Gray whales are giving local whale watchers an extra treat this winter.

“Gray whales used to be a sign of spring for us … but it’s still winter and we have encountered gray whales on every Anacortes trip so far,” Island Adventures lead naturalist Sam Murphy said of the winter tour season, which kicked off Feb. 19.

Gray whales migrate thousands of miles each year between their breeding grounds along the Mexico-California border and their feeding grounds in Alaska.

A subgroup of the population called the Sounders has, since the 1990s, made a habit of stopping in the waters around Whidbey Island. A team of researchers documented the whales foraging for ghost shrimp on the area seafloor.

While the majority of the Sounders usually arrive in March and are the focus of spring whale-watching tours out of Everett, this year the first to arrive was documented on Dec. 7.

Island Adventures reported some whales have also ventured farther north than usual, including along the Anacortes waterfront.


On Feb. 26, a gray whale in the Anacortes area took the company by surprise as its tour boat departed from a local dock.

“It’s not every day we find our first whale just 10 minutes into the trip,” Island Adventures owner and Captain Shane Aggergaard said.

Murphy said the whales’ early arrival to the ghost shrimp-rich area may be related to a presumed shortage of food elsewhere that led to the deaths of several migrating gray whales in 2019.

Scientists are monitoring the visiting gray whale population.

John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Collective said as of Friday, seven gray whales were confirmed in the area. The research group has identified individual whales over time using details captured in photos, particularly of the whales’ uniquely mottled backs.

“The timing is unusual and in our more than 30 years of monitoring the arrival of the Sounders we have never had this many whales show up this early,” Calambokidis said.

The whales also arrived earlier than usual last year, with several making appearances throughout February.

Gray whales, humpback whales and transient orcas are the focus of whale watching companies in the region.

A relatively new law protects the endangered southern resident orca population from whale watching, and many area companies have said they voluntarily avoided the species before that law taking effect.