A gray whale is on the loose in Puget Sound, and a Tacoma man says it’s hungry for squid.
Brandon DeFosse and some relatives were squidding – trying to catch squid with a pole, much like fishing – off the Les Davis Pier on Dec. 28 when squidders toward the right end of the dock yelled: “Whale!” as a spout of water shot up nearby.
It couldn’t be a whale so close to shore, DeFosse thought.
A dolphin, maybe.
But the 30-foot creature that swam through the shallow waters along the pier and through the lines of the 17 or so squidders was no porpoise, DeFosse realized.
“Everybody started yelling: ‘Get your lines out of the water!’” he said this week.
But they weren’t quick enough. The giant mammal snagged lines and snapped a pole as it went. It also swam away with several glow-in-the-dark squid jigs – the thin wire hooks used by squidders, he said.
The gray circled the group on the pier and swam off, DeFosse said, leaving the bemused squid catchers with a whale of a tale and plenty of jokes.
Others kidded: “I would have reeled him in, but I didn’t want to show off,” DeFosse remembered with a laugh.
But the more he thought about it, the Tacoma squidder became concerned for the whale. It didn’t seem like it should act that way, he said.
Quick research told him he was right.
DeFosse called the Washington-based whale education group Orca Network, and learned of similar sightings around Puget Sound.
He’s glad others confirmed the report. Some were skeptical when he first told his story.
“I ain’t never had a whale as a friend, but I guarantee you, it was a whale,” he said. “Now I know we weren’t all crazy. That would have to have been the biggest dolphin I’d ever seen.”
Orca Network director Howard Garrett said there have been five other reported sightings since Dec. 23. One was earlier Dec. 28, when the whale came within 100 feet of shore near Chinese Reconciliation Park at Commencement Bay.
By now, the world’s 18,000 to 20,000 gray whales should be well on their way to the waters off the shore of the Baja Peninsula, where they mate and calve each year before returning north to the Bering Sea, Garrett said.
But about twice a year a whale enters Puget Sound and loses its way, he said.
This particular gray is smaller than the 45-foot-long average, and could be a discombobulated new calf from a year ago, he added.
It’s hard for the whales to find food in the region, and if they don’t find their way out, they meet untimely deaths, he said. They slowly lose energy, and wash up on shore to die.
It’s anyone’s guess how long this year’s visitor might have to live, Garrett said.
“More than half the time they don’t make it out, because they don’t know where there’s any food, and they come in maybe already stressed, maybe hungry, maybe ill,” he said. “There’s really nothing you can do but hope.
“I would expect any day now that it’s probably going to be reported stranded somewhere, and either dead or dying.”
The likely-young whale could find its sense of direction though, he added.
And there is at least some gray whale food in Puget Sound. About a dozen of the creatures make an annual detour in March to the southern side of Whidbey Island, to snack in the fertile waters there before continuing on their way.
DeFosse thinks the visiting juvenile was exploiting another local food source: the squid.
The group had been reeling them in two at a time before their oversized visitor arrived, and hardly caught any after it left.
The whale could have been munching on the squid, Garrett agreed.
“We know they eat krill and other little shrimp-like critters,” he said. “It’s not at all out of the range of possibility that they could go through a bunch of squid and chow down on them.”
The same lights used to catch the squid might have gotten the whale’s attention too, he added.
While there probably aren’t enough squid in the area to feed the whale long term, Garrett said, such foraging could sustain it for a while.
That’s good news, DeFosse said.
Well, kind of.
“Not for the squid fishing, but for him.”
Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268