Every night before I go to sleep I would check the weather hoping that soon there would be a break in these early winter gale force systems blowing through Caamano Sound. Finally it appeared that the following morning conditions looked fair enough for a boat survey. I spend that night getting everything ready so that at the first hint of light I could be on the water. Just before sunrise I was putting the boat into gear and made my way out of Taylor Bight. This was the first time in almost 2 weeks my feet had left the island; the feeling of freedom was intense and I felt lighter with every moment. As soon as I turned the corner there was a blow, the largest I had ever seen. I stopped the boat and waited with my camera in hand; I was ready! I scanned and scanned, 20 minutes passed – nothing. After 30 minutes I knew I had to give it up. I was curious though and my imagination decided I had just missed the first blue whale to travel into Whale Channel in over a century. The truth is that most likely this was a fin whale; but for now my records will say baleen whale. I continued on, stopping every 3 km and scanning not only with my eyes but also using my sense of sound to listen for a blow. Humpbacks can sleep by just floating on the surface and are extremely difficult to see. After 3 stops and traveling now for 2 hours and not seeing a single blow I was beginning to get a bit worried. I turned from Whale Channel into McKay Reach hoping this would change. I travelled slowly, maintaining the same technique of stopping, scanning, listening, and then moving on. By the time I reached Bishop Bay my level of concern had heightened dramatically; where had all the humpback whales gone? I travelled deep into the bay until I reached the end and turned off the engine. Even with no whales this place of complete silence with giant old growth trees reflecting on the still emerald sea took the breath from my body. When I heard the blow of a humpback, then another and another I truly wondered if I fallen asleep and was now dreaming. It was all just to perfect. I hesitated to start the engine as that sound would only break this moment of magic. So I sat and waited. My patience that day would be rewarded as a mother, her calf and 2 adult humpbacks formed a line and traveled towards the boat, so relaxed, gliding past as if I was not even there. Then to my surprise the little calf turned back towards the boat, did a complete roll just a few feet away, stopping half way and making serious eye contact as my heart and jaw hung over the side of the boat. The water at this time of the year is so clear I could easily make out specific markings on this unusual creatures face. Then just as quickly with a swift flick of this youth’s tail he was back at mother’s side. The sound of a huge inhalation caught my attention as this signalled that at least one whale in this group was about to take a long dive; chances were this meant I would get my fluke picture for an ID. I really wanted to know who this mother was! One after the other a whale would arch its majestic back then gracefully position its tail high in the air, just long enough for me to take a picture. Finally it was the mothers turn, with effortless motion her body arched and then the moment of truth as her black fluke slid through the water and then they were gone. Her tail was completely black, not a speck of white. Could it be? I checked immediately and can honestly say that tears followed shortly after I realized that yes, this was Velvet, black as black but in the outline of her fluke it a small dimple. We have been watching this whale for years wondering which sex she was. Now with her first calf ever by her side we knew for sure. I sat alone in our boat and sighed, feeling so proud for a whale that I really do not know.
It was then that I noticed there was 5th whale, fast sleep, floating on the calm surface. Had it not been for the whale taking a breath I would have never known of its presence. I dared not travel over there and disturb this sleeping wonder. Instead I followed these 4 whales as they playfully traveled back towards the entrance to Ursula, then they also slowed in their movement and much to the small calf’s dismay went to sleep. The mother was so relaxed with her small calf rolling about her side, obviously not at all ready for a nap. The other 2 whales were also side by side but a good 300 meters away from the mother. I decided to travel back and see if by chance the lone whale had woken up. I did not have to travel far as to my surprise not only had this whale awoken, it had followed my boat and even more probably this group of whales out of the bay. It suddenly fluked and I was grateful my camera was already in position; a perfect picture in less than a second.
It was now time for me to continue this survey as it was already mid afternoon and this left me with only 3 hours before I would have to race home before nightfall. My departure would have to be slow with all these sleeping whales. By the time I reached Ursula and it was safe to go to speed another 30 minutes had passed. There was a bit of wind picking up but nothing to serious. The sun was still shining and was actually warmer than I had anticipated. I turned into Verney and hoped I would see another blow soon.
I once again followed the stop, look, listen procedure. After 45 minutes once again I feared there would be no more whales. Then, directly in the suns glare the most beautiful sight ever, if you are a cetacean nut like me, blows! Big, beautiful, tall explosive blows.
It was a feeding group for sure, but not bubble net feeding. Though they would all dive together and surface together, there were no calls and no bubbles. I guessed they were diving deep and feeding on krill. I tried to collect samples when they surfaced but there was nothing in the water to indicate their prey. Instead I focused on identification pictures. Soon I realized I had at least 2 females and I wondered if they may be pregnant. I would have to wait till next year to find out that answer. There were 6 whales in total, but they traveled in 2 groups of 3. What I found most interesting was that 2 whales, both which are female, would switch from one group to the other every 5 or so dives. I had to wonder why, and if perhaps more than just feeding was going on. Oh, to be able observe these whales underwater could solve so many mysteries.
