Home USA News A juvenile humpback whale is spotted near Purdy’s Jetty on Fox Island

A juvenile humpback whale is spotted near Purdy’s Jetty on Fox Island

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Whales are not uncommon in Puget Sound and the greater Salish Sea, but it is a special sight when one (or a pod) spends time in our southern estuary.

For several weeks, the teal whale has been feeding around Purdy’s Sandbar, as well as Raft Island and Fox Island. Identified as Malachite (CRC19820), it exhibited striking tail lobes, lunge feeding and breaching. For several days near Purdy, he was accompanied by a huge raft of sea lions swimming through the water to feed on what looked like herring, which is farmed in the area.

Humpback whales are found in oceans around the world and are protected in the US under the Endangered Species Act. They are known for traveling huge distances each year from feeding grounds in cooler waters to warmer waters for breeding. According to NOAA, some humpback whales migrate from Alaska to Hawaii, a journey of 3,000 miles in just 28 days. The longest known humpback migration distance is 5,000 miles.

So what is Malachite still doing in the frigid waters of the Sound? And why did he decide to stay?

Orca Network (https://www.orcanetwork.org) follows whales around the Salish Sea, providing the latest whale sightings, news, issues and educational materials about Salish Sea whales.

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Malachite the humpback whale swims near Purdy’s Sandbar in November 2022. Carly Wester

Notably, they are a great resource for citizen reports of sightings around the Salish Sea.

Their Malachite reports note that it has been feeding throughout the inner Puget Sound since October. Before that he was in Saratoga Passage for about six weeks.

Malachite was one of a record 21 calves born in the Salish Sea in 2021. His mother, BCX1201 Slate, was spotted off Vancouver Island in May 2021 with baby Malachite swimming alongside (https://www.vancouverislandwhalewatch.com/recent-sightings/2021/5/26/may-25th-humpback-whale-slate-with-her-new-calf). Humpback whales are known to stay with their mothers for five months to a year, feeding on high-fat milk. At the age of about a year and a half, Malachit is still young. In fact, according to NOAA, humpbacks don’t reach puberty until ages 4-10 (males are often on the other half of that spectrum at ages 7-10).

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Malachite the humpback whale swims near Purdy’s Sandbar in November 2022. Carly Wester

What is a young humpback whale doing in Puget Sound this time of year?

Perhaps that’s why malachite has remained in Puget Sound for the past few months.

Several Salish Sea whale groups have spotted and observed young animals wintering in the Salish Sea to feed. Since they are not old enough to reproduce, they stay around the feeding grounds.

Humpbacks feed on krill (shrimp-like crustaceans) and small fish, filtering vast amounts of water through their whisker plates. These plates act as a sieve to filter the food (think of straining pasta noodles in a colander). South Sound – particularly the Purdy Sand Spit – was abundant with inshore forage fish, believed to be Pacific herring, in November. These fish spawn in the spring, and in the fall, the young begin to move into deeper waters. Herring, which is an important part of the food web, feeds on phytoplankton and zooplankton. They are eaten by both marine and terrestrial animals (from invertebrates, fish and marine mammals to birds, mink and even black bears).

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Malachite the humpback whale swims near Purdy’s Sandbar in November 2022. Carly Wester

Notably, herring is a major food source for humpback whales and may be another reason Malachite has been stuck in southern Puget Sound lately.

However, wintering in Puget Sound is not without its risks. As humpback populations grow in the Salish Sea, so do ship strikes. The growth of shipping in our region continues to pose a threat to humpback whales. As our state continues to manage risks, sharing, educating, and using our voice are ways to protect these creatures. And boaters should always be aware of whales (https://www.bewhalewise.org). Reduce speed to 7 knots within ½ mile of whales and maintain distance (minimum 100 yards).

To keep up with news and spotting Malachite, the Orca Network reports sightings daily on its Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/OrcaNetwork).

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Carly Wester has been writing an environmental column for The Peninsula Gateway since 2019. Her story focuses on the intersection of humans and nature—from adventures in the west to our environment and the rich history surrounding it. Her documentaries have been screened internationally and her writing has been published locally and regionally.

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