Sunday, 10 July 2011 11:45

Beginning with Transient Orca

Written Leah Robinson

 

The day took off like a flash as Janie yelled ‘Orca’ from the lab at 06:30am.  Six transient orcas were heading west in Whale Channel and everyone jumped into gear to document the event.  Hermann made his way towards the boat and anyone that was ready to help had to get ready in record time…2 minutes!  Holly awoke from her deep sleep, exited through the wrong door and found herself standing stunned and motionless, in her underwear, after bumping into the tree behind her tent.   At that moment it was apparent that she wouldn’t be able to get ready in time.   Meeghan and I shot in to gear and we headed out with Hermann in ‘Elemiah’.   The day was grey and drizzly and the sea was calm.  The whales were straight off the lab approximately 1 km away.  There were three females, two juveniles and one calf and they hugged the shoreline of Ashdown Island as they slowly headed west.  Janie and Mike stayed at the lab and were recording calls on the Home station; the orcas were extremely vocal.  We observed the group tail slapping, slowly traveling and rubbing against one another.  At one point, one of the females remained stationary, tight to a rock covered with seals, as her dorsal fin hovered above the surface.  It must have been an intimidating sight to the seals, but they maintained their composure and the female moved on.  As we all approached the south end of Ashdown and the whales made their way into Campania Sound we moved in a little closer to obtain photo Id’s.   The water was like glass and even though it was quite murky you could clearly make out the features of one of the juveniles through the waters surface as she swam over to the port side of the boat to have a look.  Her body glided effortlessly while assessing the scene.  We managed to get the photos we required as quickly as possible and then left the group to the open sound as they headed south.  We turned to the north to make our way back to the lab and spotted two humpbacks heading towards sea lion rocks.   We counted over one hundred stellar sea lions with a quick scan of the binoculars.  We positioned ourselves for tail fluke photo Id’s and by the time they surfaced a third humpback had joined the group.  Their bodies rubbed against one another as they came together in our view.  What a morning!  Orcas and humpbacks before breakfast…and the day had only begun!

 

…to be continued!

Friday, 08 July 2011 09:38

A Whale Survey

It finally happened, I got to assist on a boat survey.

(As a side note, I am very grateful to Janie and Hermann for this opportunity.  It has been so busy here, and they have many responsibilities, that it has been hard to find the time, and the weather, for boat surveys.  It was clear that the boat survey resulted in extra work for everyone at some point.)

7 a.m., partly cloudy, excellent visibility, a 0 on the Beaufort Scale (which means the seas were calm, with a mirrored surface).  We cruise into Whale Channel.

Now, here’s the deal with nature and being a researcher.  We are not actually here to be tourists or whale watchers.  We are here to help collect information that can be pieced together in order to understand whales and protect them and their habitat.  But, of course, we love the whales and of course we want to see the whales, just like everyone else.  But we also don’t want to pester, bother, or harm the whales in any way.  So, we have to use our good sense and research protocols.

So, we saw a blow, we motored up and there she was, a large humpback . . . with a calf! We sit quietly.  She dives; we get a photo of her fluke.  Janie is thrilled; it is Cheetah.  She says that she has suspected/hoped Cheetah is female, but she didn’t know for sure.  The presence of a calf confirms it.

Now, there is another whale. It seems to be a juvenile.  This whale quickly gets nicknamed “Cheeky” by Janie as she tries to get an ID photo and he dives and just almost flukes, but then, nooo.  He slides under without showing his tail.  And then, he dives sideways.  And then, he sneaks off in a different direction.  Cheeky.