I knew I would have to depart soon as I was over an hour away from the lab and it would soon be dark. I decided just one last encounter as deep in my heart I knew this could well be the last survey of the season. I turned the engine off and waited. The plan was to put the camera down and just experience the event. To my delight and shock this group of whales surfaced about 100 meters from the boat, then as one they all turned and headed right towards me. Is it possible that they also knew this may well be the last time we encountered each other until the next season? This is a question I may never have an answer for, and in that moment it did not matter. Their massive bodies of pure intelligence were about to greet the boat and an extremely blessed occupant. I was going to leave the camera off, but I could not help myself. I put the camera to video so I could experience and record at the same time. I would find out later that even though I was not looking through the camera but instead absorbed in the whales, the footage actually caught this moment. Then once again a deep inhalation and these creatures of the sea disappeared one after the other. Now it was also my turn to leave. I stared the engine and slowly made my way towards Wright Sound.
The sun was just about to set, fortunately the sky was clear and I traveled home as the colors turned from light shades of orange to pink to that purple grey just before dark. I made it back to the lab with just enough light to tie up the boat and canoe back to shore. Hermann knew I would be cold and was kind enough to have started a fire in the lab. With a warm cup of hot chocolate I told him about my day. I was high on whale memories and thought sleep would never come. To my surprise though as soon as my head was on my pillow I was out, dreaming of the next day I would spend with my treasured companions of the sea.
Written By :James Pilkington
Janie and her mother had been planning on going to Cameron Cove to walk the river to see the salmon run and the rich assemblage of life that gathers around estuaries like bears and wolves. While Janie and her mom were enjoying a nice walk up the river among giant sitka spruce, western red cedar and pools filled with spawning salmon, I was waiting out on the boat with Cohen and Neekas in Barnard Harbour, hiding from the strong outflow winds coming down Whale Channel, and just enjoying the quiet stillness of the harbour in the rain. I began heading back into Cameron Cove and received a call from Janie saying they’d be ready in 15 to 20 minutes for pick-up. I was pretty close to the river so I turned the boat back around into the breeze to wait for them and found myself looking at the distinctive blows and dorsal fins of orca, in the exact location where I was sitting just 10 minutes before! The next few moments were a flurry of excitement deciding whether to wait 10 more minutes to pick up Janie and her mom and hope the orcas will still be there, or head back into the harbour to find the orcas before they disappeared. Well, I chose to head out and see if I could meet the orcas! They’d just taken a dive and re-surfaced even further into Barnard Harbour, about 500m from King Pacific Lodge! These were transient orcas, a group of 7, including one very new calf. I was able to get a couple ID photos while the whales milled around in the harbour, then they began making their way out of the harbour to the West towards Red Fern Pt and Ashdown Island. I picked Janie and her mom up, and we went out to follow.
Large waves caused by strong outflow winds, and pelting rain greeted us as we exited Barnard Harbour. In light of this, we decided to slowly make our way back to Whale Pt while keeping an eye out for the orcas and were lucky enough to re-spot them crossing from Red Fern to Ashdown. After dropping Janie’s mom off, thinking the chances of re-locating the group was poor in the even poorer conditions, we set off to Ashdown hoping to get lucky. After spending a few minutes searching at the north end of Ashdown with no black dorsals in sight, wind buffeting and rain pelting, we were about to turn around and head back home when we decided to take a quick look into Casa Nave passage. To our relief and amazement, as we came around the corner of Ashdown into this productive little channel, we spotted the orcas tight together, like they’d just made a kill! The group broke up and began travelling S very tight to shore. Juvenile sea lions were seemingly everywhere, poking their heads up from inside kelp forests and tight along the rock wall shoreline, yet the orcas weren’t interested. They continued travelling within feet of the shoreline, and as they travelled a growing group of young sealions began porpoising along the steep shoreline feet from the orcas, moving in the same direction!! This occurred for about 200m until the shoreline gave way to a small crevice into which 4 to 5 sealions leapt out of the water. As the orcas pushed forward, and reached the SE tip of Ashdown, a group of at least 30 young sea lions began porpoising like a pod of dolphins around the corner away from the travelling orcas! As the whales veered their course towards the sea lion rocks, we had a strong feeling that we were about to witness the true mastery of these apex predators.
As the whales approached the rocks, they did not try to conceal their presence or make a stealthy sneak attack as one might have expected. They swam up to the rocks and seemed to systematically ‘test the waters’. About 75 to 100 sea lions were hauled out on the rocks, another 75 or more were in the water gathered close the rocks’ edges while another group of 30 were tightly packed in a floating group over a submerged nearby reef. The sea lions were obviously agitated and aware of the orcas presence; the sea lions grew very attentive, poking their heads out of the water, bellowing calls. Some sea lions were jumping out onto the rocks, others were jumping into the water; there was a state of worried confusion. With the sea lions in a frenzy, the orcas travelled around the rocks, through small narrow passages between the rocks, and up to the sea lions over the reef. They then began to make tighter and tighter passes in a coordinated effort that was carried out in an almost rehearsed fashion. The group would move towards the rocks together, sea lions porpoising out of the way and jumping onto the rocks, the orcas making quick maneuvers within inches of the rocks, then moving away to group up, and repeat, heading back to a different area of the rocks. There were no obvious moments signalling that a kill was made, no injured sealions or floating sealion parts! But the orcas were obviously hunting, and whenever they re-grouped after making a pass of the rocks it looked like they may be sharing a carcass under the surface, but there was no direct evidence of any kills. I wonder how many sealions, if any, the orcas successfully caught and consumed?
