Naturalists spot extremely rare fin whale in north Puget Sound

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Whale sightings are always a treat and if the sighting is of an extremely rare whale and that too unexpected one, it makes it all the more eventful and fascinating.

That’s exactly what happened with naturalists aboard the Chilkat Express. They spotted an extremely rare fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) apparently feeding about three miles south of Minor Island in north Puget Sound. Though the whale was at a distance from the observers, they were able to confirm that the whale was a fin whale. How?

Dr. Jonathan Stern, Professor of Marine Biology at San Francisco State University explains that fin whales have a very distinctive exhalation – a lingering blow that is very unique – and because of this they were able to say with certainty that the whale they spotted wasn’t a minke or humpback whale, but an extremely rare fin whale.

According to Stern, whale they spotted was most probably a young fin whale, healthy but a bit thin, with lots of Pennella (parasitic copepods).

The second-largest creature to live on Earth, fin whales, can reach to up to 85 feet and 75 tons and live up to 90 years. Fin whales have been listed as an Endangered Species in the US and one of the prime reasons they have achieved this status is because of the intensive commercial hunting off Vancouver Island.

With the hunting now banned, humpbacks have returned to these waters in full force, delighting researchers and whale watchers. The eastern north Pacific population, also known as the Hawai’i humpbacks, has recently been taken off the Endangered Species list. The first whale spotted regularly here was “Big Mama,” who has since brought in several of her calves.

“There always has to be that pioneer, that first one in to literally test the waters, and maybe this little fin whale is that pioneer,” explains Michael Harris of Puget Sound Express, who’s also a longtime Wildlife Specialist for ABC News and an Emmy Award-winning wildlife filmmaker.

“We had Big Mama usher in the ‘Humpback Comeback,’ and before that we had a gray whale we named ‘Patch’ start coming down to south Whidbey Island every spring for the ghost shrimp. We’ve seen Patch now for 23 straight years, and there’s about a dozen more grays who’ve followed his lead. We really know very little about this fin whale – we don’t even know if it’s healthy or not – but a lot of us are hoping that he, or she, is that first fin in, with many more to come.”

With an estimated 10,000 freighters and tankers transiting the Salish Sea every year, this juvenile fin whale and others to come will need to navigate quite a perilous path to recolonization. Large whales like fins are particularly prone to ship strikes, and because the sound of approaching ships is directed behind the ship and not forward, they’re often unaware of the danger.

“Sadly, the only time we ever see fin whales in these waters is when they’re stuck on the bow of an incoming ship,” continues Harris. “This may sound a little funny, but it’s really cool to see a live one out there for a change.”