Of course, this is a good  example of how easy it is to ascribe intentions to whale behaviour.  Cheeky was probably aware of the boat, but it was, of course, not really teasing us.  It just seems so difficult for us humans not to try to see patterns and motivations, feelings and relationships.  Maybe it’s part of human nature.  Maybe it is our desire to understand?  Maybe it is our wish to have a relationship with the whales.  The system of naming whales symbolizes this for me.  On the one hand, each whale is assigned a letter/number combination that logically indicates the sighting.  But, they also get “nicknames.”  One researcher told me that it is just easier for humans to remember names rather than numbers.  On the other hand, being at Whale Point, I’ve met researchers who prefer to call Orca by their numbers because that identification seems more authentic than the nicknames.)

There is also another juvenile in Whale Channel.  This may be a newcomer to the area.  We get an identification photo, but Janie doesn’t recognize him.  He travels into our view, near, far.  Mike starts calling him the Mysterious Stranger, which quickly morphed into the name “Mysterioso.”

And, there are blows far in the distance.

Janie is taking photos, Mike is recording data, and I have one eye on the whales close to the boat and the other on the distant blows.  This was a researcher moment for me.  I want to just gaze at the whale close by, but we really are trying to get a picture of the population and their interactions, so it is important to keep an eye on those distant whales.

We take leave of Cheetah and her baby and meet the distant whales as they travel toward us.  It is SARAH!  Ah lovely Sarah and her calf.  They had spent most of a day in Taylor Bight a few weeks ago.  Sarah is a very large momma whale with a bony outline.  We are happy to see her feeding next to her plump calf.  I hope to see Sarah with a plump outline, herself, before the end of summer.

Here we are in Whale channel, with six whales in our view.  Some near, some pretty far, but all of it is magnificent.

Cheetah and her calf travel a little closer.  The baby is floating on the surface like a log bobbing in the waves.  Then we hear bubbles.  What?  Yes, the baby is just floating and blowing bubbles.  Then he stops, then he blows more bubbles.  Hmmm, babies are babies?

Cheetah and Bubbles are doing their thing (feeding and blowing bubbles).

Sarah and her calf (I think she needs a name) are coming a little nearer again, and nearer.  It’s just so quiet and mellow watching these creatures.  And then it is not.  Baby leaps out of the water landing with a smack and a huge splash.  Then  again, this time managing a little twirl to her leap.  Then, Sarah follows her in a tremendous breach!  (Did you know that whales often poop when they breach?  I sure didn’t.  Later we looked for some whale poop. No luck.  Sigh.)

We take a last look around at the whales who are widely dispersed across Whale Channel and chat a little bit about what we’ve seen.  It is really interesting that moms and calf groups don’t usually hang out together.  But, how do you know if a whale is with another whale.  Surely, when they are side by side or interacting they are together.  But what if they are traveling along in the same area going in the same direction?  Do whales have a larger sense of what counts as “nearby.”  Maybe being within a kilometre of each other is hanging out together?  It’s interesting to think about – and research.

As we leave satisfied.  I look back for a last peak at the gorgeous scene, oh and to make sure the whale watching vessel isn’t speeding too fast toward the whales.  Woah, then, wow, wow, wow.  A whale breaches and slams into the water.  And again. And again, and . . . 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 times.  It is far in the distance, but still, pretty amazing.  We wish we knew who it was.  Sarah?  Cheeky.  Mysterioso?

I think it is significant that although we had just left the area and “missed out” on seeing the breaching whale up close, I don’t feel one bit regretful or unfulfilled.  I still feel happy and grateful for having spent the morning with the six whales and with Mike and Janie.  The companionship was top notch and the detective work of figuring out the relationships and identities was fascinating.  And the whales are still just awe inspiring.

Tuesday, 05 July 2011 14:48

Beginning of a Whale Journey

 

Written By:

Holly Yates

Finally after a flurry of preparations I am on the ferry on my way to Cetacealab at Whale Point, the Pacific North Coast and the Great Bear Rainforest!  Half way to Prince Rupert I realize I am officially on the Pacific North Coast, I am dressed in the official attire of wool socks and sandals. I am also vigilant about keeping my eyes open at all times watching for whales.  What will I see, when will I see it, I don’t want to miss a thing!  And there she blows, my first humpback whale sighting of the trip, yippee!

