Blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus)

Aerial photo of a blue whale swimming near the ocean's surface
Blue Whale (NOAA)
Category: Mammals
State status: Endangered
Federal status: Endangered
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)

Moderate

If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting form. Providing detailed information such as a photo and exact coordinates will improve the confidence and value of this observation to WDFW species conservation and management.

The blue whales that occur along the U.S. west coast (Washington, Oregon, and California) belong to the Eastern North Pacific stock. The stock is estimated at about 1,900 whales, and stock trend is possibly stable. Blue whales are now regularly present off the outer Washington coast. Ship strikes, fisheries entanglements, marine debris, human-generated marine sound, and climate change may negatively affect recovery.

Marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. To report a dead, injured or stranded marine mammal in Washington, please call the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) West Coast Region Stranding Network hotline: 1-866-767-6114.

Description and Range

Physical description

The blue whale is the largest of the baleen whales, reaching up to 110 feet long and weighing up to 165 tons. Its gray-blue body is long and slender with a relatively small dorsal fin.

Ecology and life history

Blue whales are more pelagic than most other whales, but also visit coastal waters. Most blue whales migrate between summer and winter ranges, but some individuals appear to remain in certain areas year-round. Occurrence is linked to areas of high zooplankton abundance. 

The spouting blowhole of a blue whale above the water's surface with foggy coastline in the background
A blue whale spouts in Pacific Northwest waters NOAA/Cascadia Research Collective

This large baleen whale forages primarily on krill along continental shelf slopes and deeper oceanic waters. Krill, a type of euphausiid, are small, shrimplike animals. Poleward movements in spring allow the whales to travel to areas with high summer and fall production of krill.

A blue whale consumes up to 8,000 pounds of krill in a day, and it can filter up to 70 percent of its body weight in water during each feeding lunge.   

The whales return to lower latitudes in winter, where most reproductive activity takes place, including births and mating. The average calving interval is probably two to three years, and the age of sexual maturity is thought to be 5 to 15 years. It is suspected that calves, at approximately six months of age, may stop feeding on their mother’s milk and start feeding independently. Breeding between blue whales and fin whales has produced hybrids.

Blue whales do not form close social groups, but typically occur alone or in pairs.

Life span of this species is estimated to be 80 to 90 years. Healthy adults are not particularly vulnerable to predators, but calves are likely vulnerable to shark and killer whale attacks.

Blue whales produce sounds that travel long distances through the water. Singing is performed only by males and occurs year-round.

Geographic range

Blue whale distribution covers the world's oceans from the tropics to higher latitudes. The total global population is estimated at 10,000 to 24,000 whales.

Individuals occurring off the Washington coast belong to the Eastern North Pacific stock; the whales do not enter the state's inner waters. The stock mostly migrates between northern summer feeding locations and wintering areas off western Mexico and Central America. Feeding occurs during summer and fall off the United States west coast (especially California) and, to a lesser extent, off British Columbia, in the Gulf of Alaska, and in the central North Pacific.

Blue whales regularly occurred off the Washington coast prior to and during the whaling era. Sightings became rare, however, with just three recorded in the 50-year period prior to 2015, including six animals seen in December 2011. Blue whales are now regularly present off the outer Washington coast. Current stock size is about 1,900 whales and remains below the estimated historical stock size of 2,200 individuals. Since the 1990s, the stock appears to have maintained a stable population trend. 
 

For a map of range-wide distribution and conservation status of this species, check out NatureServe Explorer and the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change

Low-
Moderate

Due to their migratory patterns and the wide range of ocean conditions that they experience, blue whales are unlikely to experience significant physiological sensitivity to climate-induced ocean changes. Their overall sensitivity is expected to be highest due to potential changes in their primary prey, euphausiids, or krill. Blue whales require large aggregations of euphausiids for optimal foraging, and euphausiid conditions are strongly linked with oceanographic variability. Cooler, upwelling waters support high primary production and euphausiid biomass, while warmer waters like those found during positive Pacific Decadal Oscillations cycles and strong El Niño events lead to lower primary productivity and decreased euphausiid abundance. Therefore, increases in ocean temperature or changes in ocean circulation, as well as increases in ocean acidity, could lead to declines in euphausiid abundance and limited prey availability for blue whales. Additionally, changes in peak primary productivity and euphausiid abundance could lead to alterations in blue whale migration timing.

Confidence: Moderate

Exposure to climate change

Moderate

  • Increased ocean temperatures
  • Altered circulation and/or upwelling patterns
  • Increases in ocean acidity
Confidence: Moderate

Conservation

This species is identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) under the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). SGCN-classified species include both those with and without legal protection status under the Federal or State Endangered Species programs, as well as game species with low populations. The WDFW SWAP is part of a nationwide effort by all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop conservation action plans for fish, wildlife and their natural habitats—identifying opportunities for species' recovery before they are imperiled and more limited.
This species is identified as a Priority Species under WDFW's Priority Habitat and Species Program. Priority species require protective measures for their survival due to their population status, sensitivity to habitat alteration, and/or recreational, commercial, or tribal importance. The PHS program is the agency's main means of sharing fish and wildlife information with local governments, landowners, and others who use it to protect priority habitats for land use planning.

Conservation threats and actions needed

  • Overharvesting of biological resources  
    • Threat: Ship strikes are a relatively important source of mortality and injury off the U.S. west coast.  
    • Action Needed: Identify areas of greatest concern for ship strikes and work with the shipping industry to reduce this threat.  
    • Threat: Entanglement in fisheries gear (netting, pots, and traps) is a cause of mortality and injury off the U.S. west coast.  
    • Action Needed: Determine ongoing sources of bycatch and manage those fisheries to reduce bycatch.

See the Climate vulnerability section above for detailed information about the threats posed by climate change to this species.

Our Conservation Efforts

WDFW partners with Cascadia Research Collective to obtain funding for large whale surveys in Washington waters, resulting in much of the recent knowledge of blue whales for the state. WDFW also participates in NOAA’s West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Resources

References

Calambokidis, J. 2013. Updated abundance estimates of blue and humpback whales off the US west coast incorporating photo-identifications from 2010 and 2011. Document PSRG-2013-13 presented to the Pacific Scientific Review Group, April 2013.

Carretta, J. V., E. Oleson, D. W. Weller, A.R. Lang, K. A. Forney, J. Baker, B. Hanson, K. Martien, M. M. Muto, A. J. Orr, H. Huber, M. S. Lowry, J. Barlow, D. Lynch, L. Carswell, R.L. Brownell Jr., and D. K. Mattila. 2014. U.S. Pacific Marine Mammal Stock Assessments: 2013. NOAA Technical Memorandum, NOAA-TMNMFS-SWFSC-532. 406 p. 

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Office of Protected Resources. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/cetaceans/bluewhale.htm

WDFW Publications

Status reports

Fact sheet

Other resources