A gray whale rises from the water in Saratoga Passage. Photo by Jill Hein

A gray whale rises from the water in Saratoga Passage. Photo by Jill Hein

A whale of a success story: Conservation keys annual return

  • Wednesday, April 7, 2021 9:36am
  • News

Nature wows us at this time of year on Whidbey and Camano islands.

Each spring, enormous gray whales breach the surface of these beautiful marine waters and send a spray into the air, announcing their highly anticipated arrival.

Members of one group of gray whales known as the “Sounders” have returned to Saratoga Passage for roughly 30 years.

It’s a festive occasion —Langley even holds a parade — and there’s ample reason to celebrate. Island conservation is key to why these colossal cetaceans make the annual journey home.

The Sounder whales, which number about 12, hold Whidbey and Camano waters in high regard. They’ll pause along their coastal migration to detour more than 150 miles inland to feed in the North Puget Sound waters next to Whidbey and Camano. They’re mostly seeking the abundant ghost shrimp found burrowed in mudflats.

The gray whales wait for high tide and gorge themselves on the meaty crustaceans.

Near-shore habitat and marine conditions found in Saratoga Passage, Port Susan and Possession Sound are optimal for the thriving ghost shrimp, according to Ralph Downes, enforcement officer with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We get the largest concentration of gray whales feeding here because of the substrate and the presence of the shrimp,” Downes said. “One of the reasons we have so many shrimp is the nutrient-rich water that comes out of the Stillaguamish, Snohomish and Skagit rivers but the most important thing is the beach — the sandy, shallow gradient where burrowing shrimp can live.”

Add in the fact that the tidal flow and wave action in Saratoga Passage and Possession Sound is mild compared to much of Puget Sound – allowing sediments to settle rather than get carried away – and you start to understand why ghost shrimp are so densely populated in this one area. The Sounders eat hundreds of pounds of them a day while hanging out near the shores of Whidbey and Camano between March and May.

This web of interdependence between one of the ocean’s largest creatures and one of its smallest illustrates why naturally-functionally shorelines matter – and why preserving them is so vital.

Clean Waters Depend on Healthy Lands

The Whidbey Camano Land Trust has permanently protected roughly 15 miles of natural shoreline and more than 3,000 acres of tidelands in Island County, including a half-mile stretch of beach at Possession Sound Preserve, south of Clinton. Once conserved, stewardship staff lead efforts to restore shorelines to their natural state whenever possible.

In 2015, the Land Trust partnered with the Washington Department of Natural Resources to remove a creosote-treated wooden bulkhead at the Waterman Shoreline Preserve in Possession Sound that cut off sediment supply to the beach.

Eroding feeder bluffs that provide sediment play a critical role in near-shore habitats. They replenish the beach and tidelands with sand, gravel and nutrients, enriching habitat essential for marine life including crabs, shrimp, endangered Chinook salmon, orca and gray whales.

The health of nearby forests and lands also contribute to water quality in Puget Sound.

“The productivity of the upland areas is an important part of the whole process,” said Dan Matlock, Land Trust board member and retired college biology professor. “The shading of beaches for forage fish spawning, the insect rain (insects that fall into the water from nearby shores and vegetation), shorebird nesting and feeding habitat, and water filtration are all part of the whole picture.”

Howard Garrett, co-founder of the nonprofit Orca Network, agrees that all of those factors are making a difference in providing healthier habitats for fish and wildlife.

“It certainly does to those dozen or so gray whales that come back every year,” Garrett said with a laugh.

Garrett said he takes pride in being part of an island community that is passionate about the well-being of whales and cares so much about the overall environment. His organization is dedicated to raising awareness about Pacific Northwest whales and the importance of providing them healthy and safe habitats.

While resident orca whales are struggling due to dwindling salmon populations, the number of gray and humpback whales in Puget Sound is increasing. That’s good news for one special group of grays that find that the shrimp bounty around Whidbey and Camano is worth taking a detour.

The Whidbey Camano Land Trust is a non-profit nature conservation organization that actively involves the community in protecting, restoring and appreciating the important natural habitats and resource lands that support the diversity of life on our islands and in the waters of Puget Sound. For information, visit www.wclt.org, email info@wclt.org, or call 360.222.3310.

Ghost shrimp (Neotrypaea californiensis) are burrowing shrimp found in abundance in the mudlflats along Whidbey and Camano islands. Photo by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Ghost shrimp (Neotrypaea californiensis) are burrowing shrimp found in abundance in the mudlflats along Whidbey and Camano islands. Photo by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

More in News

North Whidbey man jailed for car insurance fraud

Arnold F. Bodner, 58, pleaded guilty in Island County Superior Court April 16 to a single count of insurance false claim, which was a felony charge because the amount of the claim exceeded $1,500.

VQ-1 ‘World Watcher’ gains new commander

Cmdr. David Van Kampen has assumed command of Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron… Continue reading

Photo by Emily Gilbert/Whidbey News-Times
Junior Michael McKinney uses an arc welder to make a trailer hitch for a shed the class is making.
OHHS to expand skills classes with new building

The building may be used for engineering, manufacturing, automotive and construction classes that are in high demand.

Meeting set to interview three for assessor position

The Island County Republican Party Central Committee was tasked with nominating three people to replace Mary Engle, who resigned as the elected assessor earlier this year to become planning director.

Photo by Emily Gilbert/Whidbey News-Times
The Coupeville-Port Townsend ferry route will stay on one-boat service until at least June 27.
Coupeville route down to one ferry through June 27

Another delay in two-boat service means Coupeville ferry riders will need to squeeze onto one boat until at least June 27.

Oak Harbor will have Fourth of July fireworks, parade

This year’s event will look slightly different to comply with safety guidelines.

Car crashes into building, boat during police chase

The car went through a building, struck a “Zodiac type boat” and came to rest against the far wall, the deputy’s report states.

District names interim superintendent

School board members unanimously voted for Karst Brandsma

Worker will begin wrapping the Deception Pass bridge this month as they try to complete the project by the end of the year. The parking lot on Whidbey Island next to the bridge will be closed until March. WSDOT photo
Deception Pass bridge parking lot closed until March

The closure is supposed to ease access for construction crews as they work on the bridge.

Most Read