Janie and I were wet, it was getting late and the light was fading quickly. Hermann had reported on the radio that he was watching the whole event unfold from the comfort of the lab at Whale Point via the Sealion Rock Camera! The Sea lion rock camera is a joint venture between Pacific Wild, the Gitga’at First Nation and the North Coast Cetacean Society, and the Nature Conservancy. Making use of some nifty wireless technology to send live video from a camera mounted near the rocks to the lab at whale point, we are able to monitor activity at the rocks remotely. Eventually we hope that this can be live-streamed over the internet so everyone can experience the majestyof this place, but for now Whale Point will have to do. This encounter had been very successful thus far, we acquired the ID photos that would allow us to tell who these whales were and were able to observe their hunting behaviour. With the thought of having a warm place to watch the rest of the show from and darkness closing in at sea lion rocks, we decided to yank ourselves away from this unforgettable encounter. As we pulled away slowly, the orcas were still busy working the different groups of sea lions, showing us why they are at the top of the marine food chain.
September 24, 2011
By James Pilkington
Winter feels like it has arrived early this year; the big Aleutian Low is getting pretty comfy out in the Gulf of Alaska. For the past two weeks, storm force winds and pelting rain have become the norm, until today! Last night, conditions were calm enough and the tide high enough to get the boat off of the beach (where we safely stow it during storms), which meant today was going to be a day of working on the water!
The first order of the day was to head to the Squally Channel hydrophone station to try to fix it after it ceased working during the last big storm. On our way across Squally to the hydrophone site on Campania Island, Hermann and I were amazed at the large flocks of Pacific Loons on their southward migration. And they are not the only ones looking for southern latitudes; flocks of scoters, Mallards and Sand Hill Cranes have also been passing by in the masses the past week, marking the peak of the fall waterfowl migrations! The waterways around Gil Island and Caamano Sound are major migratory bird corridors for both the northward and southward migrations for thousands of waterfowl; the birds follow precisely the same routes around Gil Island as the proposed tanker traffic for the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal.
On our way back from a successful trip in Squally, we spotted a humpback whale on the west side of Ashdown Island and went over to try to get ID photos. It wasn’t a surprise to spot a blow over there, the west side of Ashdown Island is notoriously productive. Half a mile W of Ashdown Island, the bottom lies nearly 1000ft below the surface, but as you move closer to Ashdown the bottom rapidly ascends to within less than 100ft of the surface. This well-placed steep underwater cliff forces tidal currents to rise to the surface in an event known as ‘tidal upwelling,’ which brings cold water and rich nutrients to the surface where they create amazing amounts of productivity. And just to make it even more interesting, the tidal currents from Whale Channel, Squally Channel and Campania Sound all collide at this particular location, potentially driving even more upwelling! Well, if it wasn’t a surprise to see the humpback there, it also wasn’t a surprise to find hundreds of Bonaparte’s gulls and Black-legged Kittiwakes, dozens of Common Murres, Pacific Loons and Red-necked Grebes, several marbled murrelets, and the odd Rhinoceros Auklet gathered along the entire length of the shoreline. The whale was moving erratically and making shallow dives, typical sub-surface feeding behaviour, but there was no indication at the surface of the type of the prey it was feeding on. Krill? Herring? Pilchard? The birds were not any help in this respect either, as they seemed to be just ending a big feeding session soon before we arrived.
This humpback eventually took us down to Sea lion Rocks at the South end of Ashdown, where at least 250 Steller Sea lions were hauled out growling, roaring, and gurgling in their special sea lion way. We tried looking for one sea lion in particular, like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Last week, a guide from a local ecotourism lodge called us to report seeing a subadult sea lion at the rocks with a plastic packing strap stuck around its neck, so tight that it was close to causing an open wound. Plastic debris in the ocean is a major cause of pinniped (seals, sealions, furseals and walrus) deaths, and there is a large public awareness campaign underway to try to bite this bad littering habit of ours in the butt. Even though most of us do not place trash directly into the oceans, it finds its way there in the wind, the drainage systems, by falling off boats, etc. Which means we need to do one more thing to those packing straps and plastic can holders before throwing them out; break the loop! All we have to do is look at something before throwing it out and ask ourselves if the article has a closed circle. If it does, cut it or break it so that the circle no longer poses a risk to sea creatures in the event that the piece of trash does make it into our oceans (which happens much more than any of us realize, even if we live in places far from the ocean like Saskatchewan or Ontario). We did not end up finding the sea lion, and were forced to ponder the thought of the painful few years it has left to live as we made our way back to whale point.
Another item that was on the list for today was to go to the Skinner Island hydrophone and remove it before the storms removed it for us! The Skinner Island hydrophone is a very special hydrophone because its purpose is to record the deep subsonic vocalizations made by fin whales. Fin whales have been sighted very frequently in the past 4 years in the waters between Caamano Sound and Douglas Channel, and now have a near-constant spring and summer presence; one of the only nearshore coastal areas where fin whales are consistently seen close to shore (we do not yet know why, or whether they are also present in winter). One of our major research questions right now is to try to understand how daily oil tanker traffic could affect fin whales in this unique area, but to answer this question we need to know a few things, like how many use the area, what they do while here, how frequently they are here, and whether they vocalize while in the area. This last one is where the recorder on Skinner Island comes in. Because fin whales vocalize in a frequency that is too low for us to hear, we do not know if they are making any sounds or communicating in these waters. To get past this, we have teamed up with the DFO Cetacean Research Program who generously supplied the equipment (recorder, hydrophone, cable, battery and solar panel). After installing the hydrophone about 50-60ft below the surface, we set the recorder to record for 10 minutes every 20 minutes (or 10 minutes of every 30 minute period), all day every day. We then download these recordings at the end of the season and analyze them using spectrograms (visual representations of sound) to look for the low frequency calls made by fin whales. If we find that they are vocal then we can look at how frequently they vocalize, and what types of vocalizations they are making in order to get a sneak peak into their behaviour and better understand how the loud low-frequency sounds made by tankers could impact fin whales.
