Baleen Whales in the San Juan Islands
Humpback, Gray, and Minke Whales
The waters surrounding the San Juan Islands are home to a variety of other large marine wildlife, including baleen whales. Humpbacks and Grays migrate through these waters seasonally, while Minke are spotted regularly all times of the year.
An adult humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) can grow to 52 feet in length and weigh approximately 45 tons. The Latin scientific name roughly translates to “Big-Winged New Englander.” Humpbacks are most well known for their complex song, in which only the males sing. Humpback whales typically migrate up to 16,000 miles each year, some as much as 20,000 miles! They only feed in the summer, while spending time in polar waters. Their annual migrations take them to tropical waters, such as the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Island, breed and give birth in the winter months. During this winter migration to tropical waters, humpbacks live entirely off stored fat reserves. The species' diet consists mostly of krill and tiny fish. Humpbacks have a diverse repertoire of feeding methods, including the bubble net feeding technique. Humpacks are most frequently encountered during this time of year in the Puget Sound.
Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) gets its name from it blotchy gray skin. At birth, Gray whales are uo to 16 ft long and can grow to a length of 45’ feet and weigh 30 tons. Unlike most baleen whales, Grays have two blowholes, and its spout is often heart shaped. Gray whales have the longest annual migration route and distances of any mammal. They travel 10,000 to 12,000 miles round trip every year, starting in their Arctic Bering Sea feeding grounds and end in the mating and calving lagoons of the Baja Peninsula. The journey typically lasts two to three months.
In October, the whales begin to leave their Bering Sea feeding grounds and travel for south winter migrations, bottom feeding in fertile mudflats along the way. By late winter and early spring, the grays arrive in our area along the Pacific Coastal waters.
There are 200-300 seasonal resident Gray whales that spend the spring, summer, and fall feeding from California to South East Alaska. Two small groups of Grays whales that turn into Washington’s inland sea waters, usually during the spring northern migration. We do have a unique population that stays here all summer.
Minke whales are the second smallest baleen whales, averaging about 30 feet in length and 10 tons. There are estimated to be between 600 and 1000 minke whales inhabiting the coastal waters of California, Oregon and Washington. Of this population, there are approximately 17 minke whales that are encountered regularly in the waters surrounding San Juan Island.
Minke whales feed on a variety of small schooling fish, such as hearing and sandlance. They lunge open-mouthed at balls of schooling fish, trap the fish, and then expel the water through the baleen. In the San Juan Islands, groups of 5 to 7 minke are seen lunge-feeding collectively.
Plan your San Juan Island Whale Watching adventure with San Juan Island Outfitters!