Not only am I honored with the presence of the humpback whale but, there are also Dalls porpoises.  I watch as the porpoises and humpbacks socialize together.  The porpoises jump and leap around the humpback while the humpback lazily rolls onto its side and waves its massive pectoral fin from side to side.  While the frolicking and socializing continues I hear the songs of the humpback and porpoises.  I very much enjoy their song, the rich baritone of the humpback combined with the high pitch squeak and clicks of the porpoises accompanied by symphony of splashes. (Hermann says that the human ear can’t hear the high pitched tone of the porpoise so he looks doubtful as I share this story with him.  But I am sure that I can hear them because I have heard this sound more than once while observing porpoises, so who knows. Although I am the untrained ear!) The song is soothing to my ears, warming to my heart, brings gratitude to my soul and tears of joy to my eyes. I look around the deck of the ferry no one else is around.  Only I bear silent witness to this magical moment of socialization and song.  I am so grateful to be here.  I am in the majestic magical North Coast!

After my first humpback whale and Dalls porpoise sighting I began to walking, at a rapid pace, from starboard to port, port to starboard so many times that I am sure I am single handedly rocking this ship from side to side.  I can’t stand the thought of missing anything!  I have become a one woman ferry rockin’ machine!

Suddenly, I stop my side to side brisk walking; something feels different in the air.  Do I hear the distant sound of singing and drumming? Are my ears playing tricks on me?  I take a quick look at the map and realize I am in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest.  This place is truly magical.  The air is still and quiet, the nutrient rich water is still and jade green.  I am surrounded by the snow-capped mountains of Princess Royal Island.  Everywhere I look there are waterfalls and rivers cascading into the ocean.  My eyes follow the trail of sea foam, sea foam created by the convergence of fresh water and salt water, reaching far into the coastal waters.  I notice the fog.  The fingers of fog begin to slide down the mountain side.  I know that soon my sight will be limited by the fog.  I try to absorb my surroundings as quickly as possible; this place is like no other place I have travelled to.

With the arrival of fog my surroundings change.  With the fog comes calm.  With the calm comes limited vision.  I rely on my senses to explore this mysterious environment.  I smell the moisture in the air; it feels cool on my skin.  I feel the history, the spirit of the people, the land, the animals; I feel the magic of Mother Earth here.  The mysterious beauty of the Great Bear Rainforest is penetrating my soul, my being; I am already wondering how can I ever leave this place?

Finally, after two ferry rides and a boat ride I arrive at Cetacealab, yippee!  It is breathtakingly beautiful here.  I rush to set up camp; I don’t want to miss a thing I must get into the lab!  Shortly after arriving at the lab a humpback whale arrives in Taylor Bight while I listen to songs of distant humpbacks on the hydrophone.  Is this the local welcoming committee? This is the greatest welcome I have ever had!  I am here at Cetacealab!

Sunday, 03 July 2011 07:26

Another day another hydrophone

Another day another hydrophone

by Mike Cavatorta

Today Hermann and I went to do the other side of hydrophone installation, the setup of a remote power station to supply electricity.  This station is on Squally Channel, on the East coast of Campania Island and having it running will allow us to hear vocalizations to the West of Gil Island that would not be picked up by the other hydrophones.  Once again we don the heavy, stiff survival suits for the trip on the water and load the tools and materials over the rocks onto the boat.  The batteries and the big aluminum box that holds them are on site, the rest of the equipment consists of tools, a solar-electric panel, wind turbine, antenna, and lots of heavy cables.  It doesn’t sound like much as I write this but transporting anything heavy or bulky (including myself) over the slippery jagged rocks and seaweed is a very arduous process.  I remember as child enjoying the challenge of traversing rocky shores next to the ocean, jumping from rock to rock and over seaweed and tide pools.  Now I’m just worried about getting hurt falling on the rocks or even just wet, which could equal cold and uncomfortable for the rest of the day.  Even a relatively minor injury here would send me home.