On Friday, after catching the bipolar British Columbian weather system in a particularly good mood, I headed out with living whale encyclopaedias Janie and James for our Gil Island boat survey. There aren’t many better ways to enjoy a beautiful day than cruising on the boat, taking in the scenery, across a sea so calm it looks more like mirrored fabric than water, rippling lightly in the breeze. The islands here are stunning in themselves - and that’s before you even start on the wildlife.
Interspersed in the waters around Gil, we sighted around 30 Humpbacks and one Fin over the course of the day. Our first “pocket” of whales was up around Ashdown, a feeding group who had broken up but were still lounging around a while after. They surfaced at similar times, despite keeping quite a distance between individuals, kindly allowing Janie her ID shots, carefully documented by yours truly. James, who I’m pretty sure has underwater vision, spotted a load of krill around the boat (several minutes before I was able to, despite the day’s astounding visibility). The hovering school appeared like the patter of rain on the surface of the still water, as if the droplets fell from underneath the ocean instead of down from the sky. Unfortunately for the krill, we were not the only observers of this beautiful spectacle, the disturbed surface acting like a beacon to seabirds in the area. Snack time! Seeing the little guys up so close, I was struck by how crazy it is to think that something as enormous as a whale has evolved to feed off miniscule krill. But then a Mitch Hedburg quotes sprang to mind -‘rice is great if you’re hungry and want a thousand of something’ (I now think of krill as whale rice). After getting the best we could in fluke shots from a rogue two who’d split off, we headed up Squally channel in search of more whales.
After stopping to check out a solitary Fin whale (by Fin Island – I was amused), several blows in north Lewis passage brought us to a halt. I have to clarify that I’m a whale enthusiast, not a scientist, and I don’t think that when I arrived in Prince Rupert, grinning naively at the thought of seeing my first humpback, that I could really comprehend just how huge and detailed these creatures are. Each encounter re-wires the way my brain understands whales – I nearly jumped out of my skin the first time one breached by the boat. The size! When we’re spotting whales from afar, we’re really only looking at the smallest part of the whale: the fin or the fluke. It’s a given, but to really grasp the entirety of what’s happening under the water is something I don’t think you can ever really visualise accurately. The size, the movement, the details, the action, the sound. After being lucky enough to observe a group bubble-net feeding next to the boat couple of weeks ago (and sneak a listen through the hull), I found that the close proximity to the animals influenced the way I perceive them from a distance. With each new experience, I feel a little *bzz* in my brain as it adds another piece to the puzzle, building up a mental picture of the way these creatures exist. It’s a jigsaw which I think very few people have come close to completing.
Luckily for me, there’s a whale out there that’s intent on showing the good people of Caamano Sound just how epic his species is. After a nearby whale went for a dive, leaving us without a good ID shot, we scanned the nearby water to see where he might surface. Janie casually joked that he was probably under the boat, when James (employing his superhuman underwater vision once again) pointed out that was indeed his location. Before the whale had even surfaced, both had their suspicions it was Ox, a local whale notorious for turning the tables on whale-watchers and embarking on a bit of people-spotting. He had evidently decided that we were in need of a full close-up. No complaints from our end.
The light, the visibility of the water – everything worked perfectly to let us take a full look as he swam from one side to the other (we scurried quickly back and forth as he passed under the boat, nearly flinging ourselves off the sides to get a better look). Just a couple of feet away were his long, white pectorals, his vast body so much larger than our little boat, and as he drifted by our side he showed us in one panning shot all the subtle nuances of his body that distinguish him as unique. The size, the detail, and also the control with which he executed his movements were incredible. I got the feeling he knew he was being admired, and a little smug about it at that, appearing for us again and again at arm’s reach. After he finally took off, we got back to ID’ing the others in the area, buzzing from our encounter and my brain rewiring, again.
He wasn’t finished yet.
In another 15 min or so, he was back. Evidently it takes more than a few spins around a boat to satisfy Ox. Out of the water he popped, spyhopping just a metre away from us with all the grooves, bumps and intricacies of his face on display. He was probably startled by the sound of three jaws hitting the deck. I’m not sure what he was thinking when he looked at us (Are all boat people red? Why isn’t their nose on their back?), but seeing his eye on us, and knowing that the whale was as engaged and as curious about what lies on the surface as we are about what lies beneath it, really left me awestruck. It’s an experience that will ripple and resonate in my memory. In my head, the *bzz* starts again, reconfiguring the picture I thought I had. I think that the term “gentle giants” is not quite on the money here; I’d paint Ox as more of a “friendly leviathan”. Curiosity satiated, he was off again, probably in search of whale rice and other boats to inspect.
