Monday, 12 September 2011 16:18

Whales Research Us!

Written by Janie

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.



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