After unloading on Campania we start moving the batteries and box to a central location between the solar panel, wind turbine, transmitter box and antenna.  We are using a small and seemingly overgrown trail, I assumed that Herman had made the trail last year but he later informed me that it is a wolf trail. The site is on a small point and we set up the solar panel on the south side, nestled among the rocks above the high tide line.  The transmitter will go on the North side, close to the anchors for the hydrophone cable.  The wind turbine is installed in a spruce tree at the Eastern tip of the point.  Meeghan has barred me from climbing trees after a fall at work last year so this is all up to Hermann.  After my own fall I still have little fear of heights, but I am very nervous watching him climb and remembering that it doesn’t take a long fall to get one seriously hurt.  Hermann is occasionally swearing and cursing in German and all I can do is shout up occasional words of support/encouragement.  Spruces are not easy trees to climb, especially for a tall adult.  Again I remember being a child and really enjoying climbing trees, the challenge to see how high you can get or just what is up there.  I think neither of us is getting a whole lot of joy from tree climbing today.  At least I can be useful stripping and laying out cable.  I run cable from the solar panel and the wind turbine site to the battery box.  I think we have enough left over to connect to the transmitter box that will be placed closer to the north side of the point.  After the turbine is installed Herman hooks up the charge controller and is pleased that we are getting current from both sources.  It seems absurd that what I just described took all day to complete but it did and all the while the tide was dropping so the trip back to the boat was extra long and slippery with all the tools etc.   But this is what it takes to do this type of research and data collection in a remote area.

After a few more trips and a dive by Hermann, Squally Hydrophone Station is now up and running and providing access to the acoustic world of the whales.  Because Herman and Janie can distinguish different Orca clan and family groups from one another from hearing the calls they make, these hydrophone stations  provide a great deal of information about which Orca families are here and what areas they are frequenting.  This is one more tool for understanding both the Orcas and the importance of the marine resources of the Great Bear Rain Forest.



Tuesday, 28 June 2011 06:35

With Whales at Ulric Point

 

I spent the last two weeks at the Cetacealab outcamp at Ulric Point: a small shelter perched on some rugged rocks above the storm tide line at the northern tip of Aristazabal Island outfitted with a camp stove, food barrels, a compass, binoculars, the Big Eyes (a wonderful spotting scope), a resident mouse, data sheets, and a great scientist who has dedicated yet another season to collecting ecological information about Caamano Sound in hopes of protecting it, James.

James and I observed all the water we could see from Ulric Point on and off from morning to night each day. Among hours of rain, fog, and waves were many more hours of great conditions where we could see all the way to the horizon with the Big Eyes. And wow, the things we saw. Right after I finished pitching my tent on the day I arrived at Ulric an enormous humpback swam by the shelter, right off the rocks. As it passed by it raised a huge bumpy grey-blue and white pectoral fin out of the water before diving and disappearing from the surface for a few minutes, reappearing farther out into the sound announced by a soft blow. We saw or heard orca nearly every day. On the day Hermann took me to Ulric, he and James finished putting in the hydrophone at Ulric Point so James and I were able to listen to orca while observing them. We saw and heard mostly the A30’s and A36’s. We saw an orca calf (A50’s new calf) breach and then interact with a Dall’s Porpoise, swimming alongside it and porpoiseing with it, ending each porpoise with an enthusiastic tail slap. We saw the resident humpback feeding group bubble net feed right by the hydrophone less than 100m from shore, five river otters swim in front of the shelter one night at sunset, a very confused-looking and very cute sea otter (one of the first ever seen in Caamano sound after sea otters were hunted nearly to extinction, which is very exciting), sea lions every day, harbour seals lurking around the kelp forest, a few elephant seals, and many beautiful seabirds. Near where James and I had our tents in the forest there was a bald eagle nest and we saw the pair nearly every day perched on their favourite tree just west of the shelter, swooping down ever so often to snatch an unsuspecting fish from just below the surface of the water.

