On November 19, 2021, Anderson Island began a 10-day love affair with a young gray whale who came to be called “Shrimp.” This was an unusual visit for many reasons: the time of year, the duration of stay, and the predictability of active sightings within close range of shore view.
For many, this was their first chance to see a baleen whale up close, and the time we had with Shrimp was filled with wonder, elation, and deep concern for the well-being of this young whale. This is a story of curiosity and citizen science that connected many Anderson Island residents and visitors to the ecology of the south Puget Sound, the biology of gray whales, and how a collective effort can offer data to support ongoing research about the health of Puget Sound and its denizens
During the fall, gray whales make their migration from northern waters down to their winter grounds in Baja California, and again in reverse in the spring (March-May). A group called “The Sounders” have been studied expensively since the 1990s as they have stopped annually to feed in the North Puget Sound around the southern ends of Whidbey and Camano Island, Saratoga Passage, Port Susan, Gedney/Hat Island, and the Snohomish Delta.
Gray whales visit the south Sound from time to time, but historically those who spend a lot of time here aren’t in good health and are likely lost, disoriented, and not finding enough sustenance. So far, no research has shown a rich feeding area this far south.
Gray whales are opportunistic bottom feeders, consuming a wide range of benthic and epibenthic invertebrates. They hunt seabed creatures by rolling over on one side then swimming slowly along sucking up sediment and the small creatures that live in it. They then sieve out the water and silt through their baleen, trapping the food behind.
The Sounders in the north Sound primarily eat ghost shrimp and other mysids, but that has never been found in abundance in the south Sound.
We came to call this whale "Shrimp", in hopes that s/he was successfully foraging in Oro Bay, with a belly full of ghost shrimp or other zooplankton.
Without knowledge of Oro Bay’s nutrient opportunities for Shrimp, we knew we had a rare opportunity to engage the Anderson Island community to dig into a little citizen science to gather data.
Park commissioners John Larsen and Belen Schneider led the AIPRD effort to check daily for Shrimp’s presence. Belen, an Orca Network volunteer, reached out first to that organization to discuss the whale, since their sightings archives had recorded gray whale sightings around Anderson Island as early as November 7th. They confirmed that because of potential health concern for this gray whale, they were keeping sightings off the general sighting network and reporting all sightings to NOAA, Cascadia Research Collective and local stranding networks.
One researcher from CRC offered this summary of gray whales in Puget Sound to set expectations:
"We have some areas (Sounders gray whales around Whidbey Island or gray whales feeding herring spawn off in major spawning grounds) where gray whales have learned to take advantage of a seasonally abundant prey resource and return annually. More commonly, however, we have gray whales that stray off the migration often in not very good condition that then appear to stay in an area for extended periods and going through the motions of feeding, but there is neither much prey there for them nor do they return annually. At this point for this one individual the jury is out but I think it is likely the latter of these two scenarios."
Belen then reached out to the Anderson Island community through social media and word of mouth, asking for sightings and information that would help track Shrimp’s activity, locations, behavior, and physical condition.
Reports began coming in, offering even more opportunities for islanders to view Shrimp from shore. Many island photographers contributed reference photos to help assess body condition, offering different perspectives, behaviors and times of day. Belen began gathering data in a spreadsheet, creating approximate location maps with topographical depth data based on sightings, and archiving photos, looking for reference shots to help assess Shrimp’s health.
Click here to visit the full album of photos and maps for our time with Shrimp.
Shrimp was very active some days, with sightings from sunup to sun down all over the bay, and across toward the mainland shore - sometimes lingering in specific areas: deeper in Oro Bay near the yacht club marina, in front of Jacob’s Point, and off Cole Point.
Many nights during Shrimp’s visit, individuals who lived off Cole Point were able to offer nighttime “soundings” of activity, with remarkable consistency of activity overnight on that side of Oro Bay.
No one reported seeing any side feeding or pectorals above water, which is indicative of shallow feeding, but we did have one photo of Shrimp’s fluke at an angle that implied sideways orientation.
Shrimp was usually down for 2-5 minutes, would surface 2-5 times before diving again.
Rough observations from topographical information shows that Shrimp spent a lot of lingering time in areas of about 20 feet, possibly going as shallow as 10 feet, and Shrimp’s distance from shore was sometimes as little as 50 yards.
Overall, researchers have said that the level of activity Shrimp showed while in Oro Bay was good - s/he was very active, not showing the lethargy or disorientation seen in other grays who died in the south Sound.
Come along for one of our adventures! Here's a rough map of Shrimp's activity on November 26th during one observation period.
