Harbor porpoises, one of the smallest members of Cetacea, have been a rare sight in the Salish Sea until recently. They were common in our inland waters through the 1950’s, but had virtually disappeared by the early 1970’s due to fishing activities, increased vessel noise, and industrial pollution. Why they have made a comeback recently is unknown, but several factors, including declines in local gill-net fisheries as well as ongoing environmental cleanup efforts, could all be responsible for the population increase.
Globally, harbor porpoises have an enormous range, making it hard for scientists to estimate their population size. They can be found throughout the temperate coastal waters of the Northern Hemisphere. The population that resides in the Inland waters of the Puget Sound are thought to be a unique subspecies. As their name suggests, they are typically found in nearshore waters shallower than 500 feet. They forage small schooling fish such as herring, and have been known to eat squid and crustaceans. A group of harbor porpoises is called a shoal, but you’re unlikely to see a shoal of them during your charter in the Salish Sea. Those that call the Puget Sound home like to live in smaller groups of 2-5 individuals. On average, they live about 20 years. Adults are 5-6.5 feet in length, and they only weigh about 120 lbs. Females are larger than males.
These small porpoises can be hard to spot, especially in choppy water, because of their subtle, secretive behavior. Look for their dark grey, small triangular dorsal fin to break the surface, which can blend in with waves. They have dark grey backs with white underbellies and throats. You may also hear them breathing. Their puffing breath sounds like a sneeze. They reside in the Salish Sea all year around.
If you would like to see harbor porpoises during your charter, a great spot to see them in the islands is in Bellingham Channel, north of Guemes Island, south of Lummi Island, and in between Vendovi and Sinclair Islands. During tide changes, there is a convergence zone at that spot where fish tend to school, attracting the harbor porpoises.