 

More from Katie in a few days!

Wednesday, 15 June 2011 10:07

Fin Whale Follows Orca

 

Blog written by Meeghan Ziolkowski

Fin Whales and Orcas

5:45 a.m.   I hear the sound of a man’s voice calling across the water.  “It’s Hermann!  There are whales.”  I jump up, stuff my feet into my boots, tear out of the tent. In less than ninety seconds  I am on the rocky point to see if Hermann’s waiting.  He’s not.  It was two sport fishermen yelling to each other about something utterly un-whale related.  I find out later that Hermann was out on the research vessel, Elemiah, trying to solve the mystery of why the “Sea Lion Camera” signal isn’t transmitting to the lab.  Sigh.

7:45 a.m.    The alarm goes off and I am up (again) and in the lab having my first cup of tea.  The VHS radio squawks, “Whale Point, Whale Point -  Elemiah.  If someone can be ready in ten minutes they can come check out the orcas reported.”  Mike dashes to grab the survival suits.  I grab our “whale bag” which is pre-packed with water, granola bars, sunscreen, camera, binoculars, sun hat, and toilet paper.  With a “marine mammal sighting sheet” in my other hand I’m off to the boat.

8:45 a.m.     We’re still in sight of the lab when we see the first orca.  It’s a familiar one, well, it’s a familiar one to Hermann; I’m just getting to know him.  It’s A46 .  He’s been sighted a few times already this spring; he spent some time in Taylor Bight feeding just the other day.  He rounds York Point and heads toward the lab.  His brother A37 and adopted A12 meander by later.

9:45   There are more orcas traveling toward us in Whale Channel.  They are far in the distance, but we hear reports over the radio.  I love this.  “Elemiah, Elemiah from Daryl, there are orca outside Bear Point.” “Whale Point, Whale Point from Logan, just calling to make sure you see the breaching humpbacks off Ashdown.”  It’s really encouraging how many people care about the whales, how friendly and helpful they are, and how much they support Hermann and Janie’s work.

As we wait for the orcas, a gorgeous fin whale glides by.  She is long and sleek, solid grey without a blemish, and massive.  AND, by her side is a calf.  They just slide through the water and sink below, Queens of the Sound, hardly making a ripple.

We try to get some identification photos, but they are moving away quickly.  (Because of their size, they manage to move very slowly, regally, and yet cover a lot of distance, fast.)

We just drift and wait.  Whale researchers are patient.  Patient and determined and passionate. It’s the kind of passion that doesn’t seem to diminish over time.  All of us volunteers get really excited when we see whales; but, it’s really telling that Hermann and Janie still get excited.

10:45     Back to the orcas who are cruising toward us in a loosely woven group.  It is impossible to overstate their beauty.  They gleam in the sunlight.  But, they are not just beautiful, they also powerful animals and precision swimmers.  One of them swims close by the boat and we can see him under the water.  I’m not sure why, but seeing a whale underwater takes my breath away.   Even though it is easier to see them clearly above water, underwater is where they live.  It’s a blurry picture, but it’s a more complete and, somehow, more intimate picture of them.

The family we are with are the “A23s”.  The oldest female and male are the siblings of a really famous orca named Corky.   She lives in a tank at SeaWorld and is the oldest captive whale.  There’s been a movement to return Corky to the wild and her family.  We watch this whale splashing along with her family and know that her sister, who would normally be right by her side, is in a small tank, far far away.

Swoosh, and they are by us.  And now they are right by a fin whale.  At first we think it is the same momma and calf, but we don’t see the baby.  Not to worry, though, the A23s are resident orcas; this means they eat fish.  (Evidently, “Mammals are friends, not food” to these whales.)  It seems that orca traveling with fin whales is fairly unusual.  James, who staffs and outpost on Ulrich Point (picture seaweed covered jagged rocks, a rickety shelter, a giant viewing scope, and a dedicated Canadian) says that he saw this only once last year.

