The largest animals ever to inhabit the Earth are making a small splash off the Washington Coast.
Scientists with Olympia-based Cascadia Research spotted six blue whales about 25 miles from Westport during a research expedition last week. They were mixed in with groups of humpback and fin whales.
It was just the third confirmed blue-whale sighting off the Washington coast in the past 50 years.
"It was quite exciting," researcher John Calambokidis told The Olympian. "We knew right away the trip was worthwhile."
See Cascadia Research's photos from the recent sighting.
Cascadia Research is in the middle of a three-year effort to document the endangered cetaceans off the coast of Oregon and Washington.
Blue whales, which can grow to 100 feet and 180 tons, nearly were hunted to extinction during the 20th century. A whaling moratorium enacted in 1966 saved a population thought to have dwindled to about 13,000 animals from a peak of 350,000.
While no longer targeted by harpoons, the animals still face human threats. Collisions with ships are the biggest killer of large marine mammals. Calambokidis said the research is aimed at identifying areas where shipping lanes and whale habitat overlap.
"Our knowledge of whale distribution still needs improvement," he told The Olympian.
"Interestingly, ships are often unaware that they've struck a whale, so that's part of the issue. It's very difficult for them to take actions in real time to avoid a ship strike."
The whales spotted last week will be compared to a photo database of 2,000 previously identified blue whales.
Calambokidis stressed that civilian blue whale-watching off the Washington Coast isn't a good idea. Tourists are better off in the calm waters off Southern California in the summer.
This story includes information from The Associated Press.
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