A small school of what might be short-beaked common dolphins was spotted last week in the Port Angeles harbor.
Photos taken by a Pacific Whale Watch Association crew were sent to John Calambokis and his team at Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia. If the sighting is confirmed, it could be the first live sighting of this species in the inland waters of Washington and British Columbia.
Short-beaked common dolphins are tropical or temperate animals and generally do not journey north of California.
Last September, two small schools of short-beaked common dolphins were confirmed by researchers about 46 miles off southwestern Vancouver Island near the continental shelf, according to an association news release.
Before that, the only record of the species on the west coast of Washington and B.C. has been three dead animals discovered over about 60 years, the release said.
A boat from Port Angeles Whale Watch Co. came across the school of about a dozen individuals well inside Port Angeles harbor, apparently looking for fish. Naturalist Lee Leddy took photos, at first thinking whale watchers were seeing Pacific white-sided dolphins. But a passenger onboard that day, an experienced naturalist from southern California, immediately recognized them as common dolphins, according to the release.
“We get very excited of course whenever we have a rare sighting like this,” Michael Harris, executive director of the association, said in the release.
“They’re beautiful animals, and we’re thrilled to get a chance to observe and study them, but at the same time we know that if our oceans were healthier and this planet weren’t in the throes of a climate crisis we probably wouldn’t be seeing this species up here.”
In recent years, whale watching operators have documented an increase in rare and unprecedented sightings in the Salish Sea. Those sightings include Bigg’s (transient) killer whales, a surge of eastern north Pacific humpback whales in Puget Sound and the Straits. Once a rare sighting, huge schools of Pacific white-sided dolphins have become more frequent.
An endangered northern right whale also has been sighted in recent years in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The first time was by a NOAA Fisheries researcher in 2013 near Victoria, only the second such sighting here of the species in 62 years. The second sighting was in the Strait last year.
Crews have also documented the sighting of a fin whale, the second-largest animal to ever live on Earth, foraging almost daily south off Smith Island. It was the first confirmed report of a fin whale in Puget Sound since 1930, according to the release.
“It is exciting to have a new species in our area,” Calambokidis, senior research biologist and co-founder of Cascadia Research Collective, said in a prepared statement. “But we’re also watchful that they are healthy.”
Short-beaked common dolphins
Size: This species of dolphins can reach 8 feet long and weigh 450 pounds.
Coloring: Their distinctive color pattern has a dark brown-gray back and the front portion between the eye and dorsal fin is yellowish-tan.
Diet: They feed on small schooling fish, including sardines, anchovies and herring, as well as squid.