Seeing the orcas nearby really puts fin whales into perspective.  Orcas are not petite: 25-35 feet long and up to six tons (that’s SIX elephants!)   But next to the fin whale, the orcas look like fish fry darting about a boulder.  At one point the fin whale dives facing us and we get a view of her girth.  Wow.  She’s really HUGE. “ Just to be clear,” Georgie points out, “tell them fin whales are NOT fat. They are very, very sleek.”  It’s true.  It’s just that they are so long (80 ft)—well, they are the second largest animal on earth.  This led to a very interesting discussion in the lab as I’m writing.  I had Mike looking up facts for my blog and oddly he had a hard time finding the belt size of a fin whale.  His rough calculations came to 35’ around.

Back to Elemiah and the whales.  The fin whale eventually dives away.  The orcas look like they are stopping for a snack.  They are diving and milling around, having a few fishy bites to eat.  And THEN, we hear a tonal blow--the elephantine exclamation of a humpback.

We leave the diving humpback surrounded by leaping orca, the fin whale and her calf to a day with out the presence of our curious eyes.

 

 

 

Friday, 10 June 2011 10:44

Identifying Whales

“Next to actually watching the whales, this is the best part,” Janie tells me two mornings later as we start sorting through photos to try to identify the whales.   At first I found it exhausting; later, when I got to use my new skills, it was pretty exciting.  We sorted through dozens of photos; some were clear identifications, most were blurry, side flukes, too small, too dark, too light, too curly, too twirly. . .    We sorted through them to clearly identify the five whales that were in the Bight the day before:  Sarah and calf and three juveniles new to the area.

The best part came later in the day. Mike, Georgie, and I were on our own in the lab (and doing a fantastic job of it).  Early in the day Mike spotted three humpbacks fairly far in the distance.  By my shift they were in “F, M” which means they were in West Taylor Bight, but to the south of “white log beach” about medium far from shore. The three whales came in closer and closer and then travelled slowly right by the front of the lab.  We followed them, clicking away but only getting photos of their somewhat spotty sides and tiny dorsal fins.  They were clearly resting, moving slowly, and not fluking.  Well, as one lazed by, he raised his fluke half-heartedly, barely showing two inches above the water.  They circled around the east side of Taylor Bight.  Yesterday I missed the humpbacks who were so close to shore that Janie looked one right in the eye.  I was hoping for a repeat performance.  It wasn’t quite that spectacular, but they did get pretty close.  Although, on this second pass by the lab the air became very, very stinky.  And then the jokes began about resting, pooping whales.  (Poor whales.  Sometimes research volunteers get a little punchy and for a moment forget their magnificence. It was probably just their breath, anyway.)

Back to the photo identification.  Finally, finally, the whales fluked and Mike captured some great photos.  I dashed to the computer (yes, I know, in geeky fashion, leaving the actual whales for the digital ones). While Mike continued to track the whales I downloaded the photos onto the computer.  (I quadruple checked myself during this process, terrified I’d make a mistake and somehow ruin all whale research forever by accidentally deleting something.  All went well, though.  The disc went back into the camera and the photos are safely in their neatly labelled folder.)  I thoroughly loved the tedious detective work of sorting through this new batch of photos we collected all on our own to pick out the best ones for identification and to sort out who was here.  At the end of looking at spots and dots on the flukes I picked out an id photo for each whale.

