A pod of beluga whales in the pacific ocean. (NOAA/NMFS/National Marine Mammal Laboratory photo)

White whale, red flag | Guest column

  • Thu Oct 14th, 2021 1:30am
  • Life

Submitted by Michael Harris, Seattle-based ABC News Wildlife Specialist and former Executive Pacific Whale Watch Association Executive Director.

It’s been confirmed by NOAA Fisheries — it looks like we had a wayward beluga whale cruising through Puget Sound last week, the first confirmed sighting of Delphinapterus leucas in these waters since April 1940. This lone “white whale,” as it’s also known, was sighted heading past Elliott Bay in Seattle, and then documented near Tacoma. This is more than 1,000 miles south of its typical range in Alaska and the Arctic.

Cool to see a beluga here, but far from good news. It’s clearly another symptom of climate chaos, one that we’ve been seeing and reporting now for a decade or more. However, some don’t see it that way.

“I can’t explain why it’s here and haven’t heard anyone else come up with a plausible theory,” Howard Garrett with Orca Network said in an email (“Rare white whale sighted off Seattle and Tacoma: a wayward beluga,” by John Ryan, National Public Radio, October 5, 2021). “Sometimes whales and dolphins just seem to go for a walkabout.”

Breaking news, folks: Belugas don’t usually walkabout 1,000 miles away from their range. They’re not migratory. This is a desperate and dangerous search for food, from what could very well be an individual from the highly endangered Cook Inlet population.

No plausible theory?

When I was Executive Director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association between 2011 and 2016, I was able to confirm, document and report to research institutions and the media several unprecedented cetacea sightings here in Puget Sound, including a 70-foot fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) we documented from our boat in 2015, the first confirmed report of the species here since 1930 (“Fin whale makes appearance in north Puget Sound,” Associated Press, September 6, 2015). I also reported the first local sighting in a half-century of a very rare and critically endangered North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica), a gaunt, propeller-injured individual spotted near Neah Bay in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 2013 [“Recent observations of critically endangered North Pacific right whales (Eubalaena japonica) off the west coast of Canada,” John K. B. Ford, James F. Pilkington, Brian Gisborne, Timothy Frasier], one of only about 30 animals thought to remain in the waters off Alaska. We reported yet-another fin whale visit to the Sound in 2016, and later that summer the first-ever live sighting in these waters of a pod of short-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus delphis), which I was able to confirm with the help of the great John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia.

I also trumpeted the return of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) to the Salish Sea, a species extirpated here 50 years ago by commercial whaling on Vancouver Island. I dubbed it “the Humpback Comeback” in the world’s media, and it stuck — both the boom and the term. Humpback whale watching is now the top species PWWA whale watch boats view, taking pressure off our critically endangered resident killer whale population (which was my objective).

This ain’t your daddy’s Puget Sound anymore; this is what anthropogenic climate change looks like. The whales we used to see seemingly every day — i.e., Southern resident orcas, Dall’s porpoises, Pacific white-sided dolphins — are now rare sightings. I haven’t seen a Dall’s off my home in Ballard in a decade, whereas every morning I’d expect to see that signature rooster-tail wake of pods passing through at 30 knots. Meanwhile, tropical/subtropical species are moving in from the south, and Arctic and subarctic cetacea are coming down from the north. And there’s simply not enough food for everyone. And while one of my tasks as head of PWWA was to promote sustainable wildlife viewing, and even though these global-reaching reports did the trick and generated international interest and as my clients said, “put a lot of asses in seats,” my job and duty as a conservationist was also to try to explain why these crazy sightings were happening — as I did in the Victoria Times Colonist in the common dolphins report:

“It was a very interesting sighting in many ways,” said Michael Harris, from the Seattle-based Pacific Whale Watch Association. “But they don’t belong here.” (“Dolphins in Salish Sea Signal Warming Worries,” Sarah Petrescu, Times Colonist, June 14, 2016).

I’m proud that under my tenure PWWA consistently led each rare sighting report with an equal measure of climate concern, as we did with the fins and humpbacks media:

“The return of the whales might indicate the health of the ocean as a whole has declined to the point where they are unable to find enough food in their historic foraging grounds, forcing them to head farther east in their never-ending search for sustenance, Harris said. ‘There’s no question that ocean conditions are playing a big role here,’ Harris said. Such conditions include excessive algae bloom on the Pacific Coast, ocean acidification and warming waters, he said. ‘Sub-optimal foraging conditions in some of those historic and nutritional areas for these animals might be forcing the whales to explore ‘new places to find food.’” (“Return of Fin, Humpback Whales to Salish Sea Could be Both a Positive and Negative Sign,” by Chris McDaniel, Sequim Gazette, Aug. 3, 2016.)

Don’t get me wrong; encountering a beluga in the Sound is like coming face-to-face with a unicorn — or as I said about the fin whale here, like “seeing a brontosaurus in your backyard.” They are beautiful, brilliant creatures, and sadly, stolen away to marine parks as much or more than any marine creature. My friends Jeff Foster and Lori Marino and their Whale Sanctuary Project are currently up to their chins returning captive belugas to the wild, because there are simply so many to rescue. (Go to whalesanctuaryproject.org to learn more.)

Here’s the page one Seattle Times story from 71 years ago, of what then was an unknown “beastie” seen by locals:

“Too big for a seal or a porpoise, too small for a whale maybe it was a sea cow or something that barged through the Narrows Tuesday morning on its merry way alone toward Olympia… Several eyewitnesses agreed they couldn’t identify what brand of sea cow it was… at any rate, whatever it was, it headed for Olympia to speak to the governor.”

Time for all of us to speak to Gov. Jay Inslee, and to take that discussion to Washington, D.C., and the elected leaders now obstructing government action to curb the climate crisis. Our oceans are dying and these are the symptoms.

White whale, red flag. All of these crazy sightings, cool as they may be for both whale watchers and scientists, aren’t happening because the animals want to be here. It’s because they have to be.