The spout rose a couple of dozen feet above the surface in a reverse cone of vapor and droplets. A whale blow well off our starboard side, and the captain turned the boat to cruise in that direction. The whale’s back continued to glide along as more and more of it surfaced in a slow arc before the mammal submerged completely. The captain cut the motor, and we began to drift. Just the breeze and the chatter of the passengers filled the air. This fin whale had been sighted the week before and seemed to be hanging around. This individual was only the second confirmed sighting of this rare baleen whale in the Salish Sea in many decades. The blood rushed through my body as I attempted to hold my camera still for the next surfacing. I had seen a fin whale a quarter century ago in the Gulf of California but never one in the United States.
A minute later the whale surfaced again, blowing water vertically, the water droplets glistening in the afternoon sun. It’s black skin reflecting light as it surfaced and the water slid down the glossy skin. The sickle-like dorsal fin eventually rose above the surface before the beast submerged again. This individual was 60 to 70 feet long, an adult. Fin whales are bigger than all but the blue whale. Our whale surfaced seven times before its back arched, and it dove. Its fluke never rose above the surface.
Our boat drifted in the Straits of Juan de Fuca a little west of Port Townsend. The captain said the whale was either feeding on krill or schools of herring that had congregated in this area. An escarpment cuts across the bottom in this location, and the water churns here as the tides move in and out of the Salish Sea. The mixing of nutrients makes an ideal soup for plankton to bloom and the krill and herring to feed. The abundant food drew our fin whale as well as several humpback whales that were surfacing half a mile to the south.
Fin whale populations have slowly recovered since they were protected from slaughter in the 1960s. The use of the Straits may indicate that fin whales are seeking new feeding areas or possibly the straits were having a large bloom of krill and herring this year. If fin whales return in future summers, then maybe this sighting is an indication of improving populations. Fin whales tend to be solitarily and so it wasn’t unusual to see just one individual.
The boat had rocked for about five minutes before the whale surfaced from its feeding dive. I tried to imagine how it might have opened its huge mouth, filling it with water and possible food items, and then using its tongue to push the water through the bristly baleen like a colander and finally swallowing any food. This time, it had halved the distance between us. It looked like it would pass our bow. The passengers erupted in cheers, and many clapped hands in excitement. I felt the compression of human mass as everyone tried to congregate on the starboard side to see each successive breath of this cetacean. Each time, a new spout of water droplets rose like a flag announcing its arrival. In the distance, Mt. Baker showed behind the whale like a queen overlooking her kingdom. The snow and ice of this stratovolcano sparkled in the bright summer sun and gave me the sense that we had seen something special. After five more surfaces, our rorqual dove for the depths and another bit of lunch.
Twenty minutes later and after a few more sightings, the captain suggested we look for the humpback whales. Holding the railing as the boat rocked in the waves, I watched the spot of its last dive wondering what this fin whale thought of us watching it.