The route is unusual, suggesting the whale is struggling and unhealthy, NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein said.

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A gray whale took an unusual swim into the Ballard Locks on Wednesday, exciting onlookers and catching the attention of scientists, who believe the mammal is sick.

The emaciated whale spent hours Wednesday in the busy Seattle waterway. Tens of thousands of grays migrate this time of year from Mexico to Arctic waters, said NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein. Some grays spend time in Puget Sound.

But this whale’s route into the locks, a popular spot for boaters and tourists, is unusual, he said, suggesting the animal is unhealthy and struggling.

“It’s obviously really exciting and cool for people in the area to see a whale up close like that. It’s very uncommon,” Milstein said. But this “is not the typical behavior of a healthy whale.”

Local volunteers with NOAA are closely monitoring the gray, whose gender and age is unknown, he said. The whale has been in the general area for the past few weeks and swam through the same busy waterway at least once in March, Milstein said.

“Ideally, it would take off and and get out to the ocean and continue to migrate north,” he said. “But the fact that this whale has been spending so much time in a high-traffic and congested area, it suggests that it’s having some trouble.”

NOAA and its network of experts will continue keeping tabs the whale, Milstein said, and intervene if the giant mammal gets distressed.

The Orca Network cautions boaters to be aware of the whale and give it plenty of room.

The locks connect saltwater Puget Sound to freshwater Lake Union and Lake Washington.

Gray whales, which grow to 50 feet long and 40 tons, can live to 70 years old.

They are a “conservation success story,” Milstein said. Pacific grays were removed from the list of threatened and endangered species in 1994. Their North Pacific population is estimated to be around 20,000, according to NOAA Fisheries.

They pass by Washington’s coast twice a year.

Information from the Seattle Times archives and Assocated Press was included in this report.