The overall feedback on body condition was that Shrimp was thin, but not “skinny”, which is the danger word for emaciated gray whales. Belen took reference photos of Shrimp and laid them out alongside reference photos of healthy and skinny grays. (Click the image to view larger.)
These comparison photos can help us see where Shrimp was showing signs of being thin - there are slight concavities behind Shrimp’s blowhole, where a healthy whale would essentially have a straight line from its blowhole to its back. Unable to get arial shots, it’s hard to assess how Shrimps overall girth looked, but there seemed to be some concavity along the spine.
However, this whale wasn’t in bad health and was very active, indicating that if it left the south Sound to join the gray whale migration south, it may have a decent shot.
"It was such a joy to look out my window and spot a spout or a flash of tail while Shrimp was here. I really feel his presence was a gift to the community and telling people where he was so they, too, could observe him was a privilege. The bay feels so empty without him now."
- Sheryl Wepfer Schmidt
"Sitting with my daughter for over an hour in the rain, just to be graced with Shrimp's brief appearance is a memory I'll hold on to for life!"
- Captain Corey,
South Sound Sailing Tours
"There are few things as deeply touching as hearing the whoosh of Shrimp's exhalation, seeing that blow rise high in the air, witnessing the slow emergence of an immense being, and then finishing with a tail wave goodbye."
- Belen Schneider,
AIPRD Park Commissioner
"A unique and mysterious event. A day after day visit from a migrating Gray whale. Why was it here? Where is it now? I'd like to imagine that Shrimp was a healthy individual, and being young, wondered a little of course, but all ended well."
AIPRD Park Commissioner
Another reason to pay close attention to an event like this is that Anderson Island is in the heart of the Nisqually Reach Aquatic Reserve, entirely surrounded by a unique and critical ecosystem for the health of Puget Sound.
Proposed by Nisqually Reach Nature Center and designated in 2011, the Nisqually Reach Aquatic Reserve is part of a network of protected ecosystems in the Nisqually Reach area, including the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The Nisqually Indian Tribe and the Nisqually Land Trust also manage adjacent lands for conservation and protection.
In fact, through AIPRD’s partnership with Forterra and Nisqually Land Trust, 17.6 acres were added to Jacob’s Point Park, expanding it to 100 acres, making it the largest protected marine park in South Puget Sound. In 2018, Nisqually Land Trust purchased another 72 acres adjoining the bay, with over a half-mile of marine frontage.
Ecologically, East Oro Bay - close to the Nisqually River - is valuable habitat for migrating juvenile Chinook salmon. The property’s beach and tidelands also provide habitat for many invertebrate species, as well as spawning surf smelt and sand lance.
Was Shrimp’s 10-day visit the result of this young whale actually finding enough variety of food to enable a return north and out of Puget Sound to resume migration – or at least get to the feeding-rich areas of the North Puget Sound grays?
It’s a question we won’t know the answer to for some time, if ever. But because of the curiosity and effort of Anderson Island residents, we now have data about this whale who was not previously part of known ID materials, awareness of the possibility of a richer feeding ground in the South Puget Sound, and a starting point to engage researchers if we see the return of grays to our bay. If we do, the Oro Bay may get the kind of research attention that will give us more insight into the robustness of the tiniest denizens of our waters and how they sustain even the largest of creatures.
For ten days, Anderson Island residents got an amazing opportunity to observe heart-shaped blows, close surfacing, breathtaking flukes and revel in the sheer size and proximity of an immense marine mammal in our waters. It was a bittersweet adventure, filled with concern for Shrimp’s health and wonder for the gift of his/her presence.
Visual sightings of Shrimp ended with a night observation on November 30th. On December 2nd, there was an unconfirmed report of a young gray whale in Commencement Bay, north of us. If this was Shrimp, it may mean our friend was headed out to sea. No confirmed sightings have come to our attention since then.
Our fervent hope is that Shrimp found some food in our bay and was then able to continue migration, though it is possible that Shrimp is ailing and it will not end well. We did what we could to offer insight and safety for this amazing being while we could.
This unexpected event reinvigorated our community’s curiosity and awareness of the beings in our water and the ecosystems that support them. We’ve never seen so many people hiking Jacob’s Point in the winter! And social media was full of questions about Shrimp, calling this little gray whale by name as the neighbor s/he had become.
Orca, humpbacks, grays, and even fin whales come into our waters, in addition to all the other marine life that builds on one another, from phyto- and zooplankton all the way up to these megafauna. Anderson Island Park & Recreation District is thrilled to be a part of connecting residents and visitors to the wonders of our marine neighbors!