It is 530am and once again we awake to the early morning bubble net feeding calls of resident humpback whales on the hydrophone speakers. I have become dependent on this routine of feeding calls filling the lab at first light as the start to another day filled with the joy of knowing whales are close by. This morning is different though. By the time we approach Squally Channel in our boat, Elemiah, not a single blow can be seen. How can this be after so many days of whales in sight with a glance in every direction? We travel, stop, listen; not a sound. It is then that I realize that just like us, whales also need to rest. Sure enough, with this moment of insight we hear a soft blow, then another. They are sleeping, spread out across the channel, floating at peace until another breath ripples the stillness of the water. We have a choice, do we disturb these sleeping giants to take photo IDs or do we show respect and move on? Of course, there is no real decision to be made and we slowly make our way out of this sleepy whale heaven. This is when karma comes into play. A call from the lab, Hermann is excited and instantly my gut senses he’s going to report ORCA! Sure enough, James at Ulric Pt has spotted at least 20 Orca heading NW from Rennison, the R5’s (including R5, R24’s and R4’s), the R17’s, and the old man himself, R12. If we decide to join this group of Blackfish it means crossing open ocean. We call Hermann back for a weather update; it is supposed to pick up late this afternoon but should be fine for the rest of the morning. We decide to just go for it and fly like the wind over the water to spend at least a few hours with the most dynamic whales ever encountered, the Orca! It takes us 40 minutes but the water was in our favour and the crossing was quite calm with just a bit of swell. There they are, 3 different matrilines of orca, in each group there are at least 3 to 4 large males, females and even a few juveniles, and oh, the cutest new born, so young he or she is still quite orange. To observe this new one, just beginning life, trying to keep up with her/his older siblings, moving by his mother’s side with such joy and spirit, right across the entrance to Enbridge’s proposed tanker routes, reminds me deep inside why we must save this place from even the thought of giant oil tankers traveling these waters. I must admit, in most of my days with whales, watching how they move through this environment with such grace and innocence, thinking of what may come truly breaks my heart but also fills me with the strength and courage necessary to do all we can to save this place for whales. Then, just as all these thoughts are passing I see a sight I would have never imagined.
A young fin whale is now following this group of orca. I shake my head, is this even possible! Sure enough, just as the family of orca come up for another breath, so does the fin whale, just 50 meters behind, curious and showing no fear. How does he know these are the fish eating orca? If he made this mistake with transient orca he would be risking his life. The orcas appear to accept this lone traveler at their side, as he gently comes a bit closer, now traveling 50 meters to the side of the group, then 25 meters; is this lone baleen whale trying to communicate with his fellow toothed whales? Does he instinctively know that he is safe when in close proximity to this family of killer whales? There is another group of 15 orca to the north so we decide to leave this group with their baleen companion. To our shock, when we arrive to the second group of orca there is another fin whale, this one is huge, probably about 70 feet long and is also attempting to be a part of this orca family, traveling at a distance of 50 meters behind, breathing when they breathe, diving when they dive. I am so excited to witness this unusual behaviour and desperately try to get a picture, but I cannot get both groups in the same frame. There is no doubt that the more we learn about whales, the more we realize how much we don’t know! We travel out towards the Estevan Group of islands. I have never been this far west, the rocky shorelines are an obvious hint that the weather here can turn fierce, and quickly. We know we cannot go any further but the desire to follow this parade of orca families is strong; we do not know when we will see them again. I take a deep breath in time with the orca; my soul soars as their perfect bodies glide effortlessly past the shore, giving Caamano Sound that picture perfect moment that says, beautiful BC. The wind picks up from behind, we know we must be wise and consider our own safety. We turn back and travel home to Whale Point.
Enbridge, beware; your oil tankers are not welcome here!
The last few days have been a whale bonanza! Every field of view seems to contain another blow, another whale. There must be food aplenty and the humpbacks are gorging themselves if the rate of feeding calls heard on the hydrophones is anything to go by.
We have a photographer staying with us at Whale Point so we have been out on the water at every available opportunity looking for humpback feeding groups to photograph. A few days ago I was out on the boat and whilst we didn’t find any feeding groups we encountered three fin whales. We got pretty close to them with the boat to get some pictures and the immense size of them is incredible. They are the second largest animal on the planet, being beaten by the blue whale by only two or three meters. Although we didn’t see a feeding group that day, scanning the horizon looking for one we saw numerous blows of solitary humpbacks. There were certainly plenty of whales out there!
Yesterday it was my turn on the boat again and this time I was lucky. After hearing feeding calls on one of the hydrophones we quickly located a big group of humpback whales bubble net feeding. There were probably 12 whales in the group but the photographs will have to be checked to confirm the number. It was an incredible event to witness up close. The whales would all rise to the surface blowing hard and enveloping us in pungent whale breath. Let’s just say ‘eau de humpback’ wouldn’t sell well. After a minute or two one of them would take a dive and raise its tail flukes in the air, quickly followed by another fluke. And another fluke. Fluke. Fluke. Fluke. One after the other until they were all out of sight. Once all had disappeared from view they would begin their feeding calls. Long, trumpeting sounds with a haunting beauty to them. Slowly bubbles would begin to break the surface, forming a circle to trap the prey and suddenly the whales would erupt through the water, vast mouths agape, and engulf their quarry. Once their prey had been sieved from the water they would start to blow and the whole process would begin again.
