Saturday, 26 May 2012 16:49

Transient Orca Hunt Sealions

Written By Aaron

This morning I had a rather unusual alarm clock, I heard huge blows from two baleen whales right out in the bay at 4.30am. I heard them blow twice and then silently disappear into the ocean. The morning brought even more whales. Five minutes after getting up and into the lab Janie came running in, out of breath yelling “orca, orca”! Within minutes the lab was filled with people still pulling on clothes and shoes and then we were all on the balcony waiting in anticipation, we were not disappointed. Over to our right close to the shore the transient orca popped up from the water. It couldn’t have been a better experience for Sole and Megan as it was their first full day at Cetacealab, the water was perfectly still and the light was just coming up. Their blows travelled in the silent crisp air and they seemed to be very relaxed even though only twenty meters in front of them were three sea lions. We were all shocked that the sea lions hadn’t realized that four transient orca heading directly towards them. The orcas were gliding through the water towards the lab (and the sea lions) but they were travelling at a slow pace and didn’t seem like they were interested in hunting, possibly they had just eaten prior to coming into the bay. The sea lions finally realized that the orcas were close and swam off in front of the lab while the orcas took a deep dive, the sea lions stayed in a formation like a triangle but the orcas had already passed. It was an amazing experience and the orcas could not have been closer to the lab. What a start to the morning, I thought having such a close encounter with such beautiful animals was going to be the highlight of the day.

After breakfast Sole, Megan and I sat down with Janie as she explained how the lab was going to run, as I have been here for two weeks I already knew how most of it was going to run so I was casually keeping an eye on the water and just as I was looking out I thought I saw a huge black dorsal fin out near Ashdown Island. I didn’t mention anything to the girls as I still wasn’t sure. I got the binoculars and watched attentively for any sign of the orca. Then right in the middle of my binoculars this magnificent male orca came out of the water and it was huge, the whole orca breached and my first reaction was to shout “ORCA!!!” and everyone jumped up to look. I called Hermann and let him know that transients were hunting and he asked Megan and I to get ready to go out on the boat. It was a frantic rush down to the house to get survival suits, gas for the boat and most importantly the camera. Within five minutes we were on the boat and heading towards Casanave to find the orcas. It took about ten minutes to get out to Casanave and all the while I was staring intently at the water for any sign of the orca. By the time we caught up with them they had stopped hunting and were heading south towards sea lion rock. We followed and I took the camera out and started taking identification photos of the two orcas, which at first we thought were perhaps mother and son. We followed at a steady pace and eventually we got to sea lion rock, which was covered with sea lions some of which were sleeping and some which were being very vocal. The orca took a deep dive and we didn’t see them for a few minutes, everyone on the boat was quiet and I had the camera ready hoping to see one of the most amazing spectacles in nature, a transient orca hunting sea lions. Suddenly the intensity on the rock changed and the noise level from the sea lions sky rocketed it was so loud and they were all being very vocal. Then the orcas popped up and gradually began circling the rock, they made an attempt at catching a sea lion on the opposite side of the rock but just missed and then they returned to circling the rock. I was shocked to see that some of the sea lions were actually jumping into the water! The orcas were continually passing between the rocks and I took what is probably the best photo I have ever taken of the male and female orca passing right in front of the very conscious sea lions.

Then they disappeared again and I saw a small group of sea lions in the water on the side of the rock so I just pointed the camera at them and just waited. All of a sudden this huge wave came towards the sea lions and they were climbing over each other to get out of the water. The wave that the orca created was so powerful. Fortunately for the sea lions they escaped and the orcas finally gave up and headed off south. On the way back we were informed that two humpbacks were in the same channel so we stopped for identification photos and then headed back to the lab. What a morning! Two different encounters with transient orcas all before 11am!

Wednesday, 23 May 2012 06:59

Arriving at Cetacea Lab

This Blog entry was written by Aaron Kirkpatrick who has arrived a few weeks before the rest of the Interns. It is always interesting to read ones first impression of the Great Bear Rainforest and the marine environment that hugs this coastline.

 My first two weeks at Cetacea Lab

Wow!! What a journey, the bus ride was a long journey on a bus that was packed with people from Vancovuer to Prince Rupert. The ferry from Prince Rupert to Hartley Bay was much better. The worst part of the journey was probably the shortest leg, taking the boat from Hartley Bay to the lab on Gil Island. When I got off at Hartley Bay there were serious downpours so my backpack got soaked, I found Hermann and he pointed in the direction of the For Whales Research boat and I threw my stuff into the boat and tried to cover it with my tarp. After we set off on his boat it was pretty rough and once we got into the main channel we struggled in the bad weather, all the while more water was finding its way onto my stuff. It took about one hour to get through Whale Channel but finally we rounded the corner and there it was away in the distance right in the middle of this huge bay, this what looked like a tiny log cabin on stilts right on the edge of the water. As we got closer I realized it was much bigger but it was amazing it was right on a peninsula and was basically on top of the water overlooking a huge bay. After getting onto dry land I met Janie and their two dogs, by this point it had finally stopped raining so I quickly put my tent up and headed into their house. My first night was pretty rough heavy rain and winds mixed with a not so waterproof tent = not a good night!

