Rare marine mammals sighted in Salish Sea
The Salish Sea has been alive with rare cetaceans lately. Risso’s dolphins were sighted Friday near Nanaimo in the Strait of Georgia, and last week a fin whale was spotted foraging for food near a popular beach in North Seattle.
The Risso’s dolphins were first seen Thursday morning in the waters off Campbell River and again later in the afternoon near Nanoose. Almost a dozen of the dolphins were observed to be travelling south in Strait of Georgia near Nanaimo Friday morning.
“They’re a very gregarious species and often they can travel in groups of 50 to 100 or so,” said John K.B. Ford, research scientist emeritus at Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Pacific Biological Station Nanaimo.
“They’re found mostly in warmer waters like off California.”
Ford says in the summer months the Risso’s dolphins can be spotted off the west coast of Vancouver Island and near Haida Gwaii. He says they are rarely found in the inshore waters of Vancouver Island, especially in the Strait of Georgia.
“The last sighting that I’m aware of is a series of sightings in August and September 1978,” said Ford. “This is the first series of sightings in the Strait of Georgia since the late 1970s.”
Ford says the Risso’s dolphin is large and is sometimes called a “small whale.” They have a very distinctive look. He says as they age, they get more white in colour and appear to have “teeth rakes” all over their bodies, which makes them unique.
“This is quite unusual to see them and this time of year and to see them in the Strait of Georgia,” said Ford. “They’re not a very common species for British Columbia generally because they’re found mostly further off shore and rarely come to inside-waters.”
Ford says the dolphins he saw near Nanaimo Friday appeared to be healthy animals and were behaving normally. How they came to be in the strait is unclear.
“Probably they came down through the north end of Vancouver Island through Johnson Strait,” said Ford. “We left them heading south and no doubt they’ll be seen again in the coming days.”
Ford says he’s not sure where the Risso’s will end up, but he hopes they continue through Juan de Fuca Strait and go back to California.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen them in the Strait of Georgia (and) it’s just a real treat to be able to watch them,” said Ford. “They looked in great shape, healthy, so for such a rare event it’s just a fascinating thing to witness.”
The sighting of the Risso’s dolphins hasn’t been the only sighting of a rare cetacean in the Salish Sea this month. From Jan. 9 to 16 a fin whale was spotted foraging for food in the waters off a popular beach in North Seattle.
The confirmed sighting of the fin whale is so rare that it is only the third time the species has been seen in Puget Sound since 1930.
“Fin whales are a lot more common off-shore, but in coastal waters they are still quite rare, especially in Puget Sound,” said Bay Cetology director Jared Towers.
“Fin whales travel long distances and they need to move around in open waters,” he said. “In coastal waters, they may be prone to attacks from killer whales.”
Towers says that the large cetaceans are also likely to be hit by ships if they remain in coastal waters.
“Almost half of the fin whale sightings in costal waters off southern B.C. and northern Washington unfortunately have been of dead fin whales,” said Towers. “One thing that is for certain, the population is increasing and as it’s increasing we’re more likely to see a few here and there in coastal waters.”
Towers says the fin whale is a threatened species in Canada and is still recovering after the numbers of whales were greatly diminished by the whaling industry of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“There were literally thousands taken by whalers in the late 1800s and early 1900s,” said Towers.
The fin whale can reach lengths of more than 27 metres and can weight as much as 74 tonnes. It is the second largest animal on earth after the blue whale.
Despite their size, fin whales are sometimes prey for killer whales. Fin whales are baleen whales that feed primarily on krill and occasionally small fish.
With only three confirmed sightings of the massive cetacean in the Salish Sea in more than 90 years, the sighting in Puget Sound is rare. Though the animal hasn’t been spotted in Puget Sound for a number of days, it could still be in the area.
“It’s January, there’s not a lot of people on the water compared to the summer time, this fin whale could be anywhere in Juan de Fuca Strait or Puget Sound (and) it’s only a matter of time before it’s seen again,” said Towers. “It also could’ve just as easily swam back out Juan de Fuca Strait and is back in offshore waters.”
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