Photographs capture humpback whale's Seattle visit, breaching in waters in front of Space Needle

Seattle (AP) — Pictures released by a conservation group show a young humpback whale breaching in front of the Space Needle as it visited the waters off Seattle last week, capturing a rare display of wildlife next to a major city.

The photos were also used to gauge the general health of the whale and create a serial identification number that will help researchers keep track of the young marine mammal.

This young whale, which is estimated to be about two years old, now has the designation of CRC-20899, according to Cascadia Research Collective.

The photos were taken by Jeff Hogan, co-coordinator of the Seattle-branch of Soundwatch Boater Education Program. Hogan shadowed the whale for most of its time in the bay to alert other vessels to it. Hogan said the whale looked healthy and watched it breach nearly 30 times.

Soundwatch has been operating off the San Juan Islands, where orcas are commonly found, for more than 30 years. The Seattle wing of the program debuted this past August with the aim to protect whales in busy Elliott Bay. Program personnel inform vessels of nearby whales so that enough space is given to the giant creatures. On any given day, car and pedestrian ferries, tugboats, private crafts, container ships and other vessels crisscross the bay.

“It not only was a beautiful day and experience, it was a great opportunity to collaborate with all operators out there,” said Alanna Frayne, a coordinator for Soundwatch. “This humpback provided education.”

Local whale watching groups have identified the young humpback as the calf of an adult female with the identification BCY0995, better known as “Smiley.”

Smiley’s last calf, Chip, was fatally struck by a Washington state ferry in 2020, according to the Canadian group Vancouver Island Whale Watch.

As the whale's population numbers rebound, visits to the Seattle metropolitan area by orcas that prey on mammals and cetacean whales like humpbacks and grays have been increasing.

Humpback whales visit the waters off Seattle as they migrate along the West Coast. Before the commercial whaling industry nearly drove them to extinction, researchers think the Puget Sound was used as a nursery by humpbacks.

The young calf was seen until Friday morning, Frayne said. Soundwatch boat followed it as the whale headed north and away from the city.