. When the females have their calves with them on their migration to the Bering Sea, they skip Puget Sound.

Although minkes are not as acrobatic as orcas, you may be lucky and catch one of their rare water shows. They do breach, usually three times in a row, and make dolphin-esque dives into the water.While the mammal-eating orcas cruise through our waters around the same time of year as the salmon-eating orca whales, they do not share the same vocalizations as them. As such, there is no known socializing, interaction or breeding between the two types of orca whales. In fact, they seem to actively avoid each other.

According to former FRS Clipper naturalist, Justine Buckmaster, “Typically the dorsal fins on mammal-eating whales are very sharp and pointed, very triangular. Whereas on a salmon-eating orca, the fins are more curved in the back.” Buckmaster also noted the differences between the orcas’ saddle patches, the grayish-white marks found behind an orca’s dorsal fin.
One of the easiest ways to spot these massive creatures (they can reach up to 50-feet in length and weigh up to 35 tons – the equivalent of five adult male African elephants!) is to look for a high, heart-shaped misty jet of vapor from the whale’s blow when they surface.Like clockwork, the arrival of the gray whales in the waters off Washington signals the arrival of spring in the Pacific Northwest. True long-haul travelers, gray whales have one of the farthest migrations of any animals on the planet. These ultra-marathoners travel up to 12,000 miles round trip on their annual journey from the waters off Mexico’s Pacific Coast to the Bering and Chukchi Sea near Alaska.Once an infrequent sight in the Salish Sea, humpback whales are becoming frequent visitors to the Pacific Northwest. This “humpback comeback” is due to a rebounding North Pacific whale population, which now numbers more than 20,000.

IMPORTANT: In accordance with state whale watching regulations, FRS Clipper takes all precautions to not engage in any form of whale watching with salmon-eating orcas. Any sightings of salmon-eating orcas are reported to the appropriate partner agencies for the purpose of continued research and tracking of this population of whales.

The whales favor the PNW’s moderate temperatures in the summer, making May through early fall the best time to find minkes in Washington waters before they migrate to warmer locales during the winter.
The population had dwindled to about 1,600 before whale hunting was banned in 1966. Local naturalists also speculate the recent increase of whales in our region is due to the lack of sustainable food sources in their normal feeding areas further north. Clipper Naturalist, Stephanie Raymond, notes, “We experienced a massive resurgence of humpback activity in the Northwest unlike any other in recent history, with the group feeding in the Salish Sea in 2016 being the largest seen in more than 100 years.”

Often seen during the spring in the Salish Sea, mammal-eating orcas hunt other marine animals that feed on the herring in our waters from May to October. The whales’ food source is mainly seals, sea lions, porpoises and occasionally larger whale species.
Our team of expert, research-based naturalists also collect data in real time and report it back to whale research organizations such as The Whale Museum to track the health of local whales. While observing safe viewing guidelines and supporting Chinook salmon habitat restoration are two of the most important steps to protect southern resident killer whales, we strongly encourage also visiting the Center for Whale Research’s conservation page to learn more best practices to protect our cherished whales.

With spring bringing the Emerald City back to life, there are more opportunities than ever to embrace our sunnier weather and hop on an epic whale watching trip to catch sight of these amazing marine mammals. Whether it is your first time on the water or one of many, there is nothing more magical than seeing whales jump, splash and play in our local waters. You can rest assured you’ll get a whale of a view!Despite their differences in behavior, it is challenging to distinguish between the two types of orca whales physically. The largest of the dolphin family, both types of male orcas average 27 feet in length and weigh eight tons with dorsal fins growing as high as 6 feet. The females are smaller, growing to an average of 23 feet and weighing six tons. Yet, to the trained eye, it is possible to tell them apart by the subtle differences in their markings.

Weighing in at 40-tons and reaching up to 50-feet in length, humpbacks are the largest species of whale in the Salish Sea. They have dark gray backs and have a small crescent-shaped dorsal fin perched atop their humped back.
With their striking white and black markings and towering dorsal fins (they grow as high as six feet on male orcas, and up two feet on female orcas), there is a mystical quality to these iconic species that have occupied our waters for hundreds of years. To catch sight of them, watch the horizon for misty bursts of whale exhalation known as blow. This vapor is a sign a whale is coming to the surface to breathe. To spot a minke, watch for their broad, black back and small dorsal fin. If you’re still not sure you are looking at a minke, their white underside, white patches on both front flippers and a pale chevron behind their heads are clear giveaways. Migratory by nature, humpbacks spend their summers along the Pacific Northwest coast and return to winter breeding areas in either Hawaii or off the Central American coast. Buckmaster says, “Generally speaking, May-June through early fall is the best time to see humpbacks as they return to the Salish Sea to feed on spawning herring.”She continued, “On a mammal-eating orca, the saddle patch is all one solid color, and the shape is quite a bit wider than those on a resident orca. Likewise, the whale’s white eye patches slope downward slightly, while on a salmon-eating orca they are more horizontal and parallel with the white chin patch on their lower jaw.”

They also have long, pectoral fins that are lighter in color than the rest of their bodies. Individual humpbacks are recognizable by the shape and markings of their tail flukes at the beginning of a deep dive. These acrobatic performers are often popping out of the water for mighty breaches, twisting and whirling through the air. They have also been seen teaming up with other humpbacks to bubble net feed.
Roaming up and down the coast between Alaska and California, mammal-eating orcas travel together in small pods. The group is usually made up of one to seven whales, such as a mother and her direct offspring. These mammal-eating orcas have a thriving population, with, an estimated total population of 500, as of 2018.