The next day Janie left to go to Vancouver for a week so I spent my first morning on this huge Island alone. I sat in the lab most of the day and just looked out at the postcard view hoping to see some whales, but nothing seemed to really happen. Finally after spending most of the day staring at the water I saw a huge grey object right in front of the lab and realized it was a Fin Whale, it was just massive (2nd largest animal on the planet only a few meters shorter than a Blue Whale). I grabbed the camera and ran outside and got a few i.d pictures and spent the next hour watching this amazing animal disappear under the water for 15 mins and then pop up again. The next few days were pretty rough to say the least, a huge storm had come in and my tent was taking the full brunt of it and for the next few days I just stayed in the lab with the fire on. Finally two days of heavy rain and winds died down and I went with Hermann into the forest to check on the hydroplant and water supply, the woods here are so dense every possible place is covered with trees so it took a while to get to the creek. It was worth it though out of nowhere a huge waterfall appeared right in the middle of the forest. This place is just unbelievable. On the way back down we were walking along the beach and out of the corner of my eye I saw a fin whale not even 10m offshore it was much smaller but still looked huge.

The next day I spent again mostly in the lab, only briefly stepping out to help Hermann put a greenhouse together. During dinner we got a radio report that there was 4 or 5 humpbacks right across the bay so we ran up and sure enough there they were. They were quite far off but I didn’t care I was just happy to see a humpback for the first time. By the next day (11th May) it was already a week since I had arrived but it didn’t feel like it, I’ve found everything pretty easy to cope with so far, things are very basic but I really enjoy living here. Friday was pretty uneventful whale wise so I helped Hermann put some new braces onto the lab, not a job for the faint hearted. I was leaning over the edge of the balcony and holding onto an 8ft log and while Hermann tried to get it into place. Saturday….what can I say, probably one of the best days I have ever had. I woke up early to Hermann shouting that a juvenile humpback was right in front of the balcony, by the time I got there though he had disappeared. It was about 5.15am so I decided to stay in the lab, I was pretty disappointed at missing the humpback but then I noticed a huge dorsal fin in the distance and I knew it could only be a male Orca, the dorsal fin was huge! I called Hermann and ran outside to get some i.d pictures. Unfortunately the male was right at the other side of the bay but I didn’t care I was so excited to see my first orca. Then all of a sudden right beside the lab only 15metres away the rest of the pod came up, 2 females, 1 juvenile and a calf. I might add here that the water was completely still and the sun was just rising…in other words it couldn’t have been more amazing. I grabbed my own camera and took loads of photos as these beautiful creatures swam right past us. They just glided through the water it was just unreal, just as they got to the end of the bay a huge eagle swooped down right behind them and grabbed a fish out of the ocean. After they disappeared I really didn’t think the day could get any better but somehow it did. Two humpbacks came up right in front of the lab and then as they moved away the larger one breached, absolutely unbelievable power the whole whale came of out the water and the noise it made when it hit the water was unlike anything I have ever heard it was so loud. What a day!!

The next couple of days involved helping Hermann get some more tasks done ready for the rest of the interns arriving. We also took a trip out to try and fix one of the hydrophones, this was only my second time on the boat but yet again conditions were terrible both the dogs came with us and Cohen had wedged himself into the cabin while Neekos would wander around the boat and then come and force her way in between my legs and lean up against me. We got to Campania Island and couldn’t figure out the problem so decided to head back before the weather got worse. By now I had gotten used to seeing loads of sea lions just casually swim by the lab and humpbacks were beginning to become a regular sighting too. Something else that I love about living here is the eagles, you can hear them off in the distance and the call they make is beautiful. I was lucky enough to come out onto the balcony of the lab and spot one sitting right above the lab, they are massive! By Monday it was time for Hermann to head off and pick up Janie, it couldn’t have been worse timing for him to head off on the boat as soon as he left the whales just came out of nowhere. During the day there were 5 different humpbacks, a fin whale and a group of transient Orca’s that stayed just outside the bay for 2 hours, which can only mean that they had probably hunted and killed a sea lion. I was looking through the binoculars at the orcas when all of a sudden 2 humpbacks breached at the exact spot I was looking at, everything seemed to slow down as these two huge animals came totally out of the water and slowly spun onto their backs and landed in the water. It was just totally unreal and it is something that I won’t forget in a hurry.

