Possession Sound, north Puget Sound, WA 9 April 2022


Jan 10, 2009
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]

The sounders are a small population of gray whales that pause their annual springtime migration to loiter in Possession Sound. While most gray whales proceed directly from Baja to Alaska, the sounders spend several months foraging for ghost shrimp in the inland waters.

I first learned about the sounders in 2019 and have been paddling out to visit them regularly ever since. Sounders have been present during six of my seven visits to Possession Sound, an eighty-five percent success rate—unusually reliable by the standards of wildlife viewing.

00 Route map.jpg

00 Route map. During this time of the first-quarter moon, currents were mild enough that I did not bother to coordinate my paddling with the tides.

Unlike humpback whales and orcas, gray whales only rarely raise their flukes or fins. The easiest way to spot gray whales is to look for their spouts. The spouts, visible to the naked eye out to about two miles’ distance, resemble small, short-lived puffs of white smoke.

Windy conditions make gray whales much harder to spot. The spouts blow away too quickly, and all the whitecaps confuse the eye—everywhere you look there are short-lived puffs of white.

Paddling northbound from Mukilteo, wind conditions were excellent for spotting spouts, but there were no gray whales to be seen. There was plenty of other wildlife, so I contended myself watching the seabirds, seals, and sea lions.

01 Kayaking from Mukilteo to Hat Island.JPG

01 Kayaking from Mukilteo to Hat Island. Sadly, all of the shoreline of Hat Island is private property.

02 Brant on Possession Sound.JPG

02 Black brant on Possession Sound. These overwintering birds will soon depart for the high arctic tundra.

03 Marbled murrelets at Mukilteo.JPG

03 Marbled murrelets off Mukilteo. The murrelets have transitioned to their forest-brown plumage, camouflage for their nest sites high up on branches in the old-growth forests.

04 Short-billed gull on Possession Sound.jpg

04 Short-billed gull on Possession Sound. This newly renamed species constitutes the eastern Pacific population of the species formerly known as the mew gull.

05 Harbor seal off Jetty Island.JPG

05 Harbor seal off Jetty Island. These gentle seals are the friends and secret protectors of kayakers everywhere.

06 Caspian tern with fish.JPG

06 Caspian tern with fish. Jetty Island has long been an important nesting site for terns, and many dozens were present this day.

By the time I drew parallel to the north end of Hat Island, I had not seen a single gray whale spout. The local whale watchers had been reporting gray whales in Possession Sound every day for weeks, so I knew they would appear eventually. I landed on a sandy beach on the tip of Jetty Island to watch and wait.

While I waited, the previously calm wind increased to fifteen knots. For reasons I have never understood, Possession Sound always develops more chop than other inland waters. Even fifteen knots of wind is enough to spread whitecaps across the sound. During higher winds, the sound becomes dangerous to kayakers.

07 Breakwater of pilings and barges Snohomish River delta.JPG

07 Breakwater of pilings and sunken barges, Snohomish River delta. The breakwater was built sometime in the 1940s out of barges that were older still.

08 Derelect barges Snohomish River delta.JPG

08 Paddling between sunken barges, Snohomish River delta. I always enjoy the faded glamor of wooden boats.

09 Kayak on Jetty Island beach.JPG

09 Kayak on Jetty Island beach. Jetty Island is composed mostly of dredge spoils.

10 Fifteen knot wind Possession Sound.JPG

10 Fifteen-knot wind, Possession Sound. Both the shallow and the deep-water portions of the sound experience whitecaps.

In the early afternoon, a gray whale appeared north of Hat Island, just as the increased wind blew itself out. While I was on my way across from Jetty Island to Hat Island to intercept, two more whales appeared near the south end of Jetty Island. I turned south and followed them into the shallow waters off the island, where they began to forage on shrimp in the sandy bottom.

I spent an hour in the company of these two giants, but any sense of “company” existed only my own mind. I’m not sure the whales even knew I was there. If they did, they did not give any indication of what they thought of me.

11 Gray whale spout Possession Sound.JPG

11 Gray whale spout off Jetty Island. On a calm day, whale spots are audible at a great distance, but the wind today was too noisy.

12 Gray whale fluke.JPG

12 Gray whale fluke. Off Jetty Island, the water is shallower than the whale is long, so its flukes and fins protruded during many of its dives.

13 Gray whale blowholes.JPG

13 Gray whale double blowhole. I had hoped to see the whales spyhopping, but they did not.

14 Paddling south down Possession Sound.JPG

14 Paddling south down Possession Sound. How delightful to be the only kayaker on the water.

The whales certainly made me work for it this year. When I didn’t see them on the northbound leg, I thought I might have to go home empty-handed. In the end, they amply rewarded my patience. They live according to a slower rhythm than we do.


[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]
Last edited: