Stories told of unusual marine mammal visitors to Puget Sound waters

People in the Puget Sound area have been reporting some rare visitors to our waterway in recent years — including bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins, a sperm whale and even a ringed seal from the Arctic.

Bottlenose dolphins, such as these seen from a NOAA vessel on the East Coast, are being spotted more often in Puget Sound
Photo: Allison Henry, Northeast Fisheries Science Center

Sudden appearances of these marine mammals have come as a surprise, because the animals are outside their normal habitat. Puget Sound may be too cold or too warm or not deep enough for these animals to flourish, or so experts have thought.

I am always interested when I hear about strange visitors, and I was pleased to tell the stories of seven marine mammal species that are not supposed to be in Puget Sound. They include Miss and Stump, a pair of bottlenose dolphins that worked their way up the West Coast from Southern California and now seem to be making their home in the cooler clime of Puget Sound. Check out my story in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Why these visitors come here and why some of them stay may depend on the specific animals, according to John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research. It may be environmental conditions, human activities or other factors.

Perhaps fewer fishing nets and reduced pollution levels are responsible for a recent resurgence of harbor porpoises and humpback whales, which were once plentiful in Puget Sound but disappeared years ago.

“These animals are finding enough prey to survive,” John told me “but we’re not sure which prey that is. It’s a bit of a mystery.”

While it appears that we have more strange visitors these days, people also appear to be more intent on observing marine life in Puget Sound. Some of the increased sightings may simply be more human eyes and cameras focused on the water and more experts standing by to identify what people are seeing.

I could have mentioned a few other marine mammals spotted in Puget Sound, but they did not fit neatly into the category of “strange visitors.” Among them are the northern elephant seals, which may be undergoing a resurgence in Puget Sound after being hunted to near extinction on the West Coast.

Susan Berta of Orca Network, which is dedicated to reporting marine mammal sightings, told me that she has been getting scattered reports of elephant seals for the past decade or so. One colony has been established on Smith and Minor islands, west of Whidbey Island, she noted. Other pupping areas include Protection Island, Dungeness Spit and Race Rocks.

Ellie, the elephant seal, with her newborn pup Ellison, shown in this 2015 photo taken on Whidbey Island.
Photo: Jill Hein, Orca Network/Central Puget Sound Marine Mammal Stranding Network

“One female kept coming back to the same spot on Whidbey every year to molt, then three years ago she had a pup!” Susan wrote me in an email. “We named the female Ellie; her pup was a male, so named Ellison. Now Ellison comes back several times a year to another location … while his mom continues to come back to her first location.

“This year, she had another pup, a female we named Ellie Mae,” she added. “These are the first known pups born on Whidbey.”

Molting is a process in which elephant seals shed all their fur, so they tend to stay in the same place for up to a month each year, starting in March. The mother seal, Ellie, apparently found a place where area residents have been watching over her. Her son Ellison apparently chose a beach where his needs were not so well understood. Some nearby residents are trying to protect him, Susan said, while children and visitors in the area are educated about his needs and prevented from harassing the young seal.

According to Susan, state biologists placed a flipper tag on the new pup Ellie Mae, so they can keep track of where she goes and how she fares over time.

P.S. Susan wanted me to inform everyone that if they do see seals or sea lions on the beach to leave them alone, not only for the sake of the animal but also for the safety of people. “They are especially sensitive when hauled out on the beach during their molt. And they can be aggressive and have big teeth, so it could be dangerous for those doing the harassing as well.”

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