After spending almost three hours watching the whales feed they promptly fell asleep, forming a resting line spread over a kilometer. I guess those guys had had their fill so we made our way slowly back to the lab, photographing three or four other whales we encountered on the short journey. Once in view of the lab there seemed to be whales everywhere. There must have been eight or nine whales dotted around Taylor Bight, including a mother and calf pair.
We watched the whales until it began to get dark, turning our heads to the sound of every blow like observers of some kind of bizarre tennis match. Unexpectedly bubbles began to break in a circle right below the deck in front of the lab. The water was clear enough to make out the white flashes of the pectoral fins as a single whale slowly broke the surface on its side, much more graceful than the frenzied event I had witnessed earlier. Through the water we watched it slowly close its mouth, roll, and slip from view. After seeing something so amazing and with the light fading we weren’t expecting more, but the whales delivered. Three whales breached six or seven times, followed by some pectoral fin slapping and head lobs. A calf over by the shore rounded everything off with a final tail slap.
Snuggled in my tent after dinner the blows of the whales could still be heard, loud exhalations carrying easily over a distance of a kilometer in calm conditions. Listening to the breaths I remembered the volume of the feeding group from earlier, twelve whales blowing together makes quite a racket. A breaching humpback would give a thunder clap a run for its money. As I write this I don’t have the wonders of the world wide web at my fingertips to correct me if I’m wrong but I have only ever heard the term ‘pod’ used to describe a group of whales. A parliament of owls. A murder of crows. Birds have pretty cool collective nouns but as far as I am aware whales don’t. I’m afraid this just doesn’t cut it with me.
So here’s one: a cacophony of humpbacks.
It was 9am and Bryony, an intern with Whale Point, and myself, Janie Wray were just starting a day long whale survey when we received an urgent call from our whale research center located on Gil Island. A juvenile humpback whale just passed the lab and appeared to be entangled in a gill net. We turned back and were beside the struggling young whale within 15 minutes. It was immediately apparent that this situation was beyond our personal ability. Hermann, one of the researchers of Whale Point called Lisa Spaven at DFO and asked her if there was anything we could do. Her advice was for us to stay with the whale for as long as possible. That would not be a problem as the whale was only traveling 2 knots taking 2 to 3 breaths every 8 minutes. We knew this was going to be a long journey in to the night and we would not be able to take it on our own.
We called the Guardian Watchmen of Hartley Bay and within minutes Glen Reece and Robin Robinson were on the water to help us track the whale. By mid afternoon the whale had only traveled a short distance with the same routine of a few breaths followed by an 8 minute dive. It was not able to take a deep dive with all the fishing gear wrapped around its head and body. This included a buoy that was filled with water and a cork line that was dragging at least 40 feet behind the whale. The gill net itself was completely wrapped around the whale’s head, covering the blow hole. There was a good chance the young whale was not even able to open its mouth to feed. We assumed the net had not been on too long as the whale appeared to still have strength. We followed at a conservative distance of 300 meters away trying not to add any more stress to the situation. We knew the whale would not survive long under these conditions; we needed help soon.
Hermann called on the radio to say that Lisa Spaven from DFO was trying to find a way to get Paul Cottrell from DFO in Nanaimo to assist. He is one of the few people in BC that is trained to disentangle whales from ropes and fishing gear. The problem was we had no idea how we were ever going to get him up to Gil Island in time. Darkness was only hours away and it would be next to impossible to follow this whale without light. Our only chance was to ask King Pacific Lodge – a local ecotourism lodge in the area if we could get Paul on one of their flights. Leanne from KPL was fast to reply; they had a seat available but not until the next morning. We had to find a way to stay with this whale throughout the night.
Glen and Robin on the Guardian Watchmen (GW) boat took a break and went back to Hartley Bay to fuel up, grab coffee, food and a few sleeping bags for the night. We were all in open boats and the forecast was calling for rain and wind. I talked to Hermann; he was getting supplies ready for us to stay on our boat over night as well. Liam from King Pacific Lodge offered to pick up Hermann and bring him to the boat and drop Bryony off at the lab. This allowed me to stay with the whale on our boat while the GW searched for some submersible lights. The plan was to attach the lights to the net trailing from the young whale so we could see him in the dark. They made several unsuccessful attempts-- each time the whale finding a way to elude the boat. Darkness soon surrounded us and it became apparent we would have to use another method to track the whale. Based upon our own experience we decided the best technique would be to use our ears. We followed the pattern of blows from the whale and hoped that no other whales would show up and confuse the situation. However, we quickly discovered that 3 other whales were in the area. We decided to split up, with one boat tracking each group of whales. The only factor working in our favour was a half moon rising over the mountain and the clear sky above adding a bit more light to this desperate situation. We were diligent but by 2am we had to face the fact that we had lost the whale. Still, there was no way we were going to give up.
We split up, Robin and Glen traveled back towards Whale Channel and we went further into McKay Reach. We would travel, stop, listen for a blow, and then move on again. Not a single sound was heard. We could feel a mixture of exhaustion and panic mixed together like a giant knot twisting in our stomachs. By 5am there was a hint a light. We continued to search but with no luck. By now we were soaked, fuel and morale were low and we decided a mad dash home was our best option for us all to have the strength to continue the search. The GW did the same and within an hour we were back on the water with dry clothes, hot coffee and spirits high that we would find the whale.