The last two days have been quite busy, Hermann did a dive in front of the lab to check on the hydrophone, I met “Juggy” the head chief of Hartley Bay and the Chief of the Killer Whales which was very cool and we took some batteries and a solar panel out to a tiny island called Skinner Island ready to set up another hydrophone station. The weather has also picked up since my first week and there were a few days that the temperature was really warm but yesterday and today it’s been quite cool. Tomorrow the first two interns will get here which will be really good and then one more on Sunday. The next few weeks I think will involve getting the program running and also by the end of next week I think we will have Ulric Point set up which is on the very northern tip of Aristazabal Island. Ulric Point is an extremely basic outpost but it is where most of the resident Orca’s feed so the whale action is pretty intense. So I will probably be one of the first people to head out there (not looking forward to packing my tent though) and will be staying for at least two weeks and depending on how it goes I might stay longer.

In the next few days the rest of the interns will be arriving, everyone from Hartley Bay will be in Kiel and King Pacific Lodge will be towing into Barnard Harbour. The sense of completel silence and isloation is about to change!

Monday, 13 February 2012 11:48

Volunteer Program 2012

Cetacealab is a non-profit research organization located on the southern end of Gil Island along the northern coast of British Columbia. Our location is unique as we monitor the acoustic habitat of both orca and humpback whale populations in an extremely remote location. We are the only residents of Gil Island and Cetacealab the only facility. We share this island with wildlife such as wolves and black bears. Volunteers must be prepared for the remoteness of our location.

Cetacealab has established a network of hydrophone stations located from 5 to 20 km from the facility. All signals are broadcasted to the lab and digitally recorded when cetaceans are present. In early summer northern resident Orcas arrive, followed by groups of feeding humpback whales; transient orcas are found year round but not as frequent. In the last 2 years there has been an increase in Fin whale sightings in Caamano Sound.

Cetacea Lab is currently looking for  interns to operate a small out-camp to complete our research criteria. The out-camp, referred to as Ulric Point, is extremely remote. We will only consider applicants who are genuinely comfortable with the outdoors and have experienced the ruggedness of nature, have a passion for whales and can work long hours dedicated to the collection of data.

Ulric Point is situated in a unique location on the northeast corner of Aristazabal Island. A small plywood shelter and viewing platform give an amazing view overlooking Caamano Sound, a candidate for Critical Habitat for Northern Resident Killer Whales. The purpose of this out-camp is to ensure this designation occurs. Cetacea Lab installed a hydrophone station at Ulric Point and established that during the late spring to summer months,  Orca (both resident and transient) Humpback and Fin whales can be identified daily from this location.

This project will document the occurrence of all cetacean travel patterns, behaviour and group dynamics from this land based location. The days are long, the bugs can be bad, food is simple, fresh water limited, but the whale activity is inspiring.  If you are interested please email us for more information at:

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We are also accepting applications for the research facility located on Gil Island

Volunteers will be asked to assist with the following:

-live recordings of cetaceans, with an emphasis on killer whale and humpback whales, these will occur day and night from the lab

- land based observation of whales from Lab facility

-boat surveys to collect digital photographs to add to our photo identification catalogue of orca, humpback and fin whales and document feeding and social behaviour during each cetacean encounter

- Identification and organization of all photographs taken from survey, data entry, good computer skills are essential

This facility is completely off the grid, powered only by sun, wind and water. Volunteers will be also expected to help in the daily activity of living so remote, this will include chopping wood, helping with the maintenance of hydrophone stations and other more labour intensive type of jobs.  Volunteers will be asked to bring their own tent for accommodation and are asked to prepare their own breakfast and lunch in a supplied kitchen area. We will have a communal dinner each night in our house - you must be able to cook and help with dinner prep. Due to our extreme remote location we have to be aware of any medical condition volunteers may have. Access to immediate medical care is very difficult to get.

To apply for a volunteer position please send a CV, with a letter describing your reason for wanting to join us this season and one letter of reference. Please use the contact form on our website.

Once your application has been received an interview via phone/skype may be arranged. Please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have.

We will be accepting Interns from  mid-May until early September. A minimum stay of 4 weeks is required.

Please apply soon as spaces will fill very quickly.

Good Luck,

Hermann Meuter/Janie Wray

Monday, 03 October 2011 20:12

Transients Hunt Sea Lions

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.

Monday, 12 September 2011 16:18

Whales Research Us!

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.

Sunday, 28 August 2011 15:27

Every Thing Whales


Written by:

Bryony Manley

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.

Monday, 22 August 2011 13:50

Coastal Community Saves Humpback Whale


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!!

