Twelve gray whales will receive a grand welcome from whale enthusiasts in Langley this weekend.
The annual Welcome the Whales Day Festival begins at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 19, at the Langley United Methodist Church, where attendees can learn about whales and other sea mammals through exhibits set up in Fellowship Hall. Children will have the opportunity to make whale costumes and paint their faces like whales in preparation for the second part of the event, the Welcome Parade.
Whales, jellyfish, and other marine creatures will march from the Island Church, down First Street, and end in Whale Bell Park. Fred Lundahl, Whale Center volunteer, described the event as “Langley’s favorite parade.”
“There are more people in the parade than watching,” Lundahl said.
The parade is scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. and starts at Sixth Street and Cascade Avenue. Participants will travel down Cascade, then First Street to end at Whale Bell Park. A ceremony welcoming the whales will follow, which will include a Native American prayer, music and singing, and what many will be hoping for — real whales.
Between February and June, 25,000 gray whales journey from Mexico to Alaska, which is the longest migration of any animal. Only 12 of these whales are known to pass through Puget Sound and make a stop in Saratoga Passage to eat the ghost shrimp. They frequent beds right in front of Langley and in Penn Cove. For the past 11 years, the festival has celebrated the return of this same group, which is known to scientists as the Saratoga Grays. These are the only known gray whales that come this far inland to feed. At least eight of the Saratoga Grays have already made their arrival in the Saratoga Passage.
Lundahl described what the gray whales do once they reach the Saratoga Passage.
“Usually each one stays for a couple of weeks feasting on our sushi bar of ghost shrimp,” Lundahl said. “Then they wander back out to the ocean and continue up to Alaska.”
It remains a mystery why just 12 gray whales make a detour to this area.
Scientists don’t believe they are related, but they may be all males as no calves have been observed with the group in the years they have visited Puget Sound.
Following the Welcome Parade will be a naturalist talk given by Mike Bursk at 3 p.m. at the Langley United Methodist Church. Bursk works the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, Calif. The institute is a non-profit facility, which strives to educate children about the ocean. Bursk is the captain of a 71-foot research vessel, which serves nearly 20,000 students annually. Additionally, he has performed his own research that extensively studied gray whales in the San Ignacio Lagoon, Mexico.
A whale watching cruise is also part of the festival and will commence the following Sunday, Apr. 27. Proceeds go toward the Orca Network.
For the first time, the event will be co-hosted by the Langley Whale Center. The center operates as a nonprofit with a mission of raising awareness of whales in the Pacific Northwest. Susan Berta, co-founder of the Orca Network, said the Whale Center provides a larger space for educational displays and activities.
The annual festival is a boon for local business, drawing tourists to the city and filling cash registers at city shops.
The festival gives people a reason to visit the city, Mayor Fred McCarthy said.
Tourists take part in the celebration and spend time shopping with merchants. Tristan Stanley, employee at Sweet Mona’s, said the festival is good for business. Along with the chocolate boutique’s usual supply of creamy fudge and savory sweets, Sweet Mona’s will be making whale shaped chocolates for the festival.
Star Store employee, Aaron Knower, also believes that the Whale Festival is beneficial to local businesses.
“It brings in tourists and it increases the clientele base for that week,” Knower said.
While it is not 100 percent certain that the whales will be visible on the day of the Whale Festival, there is a good chance that they will make an appearance. Berta said there have been gray whale sightings almost every day since the beginning of March. The Saratoga Grays are usually seen on the day of the event.
Lundahl believes that Langley offers a unique gray whale-watching experience.
“This is the only village in the world where you can watch whales up close from town,” Lundahl said.
An earlier version of this story included incorrect information about the relationship of the gray whales that visit Puget Sound and the number of individuals spotted this year.