Mean while Paul Cottrell arrived from DFO 1030am, thanks to the kind efforts of KPL. We decided on the best routes to take so we could cover as much water as possible. We would make contact through the Coast Guard as our route would take us out of radio range. We traveled all the way down McKay then Fraser Reach and back, asking every boat along the way if they had seen this whale. We turned into Ursula Channel we would travel for a distance, and then shut our engine off to listen for blows. The DFO boat, with Paul onboard, also took Ursula, but followed the other shoreline. Just knowing that someone with his experience was in the area made us all try that much harder; we had to find this whale!! Then finally a miracle, we saw a blow further up the channel. We were just about to travel in that direction when Paul called us on the radio; this was the whale!! Our bodies dropped and it was in this moment we realized how adrenaline alone had kept us motivated for the last 30 hours.
There were fresh tears of relief on all our cheeks. But this was to be the easy part. The real struggle was about to unfold. How do you safely remove a net from a humpback whales head?
The DFO crew had to attach their boat to the trailing cork line in order to attach the whale to their boat. Not an easy task to perform or to witness. It took almost 3 hours of failed attempts with the humpback changing direction each time making it next to impossible to know where he would come up next to breathe. The whale was exhausted and stressed. If only we could somehow communicate with this wonder of the sea and let him know we just wanted to help.
We stayed to the side with the Guardian Watchmen hoping for success when finally a scream from the DFO boat – they were attached! The whale was dragging their boat so they quickly raised their outboards. What we witnessed next was a group of men working so tightly together, their calmness and level of professionalism was inspirational. We were amazed how each person reacted, there was no shouting or signs of stress, only a high degree of confidence that comes from each person knowing their role and performing it well. They worked in silent coordination, performing complex tasks in a trying situation with each other and with the whale. If anyone could save this little whale it would be these men.
Each time the whale would come up to breathe the slack in the rope was an opportunity to wench in the lines and bring the whale in a bit closer to the boat. Minutes became hours with each cut of the gill net inching themselves closer to the whale. The closer the whale was to the boat the more frantic he became, which created a more dangerous situation for everyone involved. When the humpback would surface a tonal blow or cry of distress would echo over the water; it was the most heart wrenching sound one could hear and a frightening scene to observe but necessary if this whale was to be saved. We noticed that a young sea lion was now following the boat, his head high out of the water trying to understand what was happening to his marine companion.
Finally the whale was close enough to try and remove the first lead line that was wrapped around the body. We knew when there was success as this was accompanied by a loud cheer that would explode into the air. Our concern was not only for the whale, the brave men from DFO were also in danger. The whale, at times, would charge, twisting the boat in all directions. The chances of one of these men falling in the frigid waters were great. At one point the whale turned towards land as if he would ram the boat against shore; fortunately this did not happen.
We noticed Paul looking at his watch and we knew why, it was already 8pm.Since locating the whale 7 hours had passed and darkness was an hour away. If they were not able to free the whale before dark we had no idea what they would do. This is when the whale did something that startled us all. He moved under the boat, over to the side as if he was planning to roll the boat. They were lucky this was a small juvenile. Had it been a full grown adult it is hard to say what would have happened. From under the boat we could see his head completely covered in the net with one line ripping into his blow hole.
Then everything happened so fast...
We heard a rip, rip, rip sound and in stunned silence we realized that the whale used the pressure of boat to release itself from the net. We immediately turned our boat to follow the whale. Oh my god, to see this young whale swim free, his body finally able to move with the true grace of a humpback filled every part of my soul with pure gratitude. With his first breath we could see that there were no longer any nets or ropes pulling or cutting through the skin. This whale will be scarred for life from this experience, but he now has a chance at life. We took one last picture as the whale sped through the water into the mist of Ursula Channel. We had a quick chat with Paul and his team; it was too bad it was getting dark as we would have been keen to hear what they had experienced. We knew we had to make a dash home as it was not only getting dark, but a south east storm was brewing.
These last 48 hours had shown us once again how this tiny yet powerful community along the isolated north coast of BC can join together, each of us giving our all to save this young whale. We give thanks to the Guardian Watchmen - Glen Reece, Robin Robinson and Alex Clifton who stayed with us alongside the whale until help arrived. To Leanne and the staff at King Pacific Lodge who without hesitation put Paul on a flight from Vancouver. Without Paul Cottrell and his crew from DFO, Brian Gyorfi, Garry Otto and Jason Dave this whale would have suffered a slow death. Thank you for your diligence and unique expertise and the opportunity to see true heroes at work.
To the humpback whale, who needs a name: be well, be safe and live long.
We will have a video posted on this website as well on Utube in the next few days of this entire event, the footage is just amazing!!
