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Gray whale watching season begins for Whidbey Island

Howard Garrett of the Orca Network snapped a shot of a gray whale feeding  near Greenbank Beach in Central Whidbey in May, 2010. Garrett said the whale feeds by rolling on its side to blast pits in the mud to free shrimp and invertebrates that it sucks in.  - Contributed photo
Howard Garrett of the Orca Network snapped a shot of a gray whale feeding near Greenbank Beach in Central Whidbey in May, 2010. Garrett said the whale feeds by rolling on its side to blast pits in the mud to free shrimp and invertebrates that it sucks in.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Local tour groups are gearing up for the annual return of some popular visitors to Saratoga Passage.

Gray whales are making their annual trip to the area in search of easy eats. They spend most of the spring feeding in the passage, which provides a chance for whale watchers to get a close look at the marine mammals.

Deception Pass Tours will offer gray whale tours out of the Oak Harbor Marina starting the first weekend in March. Co-owner Terica Taylor said that the speed of their boat, which reaches 40 mph, means a faster trip and thus allows more time for people to spot the whales.

The first gray whale reported in 2012 has been roaming Puget Sound since January. Since then, it has been seen between the Langley and the Edmonds ferry dock, said Howard Garrett with the Orca Network, adding that there have been fleeting glimpses of the whales swimming in the South Puget Sound area.

The gray whales generally visit Saratoga Passage starting in late February and early March and stay until late April and early May, Garrett said.

The mudflats around Saratoga Passage provide a rich source of ghost shrimp, one of the whales’ favorite foods. The whales blast a jet of water into the mud and then they inhale the cloudy water, filter out the food and squirt out the remaining sediment, Garrett said.

He said Langley, Fox Spit and Holmes Harbor on South Whidbey Island during high tide provide the best opportunity to view the visiting whales.

“They’ll work an area for hours at a time,” Garrett said.

Gray whales have been seen in Crescent Harbor near the Seaplane Base and, two years ago, they were spotted in Admiralty Inlet near Whidbey Island  Naval Air Station.

The Orca Network records whale sitings and people seeing a gray whale should make a report by calling 866-ORCANET. The information collected about the whales’ movement and location is given to researchers and also sent out on an email list of approximately 6,500 names.

“It sort of refreshes our awareness that there are whales living and breathing right under our very noses,” Garrett said.

Taylor said Deception Pass Tours will offer tours through Saratoga Passage starting March 3 and continuing through April. Taylor said 1,700 tickets have already been sold. To kick-off the tour season, the local tour company will sponsor a viewing of “The Big Miracle” at the Oak Harbor Cinemas Friday evening, March 2. The first 100 people seeing the whale movie will get in for free. Then, on Saturday, March 3, people waiting to board can participate in a drawing to win free admission. The company is also offering discounted admission on March 3.

The Victoria Clipper, up from Seattle, will be making two-hour stopovers in Coupeville on Saturdays and Sundays for the next two months. Those trips will provide a boost for local businesses.

 

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