SEATTLE — In a flash of white out of the blue, a beluga whale has been seen at least six times around Puget Sound since Sunday, the first such sightings since 1940.
It began Oct. 3 with a report from the south end of Fox Island, then another from Point Defiance, and then in Commencement Bay. In the fourth sighting, the whale was reported at West Seattle and on the fifth it was aglow in the waters of the Bremerton Ship Yard, according to Michael Milstein, spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration West Coast Region.
There is no way to know why the whale is far from its home and family in Southcentral Alaska’s Cook Inlet, or other populations in the Arctic and subarctic waters of the U.S. and Canada.
But there are several possible explanations, said Paul Wade, a research fisheries biologist based at NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Sand Point. He leads research on the endangered population of belugas at Cook Inlet.
On the bright side, this could be an animal exploring new habitat. A bleaker possibility is that the fish-eating beluga is starving and so desperate for food it has strayed far from its usual foraging areas. Or it could be suffering domoic acid poisoning from a red tide.
Domoic acid is a naturally occurring neurotoxin produced by harmful algal blooms. It can be ingested by whales in their food and disrupt the part of their brain that aids in navigation.
There is no indication that the whale is sick, Wade said. If NOAA determines an approach could be attempted, researchers will probably try to get a boat out and photograph the whale. That could help determine if it is a member of the endangered Cook inlet population, Wade said.
Scratches, scarring and other such marks on belugas’ bodies are used by researchers to create a photographic catalog by which to track the whales.
It is unusual to see a beluga not only here, but apparently alone. Belugas are social animals that usually travel with at least a few others. This animal appears to be an adult, judging by its color, Wade said. Belugas are gray at birth but become pure white as they mature.
Called canaries of the sea because of the chirps, whistles and calls they make, belugas eat fish, primarily Chinook in summer. But they diversify their diet through the year, also eating coho, eulachon or smelt, Pacific cod, pollock, flounder and shrimp. Belugas in their home waters will aggregate in large groups to take advantage of prey, such as eulachon or salmon staging at the mouth of a river.
In addition to their startling color, belugas have behaviors that set them apart. They tend to lift their whole head out of the water to take a breath. And unlike other whales and dolphins with fused vertebrae in their necks, belugas’ necks are flexible.
“It makes them really different to be around — they will turn their head and look at you,” Wade said.
Like orcas, belugas hunt by echolocation, enabling them to nail fish even in opaque, silty water. Top predators, only marine mammal-hunting transient orcas are known to take on a beluga.
While seeing a beluga in these waters is rare, it is not unheard of. A beluga made news when it turned up off San Diego last year. A beluga was found dead in Baja not long after, perhaps the same animal.
There is only one other known sighting of a beluga outside of its home range in the Pacific, oddly also near Point Defiance. The April 24, 1940, edition of the Tacoma Times carried the story of an unknown grayish, whitish sea mammal seen by the locals as page-one news:
“Too big for a seal or a porpoise, too small for a whale maybe it was a sea cow or something that barged through the Narrows Tuesday morning on its merry way alone toward Olympia,” the newspaper reported. “Flipping its tail and spouting a feeble spray upward toward the towers of Narrows bridge ... the saltwater beastie entertained the natives by coming close in to shore and performing for them. Several eye witnesses agreed they couldn’t identify what brand of sea cow it was ... at any rate, whatever it was, it headed for Olympia to speak to the governor.”
A report on social media by boaters in Point Defiance last Sunday revealed onlookers just as bewildered and astonished.
The West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network is on standby to respond to further sightings of the beluga to collect ID photos, assess the whale’s health, try to record sounds it makes and possibly get genetic samples, Milstein said.
As always, boaters must keep their distance from any marine mammal.