Saturday, 23 July 2011 07:36

No Blow Blues

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.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011 07:19

Caamano Sound

At Ulric Point, on Aristazabal Island in western British Columbia civilization is far from view.  Yes, there is the distant North King Lodge and the Gitga’at cabin on Rennsion Island and the occasional tourist yacht or barge travelling to or from Alaska but in general Camano Sound is resting in Mother Nature’s hands.  The Great Bear Rain Forest is so remote that it would only be convenient to the motivated adventurer. There are no easy access hiking trails or carved out paths through the slippery rocks on the beach. The water of the northern Pacific Ocean is not suitable for relaxing summer baths and, the ever changing weather presents variations of wind and rain and rare sunshine. But remaining a while in this not so guest friendly area is worth the effort.  Forget all the homey comforts and dry feet and instead settle in to enjoy the richness of the fauna and flora of one of the most appealing places on earth!

Camano Sound is a habitat for many animal species. The varieties of salmon are not only an attraction for sport fisherman but also for the patient eagle who waits to catch it’s favourite prey from the top of Sitka Spruce or Western Hemlock. Sea lions and harbour seals swim around the island, their heads often confused with the floating bull kelp bulbs.

The people standing in the shelter of Ulric Point share a common interest of marine mammals. Mostly resident, but sometimes transient orcas, humpback whales, harbour and Dalls porpoises and pacific white sided dolphins visit the waters of Camano Sound. Orcas mainly, but not always, travel in groups. They can be differentiated into clans according to their vocalizations and into matriline according to the dominant female whale leading the group. Luckily, Ulric Point is connected to a hydrophone close to Nob Hill which transmits Orca chats and humpback songs... in real time! Unfortunately, the hydrophone only works if the sun provides enough energy and often on Ulric Point it rains a lot!  The acoustic transmissions of orcas are magnificent; their vocalizations consist of mostly high pitched, strident calls and the clicks of echolocation..

Ulric Point invites the stop of time.  As time begins to stand still I begin to open my eyes and observe the happenings and changes of this wild environment in and around Camano Sound. Ulric Point is an area of natural beauty, that will hopefully be preserved so that the animals will be given the space and peace they need.

Thursday, 14 July 2011 09:18

The Whale Journey Continues

Written by Holly

During my first full day at Cetacealab I am honored by the distant presence of a humpback whale.  Through the binoculars I see the low, round, bushy blow of the humpback whale.  She seems to gracefully rise to the surface, blow, breath and then as if in slow motion slide back beneath the water and disappear.  No one can guess as to where she will surface next.  The average dive time of the humpback whale is 7 minutes; this humpback could be far down Whale Channel, out of my sight, by the time she surfaces again.

Later that day while doing my scan I spot another humpback whale in the distance. I again see, the tell – tale blow.  I am so excited I hold my breath to see what she will do next.  Then I see the rise of the tail and begin to yell with excitement, “Fluking, Fluking, Fluking!”  As the humpback whale dives deeply below the surface his/her impressive tail or fluke appears high above the surface of the water.  I like to think of this as wave good-bye because you just don’t know when, where or even if you will see that humpback again.

Then there is the elusive Fin Whale.  These whales are fast, huge, sleek and above all stealth!  On my second day at Cetacealab the elusive fin whale slipped into Taylor Bight and surfaced for only a moment about 75 feet away from the lab.  He/she surfaced only long enough for me to get a glimpse of the enormity of this amazing whale and then he/she was gone.  I waited, waited and waited for her return, nothing.  Talk about stealth!

As of yet I have not seen any Orcas but have heard their beautiful songs on the hydrophone.  Their vocalizations are so spectacular that words cannot convey the beauty of the Orca song.  Any description I may offer will not do the songs of the Orca justice.  I can only describe how I feel when I hear the Orcas.  Their songs seem to touch something deep inside of me that has never been touched before.  I feel a sense of calm and contentment within as I listen to the Orca song.  While listening with the headphones on, all other sounds of the world are gone except the song of Orca, I release a sigh of absolute peacefulness.  Their songs stay with me, become a part of me.  I dream of Orcas and their songs.

Near my tent there is a speaker hanging from a tree broadcasting the sounds from the hydrophones.  The hope is that when one hears the humpback whales or Orcas in the night one will get up and run into the lab and hit the record button, twice I might add!  Well, this becomes a problem when one dreams of Orcas!  In the night I hear the songs of the Orcas I wake up, I get dressed, I put my rubber boots on, I go back to sleep!  I wake up a couple of hours later and wonder why the heck am I fully dressed with my rubber boots on?!  Then I remember but, I am not sure if I was dreaming or were there really Orcas singing on the hydrophone?  Oh well, at least I am ready for the middle of the night run to the outhouse.

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