Monday, 03 October 2011 20:12

Transients Hunt Sea Lions

Written by Janie

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.

Last modified on Monday, 03 October 2011 20:41


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