Blue whales seen in waters south of Ketchikan; first in 30 years

The largest animal that has ever lived has been spotted off the Queen Charlotte Islands, south of Ketchikan. A Canadian Coast Guard ship conducting a whale survey has found at least five blue whales, including a mother and calf. Researchers with Fisheries and Oceans Canada say it’s the largest concentration seen off Canada’s west coast in more than 50 years.

The numbers of blue whales sighted during the survey almost doubles the total documented sightings in the last 40 years in British Columbia waters.

In 2004, when U.S. scientists spotted a blue whale in the Gulf of Alaska, it made national news. Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it was the first confirmed sighting in Alaskan waters in 30 years.

Commercial whaling of blue whales ended decades ago, and their populations bounced back to some degree off the southern California coast. But the endangered species has not recovered in the northern part of its range.

The whales are so rare in northern waters that even one sighting is a big deal to scientists like Paul Wade of NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle.

“It’s pretty exciting, it’s certainly part of blue whale historical habitat, but there just have been very few sightings.”

He says blue whales now seem to hang out far off shore, where it’s difficult to do whale surveys. In whaling days, blue whales came closer to shore, and whaling stations in the Aleutians, Kodiak and southeast Alaska caught hundreds of them.

In 2005, Paul Wade took part in a whale surveying trip from Kodiak to Dutch Harbor.

“We’d see 100’s of thousands of humpback whales, and you never see a blue whale. It’s striking if you look at the historic record, there were blue whales taken throughout that whole region.”

Biologists can’t explain why the whales have not recovered in Alaskan and Canadian waters. But the recent sighting of five whales off the Queen Charlotte Islands, along with occasional recordings of their calls from underwater sensors in the Gulf of Alaska, has scientists optimistic. The world’s largest animal may finally be returning to northern waters.

John Ryan, KTOO – Juneau