Wednesday, 13 July 2011 14:20

The Bubble Net Feeding Humpbacks

Written by Janie

Written by Meeghan


How to start?

How to start this blog, as it is of one of the most amazing days of my life.

I woke up not feeling so great, but now I am as happy as a little breaching orca calf.

Janie, Neekas, Cohen, and I leave from Whale Point to head north up Whale Channel.  We find a couple of slowly travelling whales.  I am so delighted that I recognize one!  It is Salmon.  The second whale is most likely Footprints, someone I’ve haven’t seen yet.  We leave the mellow whales to rest in the drizzling rain.

“Elemiah, Elemiah.  Whale Point on Whale.”  It is the lab calling to let us know there is a group of humpbacks near Ashdown.  This is the island directly across Taylor Bight from the lab.  We gaze at it sixteen hours a day, scanning its shoreline every twenty minutes; we know it well.

We find three whales and I designate them “Group 2,” humpback whales 2A, 2B, and 2C.


This is a typical behavior of humpback whales, yet it is a miracle to me.  The sea is calm and flat.  The sky is overcast, but the rain has stopped.  I can see a perfect bubble pop to the surface.  Then it is calm.  Now there are two bubbles, then calmness.  Now four bubbles; pop,pop,pop,pop.  Now there is a ring of bubbles forming a beautifully defined circle in the water.  These bubbles literally make a net trapping fish in a confined area. Then bubbles like boiling water roil in the center of the bubble net.  A humpback lunges from beneath the white, rolling bubbles, his mouth wide open.  I see his bumpy tubercles on the top of his head and the pleats of his mouth expanding; pink skin peeks through the white chin (for lack of a better term) as he takes in huge amounts of water and fish. He then will strain all the water out through his baleen and swallow the fish.

The three whales do this again and again.

“Whale Point, Whale Point, this is Elemiah on Whale with an update.”  Janie lets the lab know about the bubble net feeding whales and that one of them is BCY0013, who she calls “Cup.”  She also informs them I’m crying.  It’s true; it is just such an awe-inspiring scene to witness.

We leave the whales to their breakfast and let the dogs have a break on shore.

We splash back onto the water and see another group of two whales heading in our direction.  As we float and watch them go by us we realize there are three whales; a small whale is between the other two.  I’m wondering if it could be a calf with her mom, and a juvenile.  One of the whales has a very white fluke and so gets the designation BCZ on the data sheet.BC indicates “British Columbia” and “zed,” as they say here in BC, indicates that the fluke is more than 75% white.  “X” whales have almost entirely black flukes, and “Y” whales are, as you suspect, somewhere in between.

 Janie gets some identification photos and some good looks at the flukes of the whales. “Adidas!”

Warning:  This part of the blog may only be interested to the nerdy/whale researcher.

Janie tells me to jot down some photo numbers.  We got a dorsal shot of one of the three whales. We designate this whale as 3C, leaving the designations 3A & B for the, presumably, mom and calf.  Now we get a great view of whale 3Cs fluke; it is Crescent, a juvenile whale.  I am excited, because I know this whale from a couple of days ago when Crescent spent the entire day in Taylor Bight. Next we get a chance to get a photo of whale 3B’s fluke. “Adidas,” Janie pronounces. I am always impressed by her ability to identify whales with just one look at a fluke.  Yes, they are distinctive, but often it’s subtle, and the sheer number of humpbacks (over two hundred) which frequent this area makes this skill very impressive. But, now we have to reevaluate our presumptions.  Janie and Hermann have been watching Adidas since 2004, so clearly, he is not a calf, though still a small whale. It turns out the adult humpback whales exist on a long continuum of sizes.  They are all huge, of course.  But it is fascinating to see one that is clearly smallish and others that are very, very huge.)  Here is our new analysis: 3A&B are NOT a mom and calf, but two adults; it is just that one of those adults is absolutely gigantic, overshadowing the relatively petite Adidas.

Back to the action.

So we are with these three whales:  Cresent, Adidas, and the enormous whale.  Crescent splits off from the group and goes his own way.  Adidas and his large friend travel slowly westward and then, quite abruptly, go to sleep.  They simply just stop. It is like they fell asleep mid stride on a walk. There they are, side by side, like a floating log quietly bobbing next to a submerged boulder.  Adidas slowly bobs up a little higher and takes a breath and then sinks back into the water.  “The Boulder” does nothing.  Again, Adidas bobs up for a breath.  The Boulder is still.  Finally she does take a breath, and again, her size is overwhelming.  It is grand watching whales snooze, but also a little stressful.  We worry about them getting struck by sports fishing vehicles zipping around, or tangled in one of the nets the seiners are dragging around the Bight.  We also wish we could have gotten a photo of the Boulder’s fluke before her nap.

As we bob in the boat, we hear the blows of the whales that were bubble net feeding; they are now on the far western point of Ashdown, still eating.  We also see a distant blow toward little Gil Island. The feeding whales dive.  I wait, watching with the binoculars, hoping to see them make another circle of bubbles.  There is nothing.  It is quiet.

It is a really interesting dynamic that I’ve seen happen over and over.  It seems that all the whales dive at the same time.  At one moment I can be watching one, two, or even a half dozen whales over a sizeable area, and then, all gone.  The sea is calm, quietly swallowing them up with only the slightest ripple.  If you glanced at that moment, you would have no idea there had been whales there at all.  Now, as a researcher-in-training I’m always trying to check my assumptions at the lab door.  Perhaps it is just my imagination/interpretation.  But, it certainly seems that diving is coordinated.

