Reading a book by your window on a chilly day, you might take a break to watch clouds sweep across the sky. You exhale a long breath onto the glass and draw a smiley face with your finger. Meanwhile, somewhere out in the saltwater of Puget Sound, one of your air-breathing animal cousins — called a marine mammal — swims to the surface and lets out a steamy breath of its own.
Like ourselves and our cats and dogs, marine mammals are warm-blooded and nurse their babies with milk. However, these mammals spend all or most of their lives in the sea.
If you are very patient and have a good spotter’s eye, you just might spy some of our most common oceangoing relatives.
Although you can catch a peek at these animals from a kayak or state ferry, you’ll find it much warmer and more comfortable to stay on shore. Many waterfront parks and towns throughout Puget Sound offer great views. For a list of sites, along with a chart of most commonly seen species at each location, check out The Whale Trail at thewhaletrail.org.
Among the items you should bring are binoculars, camera, good outerwear for the weather, a marine mammal guide for the Pacific Northwest (or a smartphone), a reusable water bottle, favorite snacks and a bag to hold any trash until you can get to a trash container.
Species to spy
Cetaceans — dolphins, porpoises and whales: Some of the largest animals visit our area March through May. Gray whales make a snack stop here to feed on shrimp and other tiny animals during their long journey from the coast of Mexico up to Alaska. They have splotchy gray skin, studded with barnacles and other hitchhikers.
Reaching 48 feet long, adult gray whales are as big as a 90-student school bus. Despite their size, gray whales keep a low profile with no dorsal fins on their backs. They filter tiny creatures out of the water using giant combs of fingernail material in their jaws called baleen. Grays have two blowholes behind the top of their heads. Watch for the telltale double steam cloud when they exhale.
Orcas, the largest of the dolphins, breathe out a steam cloud from a single blowhole. These much-loved, playful locals swim around the San Juan Islands in family pods. Imagine giant pandas and Oreo cookies, and you know which colors to look for in orcas. Sleek, black bodies are decorated with white undersides and patches behind their eyes and dorsal fins.
If an orca pod swims by, you can’t miss their dorsal fins up to 6 feet high slicing through the water. Big males grow to 32 feet and weigh about 9 tons. Orcas spending the most time here are endangered Southern Residents, who chase after chinook salmon.
Harbor porpoises are much smaller fish eaters. These compact cuties are about 5 feet long and have short, rounded snouts. Harbor porpoises are shy and usually like to swim alone or with a handful of buddies. They quietly go about their business of catching herring and squid, often surfacing to breathe without a splash. You can see their dark gray silhouettes curve quickly out of the water, though. Grab your binoculars and you might make out the low triangular shape of their dorsal fins.
Pinnipeds — seals and sea lions: The most common marine mammal living in our waters is the harbor seal. Gray or brownish speckled fur makes these seals easy to recognize. Harbor seals have short muzzles, big dark eyes and smooth heads with no ear flaps showing.
They share a few characteristics with those porpoises of the same name. Harbor seals also are shy, often cruising along alone or with one or two companions. They swim around docks and rocky shorelines, searching for fish, squid, crabs and other small creatures. Their curious-but-wary nature might lead them to watch you right back, so keep your distance and stay still for the best look.
California sea lions are less common, but do occasionally appear around the Sound. To tell them apart from harbor seals, look for solid, milk or dark chocolate bodies, longer flippers and snouts, and ear flaps. Listen as well, because California sea lions are the opposite of quiet. They bark, growl, grunt and roar at each other, and love to pile up on shore to rest in huge colonies of friends and relatives. Weighing in at more than 800 pounds and sporting a big forehead crest, sea lion males are unmistakable.
All the marine mammals of the sea are protected by law. To give them the best chance for survival, please watch from shore or at least 100 yards away. Make sure that you and your pets stay far from any marine mammals, especially ones resting on the beach.
To learn more about marine mammals in the Pacific Northwest, try your local library for good books and visit the following websites:
For an excellent kids’ video comparing common species: sealsitters.org/marine_mammals.html.
Whale information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/pdfs/education/kids_times_whale_gray.pdf, and nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/pdfs/education/kids_times_whale_humpback.pdf.
When and where to go to see marine mammals from land: https://thewhaletrail.org.