When Janie returned from the research boat I was grinning like a five year old presenting a homemade mother’s day present.  Janie very kindly accommodated by eagerness to show off my brand new photo sorting skills.  She immediately noticed that one of the whales is Dave.  (Dave is famous from early Blog entries and has been hanging around off and on this spring.)  The other two whales are new to the area.  One has a neat design on the left side of his fluke.  I think it kind of looks like a stylized lobster.  We batted name ideas around.  Georgie liked the idea of these three whales just hanging around like regular guys, “you know, Dave and his mates . ”  (Georgie is from the UK, by the way.)   I asked if we could name the lobster one “Rob” after my uncle.  He’s a good guy to hang around with!  And so the whale spotted on June 1, first picked up in a scan by Mike and noted in the log by myself as whale 6A, identified by photo #9814 is now Lobster Rob.

Monday, 06 June 2011 20:05

New Calf

This Blog entry was written by our new Intern at Whale Point -  Meeghan Ziolkowski

An odd trend has begun in my life as a cetacean researcher. I seem to have a talent for spotting humpbacks while on my way to the outhouse.

I heard a blow and dashed back to the lab. It turned out to be a very, very thrilling day with many whales, a jumble of characters, and all kinds of action.

We started out watching two humpbacks feeding in West Taylor Bight. We quickly realized that we had a momma and a calf! At first Janie thought momma whale might be named Potter, and this naturally led to brainstorming “Harry Potter” names for the calf. (I secretly was rooting for “Hermione.”)

It is interesting to learn how much detective work is involved in whale research. Over the course of the day Janie took many photos. Analyzing the photos revealed that Momma was actually “Sarah.” She was given this name a few years ago by a sweet young girl who sponsored this whale with her Birthday money ( her name is also Sarah.) This was also what initiated the Sponsr a Whale program now operating through Whale Point. Looking at the pictures even more closely revealed that Sarah had a bony profile; she is a very, very big whale, but also quite thin. The calf is a very small baby, but its profile looks pretty good. Sarah seems to have been feeding her calf well, sacrificing her own fat stores. It was good to know that there is a lot of food in the Bight and that they fed all day long.

Later in the day another whale wondered into the Bight near Sarah and her calf and then moseyed off to the east. Katie and I called him “the mysterious stranger.” He hadn’t yet been identified, but looking at photos the next day shows that he is definitely a juvenile.

And THEN, two more juveniles joined Sarah and the calf. These two travelled in together and hung out for hours. We saw all kinds of action from them: rolling about, slapping their pectoral fins on the water, fluking, waving their flukes back and forth. Janie called this a “play/social group.” It seems, just like kittens, that they are practicing all of the behaviours and skills they need as adults. It was very exciting to watch and try to keep track of.

Oh my goodness, I just realized I didn’t mention . . . earlier in the day the calf BREACHED. Several times he just burst out of the water with his little pectorals flared by his side and then splashed down in an explosive side flop. Wow.

Friday, 03 June 2011 08:00

Setting up a Hydrophone Station

Setting up a Hydrophone Station, written by our new Intern Mike Cavatorta

The idea seems simple enough--pass a wire through a long plastic pipe to protect it from wind, waves, wildlife and passing boats so that an underwater microphone (hydrophone) can record whale vocalizations. But in a remote wilderness location every tool and piece of hardware must be carried on a small boat capable of landing against rock ledges and hauled to the worksite over often steep and slippery rocks. And then Hermann has to get on his SCUBA gear and brave the frigid water and dangerous conditions to secure the pipe under water.

This means a pretty basic set of tools and a generator to run them. We are a long way from any utilities so hydrophone signals must be sent back to the lab via radio transmitter and the power supply for that must be provided on site in the form of a small wind turbine and photovoltaic panel hooked up to batteries and controls.  Everything here depends on a complex interlocking set of logistics that has been developed to overcome weather, distance, and isolation and which depend on a high degree competence and physical endurance.  I was amazed by the amount of physical labour involved in simple tasks and the ingenuity required to make up for the lack of many of the resources (for example,  a hardware store you can get to in less than a day) that I’d come to take for granted back home.

