Record number of Blue Whales Sighted Off Washington Coast (December, 2011)

Blue whale dorsal fin emerging from the water.

Blue whale fluke (tail) emerging from the water.

On 8 December 2011, six blue whales were sighted feeding off the Washington coast intermixed with humpback and fin whales. Blue whales are the largest animal that has ever lived and still endangered due to whaling. This is the most blue whales we know of ever being sighted off Washington and only the third confirmed sighting in the last 50 years. One of the previous sightings was also in winter (see 2009 report). The other sightings in 2009 were of single animals. Blue whales are more commonly seen off California in summer and fall. This lack of sightings off Washington could in part be because of the lack of survey effort in winter months off the Washington coast, a period where poor weather makes surveys difficult. 

The current sightings were part of a new research effort conducted by Cascadia Research in collaboration with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and supported by NOAA to learn more about the occurrence of endangered whales off Washington and Oregon. This three-year effort will include surveys, photographic identification, and satellite tagging to learn more about the large whales occurring in this region.

The most recent sightings came about as a result of one of these surveys. A concentration of whales (thought to be mostly humpback and fin whales)  had been spotted in the morning of 8 December by the WDFW vessel Corliss when it surveyed through an area about 25 miles off the coast of Westport. A smaller inflatable boat operated by Cascadia researchers Greg Schorr and John Calambokidis followed-up these sightings later that morning. They identified and photographed the whales including confirming the presence of at least six different blue whales. These images were photographically compared to Cascadia’s catalog of over 2,000 identified blue whales to search for previous sightings of these individuals based on their unique pigmentation patterns and dorsal fins. The four individuals’ ID number and their past sightings were:

  • ID CRC-323: Seen previously on 16 November 1987 off Monterey Bay, California.
  • ID CRC-1642: Seen 14 times in 2000, 2003, 2004,2007, and 2009 Santa Barbara Channel to Port San Luis area July to September, seen as a lead whale at least twice and thought to be a possible mom in 2004
  • ID CRC-1709: Seen 5 times 2001, 2005, 2007, July, Sept, and Oct SBC all except Sept 2005 in Crescent City
  • ID CRC-2117: Seen 3 times but all on 13 October 2004 off Crescent City, thought to be a lead in pair

We are still monitoring for a weather window to try to go back out to the area but have not been able to yet.

Blue whale dorsal fin emerging from the water.
Photographs taken on 8 December 2011 off Washington (John Calambokidis, Cascadia Research)