Unusual Dolphin in Southern Puget Sound, December 2010 and January 2011

Update from 18 January 2011: There have continued sighting reports from the public of this animal, most recently on 15 and 17 January in Budd Inlet. In response to media reports of this animal, we did receive a number of calls from people reporting sightings of what they thought were bottlenose dolphins in Puget Sound in the past. While most of these appeared to be other species including Dall's porpoise and harbor porpoise which are much more common in Puget Sound, a couple of these reports could have been bottlenose dolphins. 

Previous posts: There have been repeated sightings of a small bottlenose dolphin in southern Puget Sound going back to mid December 2010. Most recent sightings have been in Budd Inlet where the animal was sighted multiple times from 2-9 January 2011 including being filmed by King 5 News.. Sightings occurred in the Redondo Beach area before that in late December and in and around the Port of Tacoma in mid December. The earliest confirmed sighting was 15 December 2010 (although there were reports that could have been this individual as early as 11 December). While in the Port of Tacoma area between 15 and 17 December, it was confirmed to be a bottlenose dolphin from photos taken by biologists from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Cascadia Research. Bottlenose dolphins are typically seen only as far north as central California and sightings or strandings are rare in Washington waters. 

We are aware of only two other occurrences of bottlenose dolphins in Puget Sound. The first was an adult male that stranded in Samish Bay in March 1988 and was examined by biologists with both the Whale Museum and the National Marine Mammal Laboratory (reports of this are published by Osborne and Ransom in Cetus in 1988 and Ferrero and Tsunoda in Marine Mammal Science in 1989).There were not live sightings of this animal and there was some uncertainty as to the origin of the animal although it was thought to come from the coastal population in the eastern North Pacific.

The other documented occurrence of a bottlenose dolphin in Puget Sound was just from earlier in 2010 and included sightings in a number of areas of southern Puget Sound between 4 and 13 June 2010 and then the stranding of what we suspect was the same animal near Steilacoom on 18 July 2010. The stranded animal while already fairly decomposed (had possibly been dead several weeks) was confirmed to be a female bottlenose dolphin both from appearance and genetics.

The most recent animal appears to be in reasonable fitness but does have a skin condition of unknown origin. Cascadia Research, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Fisheries, and other members of the Northwest Marine Mammal Stranding Network (such as Highline Community College MaST Center at Redondo) are continuing to monitor the animal’s movements and condition; please report any sightings to Cascadia Research at 360-943-7325, or toll-free at 800-747-7329.”

The sightings and stranding of two different bottlenose dolphins and two tropical Bryde's whales (see summary of recent strandings) in Puget Sound all in the last year form a surprising pattern because they are all so unusual. While the cause for this is unknown they appear likely related.

Stories in the media on this topic:

King 5 News 7 January 2010

Seattle Times 7 January 2010

Q13 News 6 January 2010


Also see the Highline Community College's Marine Science and Technology Facebook page on sightings and video of the dolphin.


Photos below taken by Josh Oliver courtesy of WDFW and Cascadia Research.