So, here we sit, bobbing on a silvery sea, with just the slivers of two snoozing whales in sight.  Then, there is a ruckus.  The whales wake up with a startled splash.  At first I think it is the noise of the sport fishing vessel droning, by.  But, then, we realize that two of the whales who were bubble net feeding snuck up on the sleeping whales from below!  Now we have four whales.  We take lots of photos and work on identifying them.  One Janie knows; it’s Drop.  The other two will have to wait until we can get the photos on a computer and compare them with Janie’s catalog of whales seen in Camano Sound (our local area) and the British Columbia catalog.

The four whales travel a short distance together.  Now we are watching them just off the east side of Ashdown.  And. . . they start bubble net feeding, all together.

It is really difficult to put into words how spectacular this sight is.  Knowing the technical details isn’t enough.  The power is astounding, akin to any great force in nature. Here are just some images to try to convey the experience.

-If I were floating in that circle of bubbles a whale could easily hold me in his mouth, in fact, I bet I could swim around in his mouth.

-It’s not just just raw power.  They are precise.

-They are cooperating.  This is a team effort.  At one point, we can even, just faintly, hear their feeding calls.  They do this while bubble net feeding, presumably, communicating to coordinate the maneuvers.

-When they come up with their mouths open it is like they are unhinged.  I can see the roof of a mouth.  It has a wide pink stripe.  Their pleats expand and bulge.  It looks like they have each swallowed an elephant and it’s stuck in their throats.

 And what about that distant whale? Remember him?  Well, he is still travelling from Little Gil Island headed in our direction.  The closer he gets, the more it looks like he is going straight toward the group.

The group is drifting south, bubbling, lunging up to feed, and diving.  A pectoral fin flops up into view and slaps down onto the water.  The underside is a startling white, like on all humpbacks. Evidently sometimes they just slap each other with their pectorals.  We see one black side of a pectoral, then the white; another pectoral swipes by white, then black.  This is one whale; he is rolling over!  One whale swipes his tail sideways underwater.  Frequently we hear excited tonal blows loudly echoing off the mountains.  Tonal blows are very distinctive trumpeting exhalations, but they have a range of qualities; they can be powerful, haunting, excited, frenetic, loud, low and rumbling, high-pitched and shrill. . .   Sometimes the whales seem to be right on top of one another.  It is a jumble of bodies, sounds, splashes, and energy.

Janie is always trying to determine what the whales are doing and why, which is so difficult since they spend most of their time underwater (and they never answer those questionnaires researchers send them).  She explains to me that she is careful not to make assumptions.  But, it seems it is also important to brainstorm answers and hypothesize to try to make progress on deciphering their actions.  The behaviors we are seeing are typical of male posturing groups.  She sees this primarily in the fall when males are competing for the privilege of escorting a female.

That distant whale is not so distant.  We are so curious to see if he will stay on his own, or join the group.  The group has been feeding, diving, and generally drifting southwards.  The distant whale is certainly heading in their direction, moving quite quickly.  We drift and watch.  Raucous feeing is to our left.  Steady, quiet, breath, dive -- breath, dive -- breath, dive on our right as the whale approaches the group.  Janie, again with her amazing power, identifies our distant whale as Cup. He had been feeding in the original group of three we spotted.  The next thing I know there is a group of five whales breaking through the surface with their mouths open!

We watch the group of five whales make nets out of their bubbles and feed for a while longer.  Every time, I think, “Wow, that was so amazing I am completely satisfied.”  But every time the surface becomes calm I am very eager to see it again.  (We volunteers are worried about this growing addiction to whales and the harsh withdrawal symptoms we will suffer when we leave.)  I feel incredibly privileged and lucky to see this amazing phenomenon at all, much less to be with someone who knows who these whales are, and to see it all so close.

Janie is clicking away with the camera.  Even with a skilled photographer and a telephoto lens it is hard to get clear identification shots of all five whales.  Some whales just don’t fluke every time they dive.  Some whales dive to the side.  One time a whale was perfectly positioned to provide an excellent photo and another whale dived sideways between him and the camera, blocking the shot.

Janie has just pulled up the hydrophone when the radio squeaks on. “Elemiah, Elemiah, Whale Point on Whale Station.  There are Orca traveling south down Whale Channel.

We stay just a few more minutes with the feeding whales, and then slowly, slowly turn away (partly because it is important to move the boat slowly and carefully for the whales’ safety, partly, because we are both reluctant to leave these whales. We could have watched them for hours, days. Time has never flown by so quickly.  We were out for hours, but it felt like such a few heartbeats.

 When we arrive at Whale Point two very tired dogs scramble up the slippery rocks.  Neekas is a seasoned “whale dog” having spent hundreds of hours riding on the bow of the boat, eagerly on the look out for whales.  Cohen, being just a puppy, is in training.  He sometimes just chases seaweed around the deck of the boat or stares at kelp.  He did a fantastic job today, at one point vigorously wagging his tail as whales approached; so much better than barking!

Hermann and Mike are waiting at the point.  I switch camera memory cards. (We used a whole 8G this morning!)  I am grateful that I get to join them to head out to identify the Orca approaching.

To be continued!



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1 Comment

  • Comment Link Stas' Ziolkowski Thursday, 14 July 2011 10:54 posted by Stas' Ziolkowski

    Meeghan, reading your blog was very interesting and exciting. I am glad you are having such a great experience.

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