I picked up dear friends from Hartley Bay a few days ago, wanting to share with them the glorious beauty of this area. As we drove the boat on the glass top water, amazed this was an ocean and not a lake, we spoke of Enbridge and the possibility of massive oil tankers disrupting the majestic quality of this pristine ecosystem. It is amazing to me how many people in BC are not aware of the intention of this company and the risk they are willing to take in regards to an oil spill in one of the last untouched areas left on this planet. A place for our children’s children to explore and experience what the earth was meant to be. To step back in time and understand how nature alone can pull every single heart string within us all; to remember the bliss of stillness. This was the conversation taking place on the boat when the echo of a blow turned all our heads towards to west. A dorsal, dark and tall broke the surface, then another and another. Even I, after all these years of spending time on the water with whales could not believe this sight. Over 30 orcas were approaching the boat in a resting line. Mothers, calves, old males with 6 foot towering dorsals and a group of young juveniles breaking the pattern with spy hops and tail slaps captivated the moment. When you realize pods of orca are close knit families, spending every day of their lives together, traveling side by side, your respect and admiration for these whales leaves you speechless. We stayed with this traveling wonder of whales until in the distance we saw even more blows. These blows were very different, reaching the height 30 feet. I knew right away these were not orca blows, but the blows of humpbacks and there had to be at least 10. Could it be possible that we were about to encounter a large feeding group of humpbacks while being escorted by 25+ orca! Yes, this was really happening! As we approached the humpbacks the orcas took a turn to the south, we gave thanks in our own way, and then turned the boat towards the humpbacks. One cannot ignore the tonal blow of even one humpback, let alone 10 tonal blows at once. This group of resident humpback whales were feeding and soon I was able to identify each individual by their flukes. They dove, one after the other, taking position to form a large net of underwater bubbles that would force all the herring to the surface. Then their massive mouths, wide open, broke the surface with sounds of thunder. There were loud gasps on our boat; this family had never seen such a sight in their lives. The feeding frenzy went on for hours, but eventually we had to travel home, the beating sun was taking a toll on us all. To say we were grateful for this day would be an understatement. For me, I felt blessed that one more family and their children were able to experience the magic of this place. I hope they will take this memory home and share with their friends just how vital it is that we protect this coast for whales and every other species that deserves to call this home.
Written By Holly Yates
As my first week at Cetacealab goes by I watch the weather move across the water towards the lab. The rain rolls in, the wind rocks the lab and the visibility becomes extremely poor! With the rainy weather the whales seem to disappear. I like to think that they only come out on sunny clear warm days but I know realistically that those whales are out there I just can’t see them!
With the lack of whale sightings I learn about a whole new concept connected to whale research, it is what Carol calls the ‘no blow blues!’ The no blow blues is what happens to everyone in the lab when no one has seen or heard from a whale for a lengthy period of time. What are the behaviors associated with the no blow blues? The person experiencing these blues looks longingly through binoculars, wanders listlessly from window to window looking, hoping for some sign of something on the horizon and does what I like to call the ‘pee pee dance’. This is the dance one does when they have to go to the bathroom but refuses to go for fear of missing something! The most important behavior to note as a sign of the no blow blues is mass consumption of chocolate and chocolate chip cookies, really anything with the word chocolate in it is consumed.
I decide to try to break up the no blow blues by taking a walk to the creek although, I am a little nervous about missing something I go anyways. On my way out the door I put on my rain gear and rubber boots, I grab some chocolate, hit the outhouse and call Cohen the resident puppy and we hit the trail. As we climb the trail to the creek Cohen waits patiently for me as I regularly find myself stuck in the mud up to my knees as I struggle up the hillside. As we near the creek I am suddenly struck by the beauty of The Great Bear Rainforest. The varying shades of green in this forest are stunning. The richness and density of the forest seems to wrap itself around me like a comfortable cozy blanket. With each step forward I sink into a carpet of moss and foliage. The no blow blues seem to lift little by little.
When I arrive at the creek I think this is no creek this is a class 5 rapids situation! I cling to Cohen’s collar for fear that he may fall into this raging river that used to be a creek. No fear of running out of water down at house. Thank you Mother Earth for providing us with everything we need!
Upon returning from the walk I settle in for another shift of scanning the horizon every 20 minutes in hopes of discovering some sort of blow. As my scan shift nears its end and I have continually wrote ‘nothing to report’ on the data sheet. The no blow blues set in once again. I sit at the computer, sad and blue, and begin to enter my ‘nothing to report’ data into the computer. Suddenly the door crashes open (later I check to make sure the door hinges are still intact) and all I see is the blur of Hermann’s orange sweater run by. He is yelling, “Did you guys see the whale, it just surfaced beside the mooring buoy!”
At this point it’s all hands on deck! Everyone in the lab dashes outside into the rain onto the deck waiting anxiously for the surfacing of the humpback whale. I am holding my breath bursting with anticipation. And there she is! She surfaces approximately 35 feet away from where I stand. She blows dives and flukes, spectacular! The sheer enormity of the humpback whale is incredible and the size of the blow holes – WOW! Hermann takes an impressive photo of her fluke, it is beautiful. We later find her in the catalogue. Her name is Loner because she is almost always seen alone. She first arrived at the North Coast feeding grounds in 2008 and has continued to return. Loner will always be my favorite humpback whale because she was my first close up humpback whale sighting.
I thought not much could top the visit from Loner the humpback whale but Mike’s famous Calzone for dinner came close, it was super delicious! Thanks Mike. Highlight of the day, the elimination of the no blow blues!
The days have changed since this last entry, there are no more blow blues happening at Whale Point as 2 mother and calf fin whales have us in work mode. We are just getting ready to go our on the boat as we can see even more blows in the distance. We will let you know later how it all goes!
We also will be posting a few times a day on Face Book, our name there is Whale Point so please join us there for in the moment whale reports.