Small group of gray whales return to Puget Sound

Small group of gray whales return to Puget Sound
This March, 2014 photo provided by Capt. Michael Colahan of Island Adventures Whale Watching and Picture Pangea Photography, shows a male gray whale identified as “Little Patch," or #53 spyhops in Possession Bay near Everett, Wash. (AP Photo/Island Adventures Whale Watching, Michael Colahan)
SEATTLE (AP) - A male gray whale that feasts on shrimp in the Puget Sound every year was spotted this past weekend, marking the start of an annual stay in Washington state inland waters by a small but peculiar group of these big marine mammals, whale watchers reported Tuesday.

The intrepid male - nicknamed "Little Patch" and identified with the number 53 by researchers - has been the first whale to be spotted and identified in north Puget Sound waters for two years in a row. He's part of a small group of about a dozen, primarily male, gray whales that feed on ghost shrimp in the Puget Sound for about three months during spring. Around May, the whales continue their migration to the Bering and Chukchi seas off Alaska.

These grays are a peculiar group that breaks off the main northbound Pacific Coast migration, seemingly because they have discovered plentiful feeding in Puget Sound waters, said Cascadia Research Collective biologist John Calambokidis.

Calambokidis said researchers first began identifying the whales in the group from the natural markings in 1990 and 1991.

"Although they were clearly using this area before that," he said. "Most of the animals identified in our first two years are still returning today... 25 years later."

The Pacific Whale Watch Association said it's the 23rd year in a row that Little Patch has been seen here.

About 22,000 gray whales make an annual migration from California to Alaska and many of them visit Washington state waters to feed. There's a subgroup within the migration, about 200 of them, which make up a Pacific Coast feeding group. They don't go to Alaska and rather stay in the Pacific Northwest, Calambokidis said.

Stragglers of the migration make a grimmer visit to Washington waters. These whales, often sick and debilitated, are often spotted further south in the Puget Sound, reaching Tacoma and Seattle. Those whales come here to die.

The dozen that feed off Everett, though, eventually go back up to Alaska.

"So we begin with 22,000 or so whales, 11 of them pit stop every year here off Everett, and then we have number 53 checking in first again. It's almost like looking at a tide chart. It's March, so here come the grays. And oh look, there's 53!" said Michael Harris, executive director of The Pacific Whale Watch Association, in a statement.

Gray whales are baleen whales that can reach lengths of 50 feet and weigh about 40 tons. They can live into their seventies. Their migration from Baja California to Alaska is one of the longest migrations by any mammal, spanning between 5,000 and 6,800 miles.

The Everett dozen stop to feed here to fatten up on shrimp before making the last stretch to Alaska. They are also a key attraction for whale watching tours in the area.