NFR: Risso's Dolphin?

Discussion in 'Saltwater' started by Jim Wallace, Jan 18, 2013.

  1. I was walking the beach with a surf perch rod this afternoon right out in front of Twin Harbors State Park (located just south of Westport on the WA coast), at sunset and made a few casts, just to see if my arm was up to the task (yeah, right!). As I was enjoying the good skunking and phenomenal sunset, I noticed what looked like a small whale surface and blow, not more than 100 yards directly out in front of where I was plunking my chunks of clam siphon. Then I saw it stick its head and shoulders out of the water, like it was looking around, and I could see that it was far too small to be a Gray Whale. It was less than 20 feet long, and had a blunt, rounded head, with not much of a beak like you would see on a bottle nosed dolphin. It was dark gray. Not black. Not brown. It was bigger than a bottle nosed dolphin, but I don't think it looked like a Pilot Whale. It surfaced and blew a few more times, and stuck its head and shoulders out of the water a couple of times. I thought I noticed another one surfacing next to it once.

    I've never seen a cetacean that looks like this one in my 33 years of observing the surf here. The closest one that I could find any pics of during an extensive search was a Risso's Dolphin.

    Any cetacean experts here that could clue me in to what species this was?
  2. Ive seen pilot whales(90% sure) in MA13 so it wouldn't surprise me if thats what they were
    Richard Torres likes this.
  3. Definitely not an expert but here's a link. I'm a sonar tech on a submarine and hear some pretty interesting stuff out there. I try and figure out each species by sound but there's way too much info and not enough spare time. Hope this helps.
  4. There has. been Rissos Dolphins near Olympia lately. Saw one by Tacoma during the spring. Orcanetwork keeps tabs on ceataceans in the area and if you haven't already give them a ring. They'd be intrested in your report. I beleive. Their are also Pseudo orcas and a lone one that has been around Washington for years.
  5. Thanks, all.
    This did not look like a Baird's Beaked Whale at all. It was 100 yards straight out in front of me, just outside the breakers, but I got several clear views of it. Surf was about 5 or 6 feet on the outside, so the water there was probably only about 10 feet deep.
    The cetacean was less than 20' long, but at least 15', and medium/dark gray, with no other discernible markings. Definitely not black or brown. I estimate it was at least 3 feet wide across its back, but less than four feet.

    I saw it blow about 5 times, and it blew a modest spume compared to what I've seen Gray Whales blow. Maybe only 5 feet high.
    It had either no beak, or a very short one. I didn't notice one. Head was blunt and rounded, which I saw a a couple of different angles, as it stuck its head and shoulders vertically straight out of the water a few times, like it was standing on its flukes and looking around. I thought it was looking right at me at one point.
    The dorsal fin was not high like on an Orca. I've been perusing pics on the web. Profile looked most like what I saw in photos of a Risso's.

    Thanks for the reference to Orcanet, obryan 214. I figure that I should report this to someone, other than just here on the forum.
  6. Could it have been a Minke whale? I saw one once just off the beach (no more than 30 feet) at Lincoln Park.
  7. Thanks, Preston, but nope. I now think it must have been a "Short Finned Pilot Whale."

    My reading up on the Risso's informed me that the adults are nearly white from scarring. The one I saw did not have any noticeable scarring and was not that light.
    The first pics I viewed of a Pilot Whale were of a Long-Finned Pilot Whale. That threw me off.

    I found some pics and life history info on Short-Finned Pilot Whales, and I'm now sure that that is what I saw. The descriptive terms, "large globular head" fits it. The head looks the same in the photos. Body profile looked the same, too, from what I could see.

    Also, i discovered that the behavior where it stuck it head and upper torso out of the water for a look around, is characteristic of pilot whales. Its even got a name: "spy hopping."

    This would be the first Pilot Whale that I have ever observed in the wild.

    The sun was still above the horizon when I first noticed the whale. A glorious sunset was happening. It was a phenomenal evening, to be sure. As the golden orb shrunk to a point and disappeared over the horizon, it produced the legendary "green flash!"
    And I didn't really get skunked on the surf perch. I caught one small one (8.5" fork length) right about then. That was it.
    Bob Triggs and Pat Lat like this.
  8. I'm a whale biologist who works at Cascadia Research in Olympia. Thanks for posting your interesting sighting (and thanks to fly-fisher Steve Cifka for passing this thread on to me). We have a toll-free number for marine mammal sightings off Washington and would appreciate calls with sightings anytime: 800.747.7329.

    After discussion with several colleagues in my office, we think that you are on the right track with this sighting being either a Risso's dolphin or short-finned pilot whale--we are wondering in the end if you thought there were one or two animals there?

    The shape and size of the dorsal fin may be that characteristic that would help differentiate between the two--while the dorsal fin shape for both species are falcate, the pilot whale's dorsal fin has large with a huge, wide base--the Risso's dolphins dorsal fin is skinny and tall.

