It’s the cloud of steamy vapor bursting 10-13 feet out of the water, hanging in the air. Other times it’s the resounding “sploosh!” of the whale’s tail against the water, as in one graceful movement, the massive creature below the surface dives to scoop up its next meal.

There’s no mistaking it, our beloved “Sounders,” the gray whales that come each spring into the Possession Sound and Saratoga Pass areas, are back! Knowing the gray whales will only be in town a few weeks at most, we block out time on our calendars to catch sight of these fascinating animals.

As we cruise through the waters San Juan Clipper on a Seattle gray whale watching trip, our eyes are peeled, noses pressed against the glass and binoculars at the ready as we search for a chance to see our familiar visitors. Until then, here are a few facts our knowledgeable onboard naturalists have picked up about the ways of the whales.

Seattle Gray Whale Watching Day Trip

1. One Fearless Gray Whale is Always the First to Arrive

Like the changing of the tide, the arrival of the gray whales in Washington each March signals the arrival of Spring in the Pacific Northwest. For the past few years, a male whale identified with the number 53 and given the moniker “Little Patch,”  and has lead the charge and been the first gray whale to arrive in the Puget Sound.

2. Gray Whales are Relative Newcomers to the PNW

Our celebrated “Sounders” are recent additions to the Pacific Northwest family, as there is no record the gray whales regularly visited the Puget Sound before the 1990s. Scientists believe these magnificent mammals began frequenting our waters when food was scarce and kept coming back after they discovered the dense beds of tasty ghost shrimp. Only a handful, about 10-12, whales are aware of this delicious secret that lies between Whidbey and Camano Islands.

3. They are Able to Scarf Down Ghost Shrimp Without any Teeth

Unlike our other famous locals, orcas, gray whales use baleen instead of teeth catch their prey. This structure is similar to the bristles on a push broom and hangs from inside the roof their mouth. There are about 130-180 of these overlapping “bristles” or plates that are about 10 inches long and frayed at the bottom and positioned right next to the tongue.

When they dine, the whales gulp up mud and water along with their food. After the whale closes its mouth, the debris and water are forced back out through the baleen, while the frayed ends of the plates catch and hold their dinner morsels in place, to be slurped up by their tongue.

The 50-foot-long gray whales use their giant jaws to scoop up mouthfuls of shrimp.
The 50-foot-long gray whales use their giant jaws to scoop up mouthfuls of shrimp.

4. They are Either “Righties” or “Lefties”

Just as humans are usually either right or left-handed, gray whales have a preference for the way they roll. They turn exactly 90 degrees to either the right or left side when feeding in shallow mudflats. A close look at their baleen plates shows wear on their preferred side from scraping on bottom sediments.

5. The Whales Have More Than One Favorite Food

Gray whales are equal opportunity feeders, they can go high or low. They either scoop their muddy waters of the bottom of the Sound or they cruise along the top of the water and snack on herring and crab larvae.

A gray whale spyhops to get peak of what's going on above water. Credit: Justine Buckmaster / Clipper Vacations Naturalist
A gray whale spyhops to get a peek of what’s going on above water. Credit: Justine Buckmaster / Clipper Vacations Naturalist

6. Their Unique Skin Causes Them to Stand Out From the Crowd

Slate gray in color, it comes as no surprise gray whales get their moniker from their mottled skin. Their hide is complemented by a splash or two of orange and white patches that turn out be caused by parasitic whale lice. These tiny organisms are not the hitchhikers who hop on the whales for a ride. Not long after the whales are born, barnacles affix themselves to the grays, adorning the whale’s heads, flippers and tail with round, white clusters.

Other white and light gray spots on the gray whale’s body are scars in the form of bite marks or jagged scrapes and scratches. They are usually badges of honor, showing they have been in battles (usually with Orcas) and lived to fight another day.

7. Their Massive Tail Flukes are the Whale’s Own Personal Fingerprint

When it comes to spotting whales, most of the time if you blink you will miss them. One of the easiest ways to identify the individual whales is by watching for their massive, 10-foot-wide tails as they propel themselves beneath the water’s surface. Similar to a fingerprint, the clusters of barnacles speckling their tails vary in shape, size and color and are unique to each gray whale.

8. They are One of the Animal Kingdom’s Greatest Long-Haul Travelers

Getting to the waters of the Salish Sea is no small feat for these intrepid leviathans. One of the animal kingdom’s greatest migrators, each year the gray whales make an impressive 5,000-mile journey from Mexico to the icy waters of the Bering and Chukchi Seas near Alaska. The marathon trek takes the gray whales 2-3 months to complete, with the first whales leaving the Baja blue lagoons in February and March.

The magnificent mammals make a pit stop in Washington’s waters to feed before they head to the far north for the summer. Here they bulk up for, building up a ten-inch layer of blubber to live off of for the cruise back to Mexico. Back in the warmer waters, they welcome new members to their family as the mothers calve.

A whale flukes out of the water, propelling itself beneath the water's surface. Photo: Jason Mihok
A whale flukes out of the water, propelling itself beneath the water’s surface. Photo: Jason Mihok

9. The Whales Outweigh the Largest of Land Mammals

At birth, new baby grays are about 15-16 feet long and weigh 1,600-2,000 pounds. All grown up, the whales reach up to 50 feet in length and weigh up to 35 tons. That’s equivalent to five adult male African elephants!

10. They Abide by Strict Time Table for Meals

Gray whales love to roll in the mud, sometimes feeding in shallow waters, which are sometimes only seven to eight feet deep. To keep from getting beached with the changing tides, they approach their feeding grounds as the tide is coming in, and are sure not to stay more than one hour as the tide starts going back out.

11. They will Do Anything to Protect Their Young but are Gentle Giants at Heart

With their rough, barnacle-covered hide, gray whales appear to have a tough exterior. According to NOAA, “gray whales used to be known as ‘devilfish’ because they fiercely defend themselves and their calves against whalers” and have been known to hold their own against attacking orcas. Yet despite their appearance, the whales are friendly and will swim alongside boats to people watch.

12. The Whales Have the Most Eye-Catching Spouts Around

Spouting heart-shaped misty jets of vapor each time they blow; these big softies may seem like they are a sending you messages of love. This unique shape is created by the whale’s dual blowholes and helps you spot the mammals from a distance.

With two blowholes, gray whales often produce blow in the shape of a heart. Photo: Justine Buckmaster / Clipper Vacations Naturalist
With two blowholes, gray whales often produce blow in the shape of a heart. Photo: Justine Buckmaster / Clipper Vacations Naturalist

13. These Talented Singers Know How to Project Their Voices

If while cruising the waters, a low-pitched moan, warbling whine or hollow knocking sound catches your ear, there’s a good chance your hearing a gray whale “sing” as a way of communicating with its neighbors. Scientists are unsure what these sounds mean, but they can be heard over distances of a mile or more.

14. The Whales Once Were on the Brink of Extinction

Few creatures dare to battle the mighty gray whale. Except for man and orcas. According to National Geographic, the whaling industry decimated their numbers, hunting them to the edge of extinction in the late 19th century and early 20th century. In 1973 the grays were put on the endangered species list and in 1994 they received protection from an international law banning whale hunting. Luckily, there is a fairytale ending to this story. As a result of the bans, the number of gray whales has rebounded about 20,000 whales, taking them off the endangered list.

With spring bringing the Emerald City back to life, now is the perfect time to embrace our sunnier weather and is your best bet for spotting our favorite 35-ton visitors. Check out the video below for a sneak peek at what it is like to glimpse these fascinating marine mammals in person!

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