‘At first I thought it was a sea lion, but then I saw the prop wash was kind of bizarre’

Whale swims alongside dock in Bellingham’s Hilton Harbor Marina

A whale swims alongside a dock in the Hilton Harbor Marina in Bellingham, Wash., Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019.
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A whale swims alongside a dock in the Hilton Harbor Marina in Bellingham, Wash., Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019.

John Russell had just pushed a boat away from a fueling station at Bellingham’s Hilton Harbor Thursday afternoon, Aug. 15, and was watching it turn and leave when he saw something surface near the boat.

“At first I thought it was a sea lion,” Russell, the boat yard supervisor at Bitter End Boatworks, told The Bellingham Herald, “but then I saw the prop wash was kind of bizarre, and I saw it go down the channel toward the Coast Guard station.”

What Russell ended up seeing was something he said nobody could remember seeing in the small Hilton Harbor channel — a gray whale, he estimated to be 25 to 30 feet long.

“No one has heard of one in the channel,” Russell said, “and it didn’t stay long. It just cruised in, turned around down by the Coast Guard station and left. I saw it breach once more past the breakwater at the Bellwether.”

Russell said he had seen a few whales while sailing on the bay a few years ago, but nothing like he witnessed Thursday.

“It definitely didn’t seem like a normal place for one to be, and that made me wonder if it was sick or aging,” Russell said.

After watching the video, John Calambokidis, the founder and a research biologist for the Cascadia Research Collective, told The Bellingham Herald that the whale appeared to be a juvenile gray whale.

Approximately 25,000 gray whales migrate through Washington state waters annually, Calambokidis said, and there are others that reside and feed in the area.

Unfortunately, 2019 has been an record year for gray whale mortality, with 34 deaths reported in Washington state — previous high mortality years were in the mid 20s, Calambokidis said.

“With that high mortality event this year, we’re seeing an increased number of emaciated and malnourished living whales swimming and showing up in unusual areas,” Calambokidis told The Herald.

With most gray whales already migrating north, Calambokidis said that was certainly a possibility for the whale seen Thursday and Hilton Harbor.

“When whales show up in unusual locations like this, especially in a year like we’re having, it doesn’t bode well,” Calambokidis said, adding that there was nothing in the video to suggest trouble for this whale other than the general location, timing and the high mortality this year.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.