But snaking the cable through the pipe was the first confrontation I’d had with the physical requirements of doing field science.  Back home I do construction and carpentry work so I’m not new to physically demanding situations but I had no idea how much sheer effort goes into building the infrastructure required to do this work.  To get the wire to go through a hundred plus feet of one inch plastic tubing involved at least two people grasping and violently shaking the pipe while another person fed in a very flaccid wire from the end.

How much work can it be? A surprising amount and I found myself exhausted and sweating after about a minute. The process was effective but gave me a new appreciation for the euphemism “pushing string”. The wire was not at all stiff, but was smooth and it did fit in the pipe loosely so that with sufficiently violent shaking it could be coaxed into creeping along. After about half an hour I was really tired but consoled myself with the thought that at least I was getting a good workout and I imagined that this might be the kind of thing that with the right marketing you could get people to pay to do.

It’s the new exercise creation that’s sweeping the nation- hydrophonaerobics.   Our ecotourism themed studios are decorated with live western red cedars and banana slugs, powered by a combination of small wind turbines and photovoltaic panels (plus the technology we’re developing to build a series of “shake powered” generators).  Our certified HPA field scientist trainers certify that violently shaking a long length of stiff plastic tubing is the most effective workout in the known universe.

There could even be a vegan diet that goes with it based on powdered imitation milk and “soy halibut.”

In the end the goal was accomplished and we loaded up the boat to go to Bear Point, a rocky outcrop that protrudes a little into Whale Channel and drops steeply into the water. This is a perfect location to secure a hydrophone 60 to 80 feet below the surface of the sea to pick up whale calls. After the gear was unloaded amd Hermann was suited up for a dive he showed us how to use the radio in case of an emergency.  But Meeghan and I realized that there was nothing we could do help Herman in a diving emergency and that the radio was basically to save ourselves if he didn’t come back up.  He explained that as long as we could see bubbles he was fine and we had an anxious moment when we lost track of the bubbles, but he was just farther from shore than we had been looking.  Herman narrowly averted disaster when a heavy weight slipped from the spot it had been temporarily placed in above him and came hurtling down at him.  We were very happy to see him when he came up and told us that the hydrophone was in position and we could head home.

 

Monday, 30 May 2011 08:54

Naming Dave

The day started with curious sniffs at the door of my tent. Cohen, Janie's golden retriever puppy, pushed his nose into my hand as I stepped out of my tent. After admiring the pinks and oranges of the sunrise  highlighted in a patch of whispy clouds over the mountains I stepped into the lab. Just as I was pushing the door closed behind me Meeghan pointed excitedly out the window: "Whales! Oh, there's TWO!" Mike and Hermann were already on the boat in Taylor Bight, just leaving on a mission to fix a hydrophone, and drove the boat toward the whales to get a closer look. Mike and Hermann confirmed over the radio that these were indeed two fin whales. I ate breakfast while watching the fins out the lab window. What a great start to the day.

Later in the morning a young humpback made its way into Taylor Bight. As happens each time a whale appears near the lab, almost everyone on the island flocks to Whale Point in hopes of getting a good view of it. Chris, a visitor to the island and good friend of Hermann and Janie, and Chris's two young girls Maddie and Julia were amoung the crew searching the water for the next surfacing of the humpback. It's blowhole appeared, followed by a section of it's back and, of course, the humped back. The whale gracefully dove and fluked, in perfect orientation for a great ID photo. From the fluke markings Janie determined that the young whale was the same one that has been frequenting the waters around Whale Point  throughout the past week: a juvenile that hasn't been catalogued yet. "Dave!" Georgie exclaimed, "Let's name him Dave!" Julia, struggling to hold up a pair of binoculars to her eyes that were nearly as wide as her body, chanted "Dave, Dave, Dave!" "I love Dave the whale!" Thus, the young humpback was named. We are glad Dave has adopted Taylor Bight as a part of his watery abode and hope to see more of him this season.

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