Rare sighting: 6 blue whales spotted off Washington coast

A record six blue whales were spotted off the Washington coast last week, the most known sightings of the species ever off the state’s coast and only the third confirmed sighting in the last 50 years, according to Cascadia Research.

John Calambokidis, a research biologist with the Olympia-based group, was in one of two research vessels that spotted the creatures about 25 miles from Westport. His research has taken him all over the world and he’s spotted blue whales elsewhere, but this was the first time he’s seen one off the Washington coast.

“It was quite exciting,” he said. “We knew right away the trip was worthwhile.”

He recognized the whale by the light and mottled complexion and the very small dorsal fin, but largely because of its size. Blue whales are the largest mammal on Earth, perhaps the largest animal ever, reaching lengths of 100 feet and weighing perhaps as much as 150 tons, according to the American Cetacean Society. The whales are found in all oceans of the world.

Calambokidis said it’s possible the whales are more prevalent, but scientists don’t often get to observe them due to poor weather in the Washington winter. Last week was a big improvement; skies were sunny, though conditions were windy, he said.

Last week’s expedition was part of a new three-year effort by Cascadia Research to learn more about endangered whales off Washington and Oregon, according to its website. The effort is in collaboration with the Washington and Oregon departments of fish and wildlife and supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The research will include surveys, photographic identification and satellite tagging.

Scientists want to learn more about the endangered whales, whose population dwindled due to whaling and continues to be threatened by collisions with commercial ships. Estimates are that there were once more than 350,000 blue whales globally, but that has dwindled to fewer than 14,000, according to the American Cetacean Society.

“Our knowledge of whale distribution still needs improvement,” Calambokidis said.

The sightings will be compared against Cascadia’s photographic record of more than 2,000 identified blue whales to see if the whales spotted last week had been spotted before.

“Interestingly, ships are often unaware that they’ve struck a whale, so that’s part of the issue,” he said. “It’s very difficult for them to take actions in real time to avoid a ship strike.”

There are proposals to change shipping lanes in California to avoid concentrations of the whales, Calambokidis said.

He said Cascadia Research plans another trip to see the whales for further research, but it’s not for sightseers. “We don’t recommend them trying to go out to find these animals,” he said.