MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Every spring, gray whales migrate up the West Coast, making an epic 6,000-mile journey from Mexico to Alaska. After decades of conservation, the species came back from the brink of extinction due to overhunting. Scientists are now monitoring an unusual mortality event in the population from lack of food. But as Bellamy Pailthorp from member station KNKX reports, a small group of gray whales is surviving by taking an annual detour into Puget Sound.
BELLAMY PAILTHORP, BYLINE: If you take a beach walk in springtime around Whidbey or Camano Island north of Seattle, there's a good chance you could spot a 40-foot-long gray whale feeding in the shallows just offshore. It's a risky maneuver done at high tide.
HOWARD GARRETT: They roll on their side, and they come into water that is sometimes no deeper than they are thick.
PAILTHORP: Howard Garrett is a co-founder of the Orca Network and the Langley Whale Center on Whidbey Island.
GARRETT: So when they're on their side, their flukes and their pectoral fins are out in the air.
PAILTHORP: The danger is stranding if they don't time it right with the tides. He says this intriguing behavior is unique to a small group of whales that scientists and locals have dubbed the Sounders. Normally, gray whales wait till they get to the Arctic to eat - tiny crustaceans all summer long. But for about 30 years now, researchers have observed them here every spring. They feed on ghost shrimp that burrow beneath the sand in North Puget Sound. Garrett says the Sounders are made up of a core group of about 12 known individuals.
GARRETT: So these few - a very few out of about 20,000 or so that are out in the Pacific - know that this is where they can grab a good snack, hang out for a month or so, fill up and then continue up to the Bering Sea.
PAILTHORP: From her boat off Whidbey Island, naturalist Jill Hein scans the horizon for the whales.
JILL HEIN: You see something?
PAILTHORP: She says you have to look for sprays of water, some up to 15 feet high.
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HEIN: That was a nice look at his head.
PAILTHORP: The whale disappears. And then suddenly, it surfaces right in front of the boat, and its huge tail emerges briefly.
HEIN: Oh, I think that's Dubknuck, woohoo (ph). Oh, shoot. Oh, no. Did you get it? I took my camera down. I think it's Dubknuck.
PAILTHORP: Hein confirms his identity using photos to compare the unique scar patterns and markings left by barnacles on his skin. Dubknuck, No. 44, is Hein's favorite Sounder.
HEIN: They're not the kind of whales that are going to be jumping and breaching and doing all kinds of fancy stuff, but they're just special because we know them. They're familiar. You know, we've become attached to them.
PAILTHORP: That familiarity is thanks to three decades of work by John Calambokidis, a research biologist and founder of Cascadia Research in Olympia. He discovered the first pair of Sounders and their distinctive feeding behavior in 1990. He says Dubknuck was first seen in '91, meandering around South Puget Sound near Olympia.
JOHN CALAMBOKIDIS: Almost wandering around - and it wasn't until he seemed to arrive in that northern Puget Sound area around Whidbey Island, obviously ran into some of the other Sounder gray whales...
PAILTHORP: Dubknuck stayed.
CALAMBOKIDIS: ...And started feeding there. And now every year, he knows to come back just to that spot. We don't see him wander around anywhere, makes a beeline right for that spot. And then when they leave, they disappear out of the area.
PAILTHORP: Not all the gray whales who come into the sound looking for food succeed. But Calambokidis says they've noticed an increase in the number of newcomers who try during unusual mortality events like the one that's going on now. These deaths are linked to a lack of food for gray whales in their normal feeding grounds in the Arctic, perhaps because of warming oceans. What impresses him is that all of the known Sounders, every one of them, has survived the mass die-offs.
CALAMBOKIDIS: The whales that we started documenting in 1990, '91, have now been through two unusual mortality events. And what's remarkable is their degree of longevity and survival of that, and I think that's a testament that this is a really successful strategy for them.
PAILTHORP: A testament, Calambokidis says, to how adaptive the Sounders are - they knew they were hungry and have figured out how to find a new source of food.
For NPR News, I'm Bellamy Pailthorp in Seattle.
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