Unprecedented sighting of newborn minke whale

UPDATE, MAY 12, 2014

In talking to Jon Stern of the Northeast Pacific Minke Whale project, I learned that the pictured minke calf does not appear to be a newborn after all. The young animal probably was born in January, the normal birthing time for minkes, and it is likely to be weened and learning from its mother how to hunt for food.

As far as I can tell, the other information below is accurate.

“The larger whale is a whale we’ve seen since 2005,” Jon told me. “We named the whale ‘Joan’ for Joni Mitchell.”

The first time the research team spotted this whale, it was swimming in circles, Jon explained. Jon started singing Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” (“And the seasons they go round and round …”). And the name “Joan” stuck.

The female has been seen with other calves, which are normally about 9 feet long when born and about 14 feet when weened at four or five months.

Seeing the whale with another young calf is a good sign that new individuals are being added to the Puget Sound population, which may now total more than 20 animals, Jon said.

Minke whales are faster than other whales and still the most mysterious whales seen in Puget Sound, he confirmed, adding, “The coolest whales are the minke whales.”
—–

A once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a newborn minke whale, accompanied by its mother, was reported last weekend near San Juan Island.

Shane Aggergaard of Island Adventures Whale Watching had this to say about it:

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures
A newborn minke whale swims with its mother near Heins Bank in the San Juan Islands on Saturday. (Click to enlarge.)
Photo courtesy of Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures Whale Watching

“I’ve been working these waters for over three decades now, and I talked to Ron Bates of Five Star Whale Watching and other researchers and skippers who have been here just as long or longer, and we’ve never seen anything like this. We do see minkes a lot, especially this time of year, and we’ve seen juveniles traveling with their mothers, but never a newborn.”

Shane made his comments in a news release issued by Michael Harris of Pacific Whale Watch Association, who noted that minkes are common residents of Puget Sound — but the sighting a newborn in local waters may be unprecedented.

“We’ve been keeping tabs on whales for almost 40 years and we’ve never seen a minke this young out there,” Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research was quoted as saying. “It’s an extremely interesting sighting. Let’s hope it means that the population is growing.”

Island Adventures Captain and Naturalist Brooke McKinley captured the photos on this page and others from the boat Island Adventurer 4. She has shared the pictures with whale researchers in our region. The mom and calf were spotted Saturday afternoon near Hein Bank, about five miles southwest of San Juan Island.

A newborn minke whale swims with its mother near San Juan Island Saturday. Photo courtesy of Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures Whale Watching
Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

Michael added his own perspective:

“Thanks to people like Ken Balcomb we know more about our resident killer whales here than any marine mammal population in the world. And yet we know very little about a species that also makes its home out here, the minke.

“It’s probably our most mysterious whale, and now we’ve just been given a rare glimpse of a newborn. The scientists we gave these photos to are kids in a candy store. This is a very special occurrence, and having these amazing images to review may provide a lot of clues to researchers.

“The more we learn about these minke whales, the better equipped we are to protect every creature out there.”

Here’s a description of the minke provided by Harris:

“The minke is a member of the rorqual family of whales (whales with baleen, a dorsal fin, and throat pleats) and spends very little time at the surface. It’s one of the fastest whales in the ocean, capable of speeds up to about 25 miles per hour. its blows are rarely visible and it disappears quickly after exhaling, making it difficult to spot – and to study.

“The minke is one of the smallest of baleen whales, with adults reaching a maximum of just about 33 feet and 10 tons. However, a good look at the minke underwater shows it to be one of the most beautiful of all cetacea, with a slender and streamlined body, dark on top and light-colored at the bottom, with two areas of lighter gray on each side, some with a light-colored chevron mark on their back and a white band on each flipper.

“They are often solitary animals, particularly in the Salish Sea, feeding primarily on krill and small schooling fish like herring.”

Minke whales are among the marine mammals I featured in the ongoing series “Taking the pulse of Puget Sound,” where I reported that at least a half-dozen minkes are believed to inhabit Puget Sound. The number is now believed to be more than 20. For management purposes the local minkes are grouped with a California/Oregon/Washington stock numbering between 500 and 1,000 animals. Nobody knows if the population is growing or declining.

Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures
Photo: Brooke McKinley, Island Adventures

4 thoughts on “Unprecedented sighting of newborn minke whale

  1. Unfortunately the press release and this account overlook the long-term study of minke whales in then Salish Sea. A letter from a researcher in this project wrote this letter to another news outlet that used the same press release:

    I am not sure whether to be excited by this report or thoroughly disappointed.
    Firstly I will say that there has been a dedicated minke whale research project focusing on the minke whales of the Salish Sea for almost 34 years so indeed we do actually know a fair amount about these creatures here particularly with regards to their foraging behaviour and that individuals show site fidelity -returning to the same place to feed year after year. There is also an awful lot that we do not know. We have reports of calves at this time of year before, but we have also had reports from experienced naturalists and boat captains of 3 ft minkes! (FYI they are 9ft when they are born….) Hopefully Jon Jonathan Stern and myself will be able to review the photos and see if the adult is animal that we have observed in the past and also if this indeed a newborn. In the mean time it seems timely to write both a blog post and perhaps a new article for the San Juan Islander about minke whales of the Salish Sea!!
    Frances Robertson

  2. I’m waiting to hear from this research team to see if they can shed any light on these minke whales. I’ve been aware of the minke whale research project and even contacted Jon Stern when I did my stories on marine mammals.

    There may be some question about how old this young minke whale is, and I will update this blog when I get more information.

    Still, this should not diminish the excitement of these experienced whale observers — and you have to admit that Brooke McKinley got some pretty nice photos.

  3. UPDATE, MAY 12, 2014

    In talking to Jon Stern of the Northeast Pacific Minke Whale project, I learned that the pictured minke calf does not appear to be a newborn after all. The young animal probably was born in January, the normal birthing time for minkes, and it is likely to be weened and learning from its mother how to hunt for food.

    As far as I can tell, the other information is accurate.

    “The larger whale is a whale we’ve seen since 2005,” Jon told me. “We named the whale ‘Joan’ for Joni Mitchell.”

    The first time the research team spotted this whale, it was swimming in circles, Jon explained. Jon started singing Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” (“And the seasons they go round and round …”). And the name “Joan” stuck.

    The female has been seen with other calves, which are normally about 9 feet long when born and about 14 feet when weened at four or five months.

    Seeing the whale with another young calf is a good sign that new individuals are being added to the Puget Sound population, which may now total more than 20 animals, Jon said.

    Minke whales are faster than other whales and they’re still the most mysterious whales seen in Puget Sound, he confirmed, adding, “The coolest whales are the minke whales.”

  4. A few years back I saw a Narwhal, traveling southward through the Port Townsend Ship Canal. No one believed me. I had plenty of time to look at it and identify it reliably, and it was only about 75 to 100 feet away from me at one point.

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