    Risso's dolphins can be a dark gray (there's a lot of variation) while the pilot whale would be black.
    The spyhopping behavior is more characteristic of a pilot whale but it shouldn't rule out a Risso's dolphin.

    We were also curious about your description of seeing the shoulders---the pectoral fins of the short-finned pilot whale would be more likely to be visible while spyhopping than a Risso's dolphin. Can you describe what you mean by seeing the shoulders? --this might be a clue. In the twilight, it would be possible to confuse the shape with an elephant seal. You seem to know your marine mammals well so I know this is unlikely but just double checking. The location of the sighting--so close to short-is puzzling for both the cetaceans. The presence/absence of a dorsal fin would clarify that.

    Please feel free to call and talk with any of our biologists--or I'll watch for your posts.

    Gretchen Steiger
    Research Biologist
    Follow Cascadia on facebook
    Bob Triggs and wadin' boot like this.
  9. Thanks for your post, Gretchen. I'll try to answer your questions.

    First off, my use of the term, "shoulders" was sloppy. I should have said "upper torso." I don't remember seeing the critter's dorsal fin when it was spy hopping. It did the spy hopping thing a few times, four I think, facing different directions, and even appeared to be looking towards me at one time. I'd say that as much as the forward 6 or 7 feet of the animal was out of the water at one point when it was doing this. That's when I noticed its pectoral fins. It looked gray, then, too.
    When it surfaced horizontally, with its back visible, the dorsal fin was not high and narrow, but I can't say for sure how long its base was. The image of its profile that I recall is more like that in the photos of the Risso's...but that's just my non-photographic memory.

    Also, as far as the coloration goes, the sun was about to set and was only about a 15 degree angle off to the side of this cetacean. So there might have been some glare or reflection coming off its wet hide, which might have made black look gray.

    I thought I saw another dorsal fin just behind and alongside it one time when it was rolling on the surface. After that, I did not see any evidence of more than one. I wondered if I just didn't see the the tail fluke of the one creature twisting up and creating the illusion of a second one following alongside. That was about a 2-second glimpse, anyway.
    However, there could have been more than one, with only one creature surfacing at a time. It hung out in front of me while the sun was setting, and after I watched for the "green flash", and then looked to see if I could spot the creature again, it was gone.

    I was casting for surf perch from a spot between two distinct sandbar surf breaks, where sideways rip currents that were coming from opposite directions met and then pushed outwards, creating a feeding zone for fish and whatever else is out there. The tide was approaching high. I'd say it was supper time!

    I saw this thing blow at least 5 times. Was a solid little spray of no more than 5 feet high. That is how I first noticed it.

    I do some flat water kayaking, and have seen Stellar's Sea Lions hanging out at the tip of the South Jetty here (one even likes to appear out in front of Westhaven State Park and body surf sometimes).

    This was much bigger than any Stellar's I've seen, and those have all been some shade of brown.

    In the description I have of Risso's Dolphin, adult length is up to 13 feet long. This thing looked bigger, longer than 15', maybe even as long as 20', but no more than that. Somewhere in that range. Also, it looked at least three feet wide across its back. When it was "spy hopping," the part of it that was above the water was bigger than my refrigerator. Profile then was about the size of the front door on my house. One thing that was unmistakable was the bulbous rounded head. There was no tapering of the visible protruding beak.
  10. Jim, lucky you! I've seen some off Monterey while freediving once, and seen one breach years ago off Drake's Beach in northern CA. Outside of photos, that's as close as I've ever been. Magnificent creatures!
  11. I still have questions that are plaguing me. I suspect that this whale was a stray. If it wasn't engaged in feeding where it was, at the outer edge of the rip just outside the surf break, then what was it doing there? Maybe it was lost. Was it trying to figure out where it was when it was "spy hopping?" I read that Pilot Whales normally travel farther offshore and in large pods. How did it come to be separated from its pod?
    How often are solo or stray Pilot Whales seen?
  12. The pod I saw was swam underneath the bridge at purdy during an extra high tide last summer, probably looking for some salmon. pretty close inshore for offshore whales.
  13. Jim,

    Here is a link to some photos of short-finned pilot whales that include good shots of the shape of the head while spyhopping and photos of the prominent dorsal fin--with wide base. These are from a page on our website by a colleague, Robin Baird, who studies this species off Hawai'i. Let me know if this helps!

    Bob Triggs likes this.
  14. Thanks for the link, Gretchen. I'd recently found those photos already on my search, but they are among the best I've seen.
    Yes. The one I saw looked like those, and its color was about the same shade of gray as the one that is "spy hopping" with Remoras attached to it, or maybe a little darker. When I observed it spy hopping, the one I saw held itself a bit higher out of the water than the ones shown in any of those photos, a couple of the times.
    I'm sure now that what I saw was a Short-Finned Pilot Whale.
    Thanks for your help figuring out this mystery.
    I'm going to head out for a beach walk right now! Rain showers, but not too bad.

  17. These were in Eld inlet in 2012. So Jim in the above thread could have seen these. But I think he would have noticed the scaring on them. Enjoy :)

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