Can we think of this smart, inquisitive marine mammal as the mermaid of the Salish Sea? I’d like to think so. Appropriately, harbor porpoises are about the size of a woman, 5 feet and 120 lbs. – the smallest of the six species of porpoises. This little beauty is probably the most common cetacean in the Salish Sea and Phocoena phocoena is only found here in the inland waters of the Northwest. They live among us as if they were our neighbors, and, I guess they are! Once common here, harbor porpoises almost disappeared in the 1970’s, probably because of gill nets that drowned them and polluted harbors. More northerly populations survived, and now they’re back – big time. I’d like to think that, for a change, it’s something good we’ve done.
So where do we see these guys? Harbor porpoises generally tend to be solitary foragers, so a fin may appear, then vanish for a bit, then resurface in a graceful and fluid up-and-down arc. If two fins appear, suspect a mom and young – they can have one offspring a year throughout a 15-20-year lifespan, being pregnant and lactating at the same time. Occasionally a group can ‘herd’ fish into position for a meal, but that’s not common. Look for color differences in body parts. The flippers, dorsal fin, tail and back are dark. The question might be asked why are harbor porpoises back? It appears their increases are more than what the locals could naturally produce themselves, and given that they are “harbor” mammals, not an offshore species, they must be coming in from the north. Whatever the reason, it’s good news for nature-watching sailors.
Larry Eifert paints and writes about wild places. His work is in many national parks across America – and at larryeifert.com.