Rare visitors! Bottlenose dolphins living in Puget Sound

SEATTLE -- There’s been a rare sighting in Puget Sound recently. A group of bottlenose dolphins has been spotted regularly over the past seven months.

Researchers at the nonprofit Cascadia Research tell us this has never happened before. Aside from a few random sightings in the years since 2008, they’ve never seen the dolphins hang around in the area for this long. Bottlenose dolphins tend to live in warmer, tropical waters, not the cold waters of Puget Sound.

“People don't see bottlenose dolphins here,” said Laurie Shuster, a volunteer research assistant with the Olympia-based Cascadia Research. “Pacific white-sided dolphins are native to this area so in the past that's the type of dolphin people would be likely to see, so it is unusual for them (bottlenose) to be up here.”

Dolphin, courtesy Wayne Lattuca 3

People first spotted the bottlenose dolphins in September 2017. Researchers say based on the sightings and images, they estimate five or six are living in Puget Sound, but only three bottlenose dolphins have been identified.

Researchers believe the dolphins are part of the California coastal stock. One of the dolphins has been identified as a well-known dolphin first photographed by researchers in 1983 named “Miss.” This is the first time that an individual bottlenose dolphin in the Puget Sound has been traced to a specific population.

“Miss” has been moving all her life. She was first spotted in Southern California in the 1980s, Monterey Bay in the 1990s and then in San Francisco Bay area in 2012. Now she’s in Puget Sound.

(Photo courtesy of Wayne Lattuca)

So why are they here? Cascadia Research says they don't know why just yet.

“I’d like to pin it on something that easy, but there's really no definitive connections right now to climate change or global warming,” said Shuster. “It could be that they are looking for prey, that they're looking for a different habitat. We have no idea why they're up here.”

The bottlenose dolphins have mainly been spotted in Seattle, around Alki Beach and elsewhere in Elliott Bay. It’s unclear right now if they will stick around.

They’re defined by their size and dorsal fins. Cascadia Research says a bottlenose dolphin is larger than a harbor porpoise but smaller than an orca.

If you think you see a bottlenose dolphin, Cascadia Research wants you to contact them by either emailing Dave Anderson at danderson@cascadiaresearch.org or calling Cascadia Research at (360) 943-7325.