Tag Archives: Cascadia Research

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.

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Can you identify these marine mammals seen in South Puget Sound?

Who the heck are these guys featured in this video posted on Facebook by meteorologist Nick Allard of KIRO-7 TV?

Pacific white-sided dolphins? Common dolphins? Dall’s porpoises? Harbor porpoises?

Based on the conflicting comments on Nick’s Facebook page, as well comments on reposts, a lot of people are insisting that they know what these animals are. But even some longtime Puget Sound residents got it wrong.

Annie Douglas of Cascadia Research took a look at the video, posted here with Nick’s permission. These creatures, she said, are long-beaked common dolphins.

Last summer, after these common dolphins first showed up, Annie wrote a blog post about their usual travels, noting that they are normally seen in Southern California and Mexico. It appears that they survived the winter a long way from home and have stayed in South Puget Sound, where Cascadia researchers are keeping track of their movements.

Rare long-beaked common dolphins have been spending time in South Puget Sound.
Photo courtesy of Nick Allard

They appear to be generally healthy, Annie said. She has heard reports of their feeding on small fish, and their energy level remains high as they “porpoise” out of the water and do other acrobatic feats.

Before this group showed up last year, the only previous confirmed sighting of long-beaked common dolphins was during the summer of 2003, when several individuals were seen in various locations, including the Boston Harbor area near Olympia, Dalco Passage near Tacoma and Whidbey Island.

Here’s how Annie describes the species:

“In appearance, they have a distinct black cape that extends into a saddle below their dorsal fin, a light underbelly, and a distinct dark eye to pectoral fin stripe. Their average length is 6-8.5 feet and they can weigh up to 500 lbs.

“They can be distinguished from harbor porpoise and Dall’s porpoise — the two species of porpoise commonly encountered in Puget Sound — by morphology, pigmentation, shape and behavior. Both porpoise species have fairly triangular dorsal fins, whereas the long-beaked common dolphin has a more ‘traditional’ falcate-shaped (curved) dorsal fin. Dall’s porpoise are all black with a white patch on their sides, and harbor porpoise are all gray-brown.

“Neither of the porpoise species expose much more than their back and dorsal fin when they surface, although Dall’s porpoise will often create a noticeable ‘rooster tail’ splash when swimming at top speed.

“Long-beaked common dolphins often leap out of the water so that much of their bodies are exposed, and they are also more likely to play in the wake of a boat than either of the local porpoise species. Pacific white-sided dolphins commonly found along Washington outer coast are occasionally found in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They behave similar to the long-beaked common dolphin; however, they have a larger dorsal fin and more complicated black, gray and white pigmentation.”

Annie asks that people report sightings to Cascadia and send along any photos and videos to ABDouglas(at)cascadiaresearch.org. Sightings also can be reported by phone, (360) 943-7325.

Annie reminds boaters to stay at least 100 yards from marine mammals (200 yards for killer whales). It is illegal to harass, chase, feed or otherwise interfere with them, as provided by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Rare bottlenose dolphin reported in Puget Sound

UPDATE, Sunday, Feb. 6:

I’m sorry to report that the bottlenose dolphin we’ve been talking about recently was found dead on a beach near Nisqually. The dead dolphin was spotted Tuesday in the area where it was last seen alive and swimming two weeks previously.

John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research reported that an examination of the animal on Thursday failed to reveal any obvious cause of death. The dolphin was thin, but it clearly did not starve to death. Significant skin lesions were evident, and examiners found hemorrhaging around the jaw. That would be consistent with what would have occurred from thrashing around on the beach.

The animal was a male who had not yet reached maturity.

Tissue samples were fresh enough to be sent away for microscopic examination, and tests will help determine the dolphin’s toxic load. Such pathology may or many not help determine the cause of death.

Cascadia Research is reporting a series of sightings of a bottlenose dolphin in Puget Sound — something that nobody expects to see in the cool waters of the Northwest.

A rare bottlenose dolphin has been sighted swimming around in the cool waters of Puget Sound.
Photo by Josh Oliver, courtesy of WDFW and Cascadia Research.

Does anybody remember Flipper from the television show in the 1960s? Of course, Flipper was a bottlenose dolphin, a creature normally found in tropical waters.

John Calambokidis of Cascadia reports that the dolphin was first spotted in mid-December around the Port of Tacoma. Since then, sightings have been reported in the Redondo Beach near Des Moines and most recently in Budd Inlet near Olympia, where the animal was seen starting Sunday.

Along the West Coast, bottlenose dolphins are typically seen as far north as Central California. Check out the map of its normal range from the American Cetacean Society.

John said he is aware of only two other occurrences of bottlenose dolphins in Puget Sound. The first was an adult male that washed up dead in Samish Bay near Bellingham in 1988. The other one showed up early last year and was seen in various places in South Puget Sound during June. It was assumed that this was the same animal that washed up dead near Steilacoom in Pierce County on July 18.

The dolphin traveling about Puget Sound at this time appears to be in a reasonably fit condition, according to a report on Cascadia’s website, but it does have some kind of skin condition. Cascadia, along with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network, are continuing to monitor the animal’s movements and condition.

Anyone who spots the dolphin is asked to call Cascadia at (360) 943-7325 or toll-free (800) 747-7329.

Photo by Josh Oliver, courtesy of WDFW and Cascadia Research.

Ethics came into question when rare whale was dying

UPDATE, Dec. 6
Late this afternoon, Cascadia Research posted preliminary results of a necropsy of the Bryde’s whale conducted today. Findings included the following:

  1. “The whale was an immature male measuring 34′ 5” which externally appeared to be a female but which internal examination determined was a male.
  2. “There were at least five significant injuries on the whale, not just the two that were visible when the whale was alive. The most serious was the one visible when the whale was alive and a close examination of this showed that this blow was not only deep but had sheered off the top portion of at least two vertebra. While this injury appeared to be the likely cause of death of the animal, close examination confirmed the sighting reports that this injury had occurred many weeks or months previously.
  3. “The cause of all the major injuries and death of the animal still appears to be one or more vessel strikes.
  4. “The whale was not in great nutritional condition with a fairly thin and not very oily blubber layer.”


The rare 40-foot whale that lingered in Totten Inlet near Shelton apparently died sometime Friday or early Saturday. Up until then, researchers were feeling helpless to assist the dying animal or even put it out of its misery.

A severe injury to the whale in Totten Inlet became apparent last week.
Photo courtesy of Cascadia Research

After its death, the whale was identified as a female Bryde’s whale, an extremely rare species in northern waters, let alone Puget Sound. Curiously, another Bryde’s (pronounced “broo-dess”) whale came into Puget Sound near the beginning of this year and also died in South Puget Sound. Check out the Jan. 19 report by Cascadia Research.

This second Bryde’s whale in Puget Sound was spotted on Nov. 25, although possibly related reports go back to Nov. 13. See Cascadia’s ongoing updates for details. A huge chunk of flesh was missing from the whale’s back, presumably caused by a large boat propeller.

When I talked to Cascadia’s John Calambokidis on Friday, I asked a series of questions about possible medical treatment for the animal and the potential for euthanasia — assuming researchers were convinced that the whale would die anyway. I was a little surprised to learn that John and others — including veterinarians — had already considered and rejected most options. They were feeling pretty helpless to do anything but wait.

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