Wednesday, 19 October 2011 20:47

Where are the Whales

Written by Janie

Every night before I go to sleep I would check the weather hoping that soon there would be a break in these early winter gale force systems blowing through Caamano Sound. Finally it appeared that the following morning conditions looked fair enough for a boat survey. I spend that night getting everything ready so that at the first hint of light I could be on the water. Just before sunrise I was putting the boat into gear and made my way out of Taylor Bight. This was the first time in almost 2 weeks my feet had left the island; the feeling of freedom was intense and I felt lighter with every moment. As soon as I turned the corner there was a blow, the largest I had ever seen. I stopped the boat and waited with my camera in hand; I was ready! I scanned and scanned, 20 minutes passed – nothing. After 30 minutes I knew I had to give it up. I was curious though and my imagination decided I had just missed the first blue whale to travel into Whale Channel in over a century. The truth is that most likely this was a fin whale; but for now my records will say baleen whale. I continued on, stopping every 3 km and scanning not only with my eyes but also using my sense of sound to listen for a blow. Humpbacks can sleep by just floating on the surface and are extremely difficult to see. After 3 stops and traveling now for 2 hours and not seeing a single blow I was beginning to get a bit worried. I turned from Whale Channel into McKay Reach hoping this would change. I travelled slowly, maintaining the same technique of stopping, scanning, listening, and then moving on. By the time I reached Bishop Bay my level of concern had heightened dramatically; where had all the humpback whales gone? I travelled deep into the bay until I reached the end and turned off the engine. Even with no whales this place of complete silence with giant old growth trees reflecting on the still emerald sea took the breath from my body. When I heard the blow of a humpback, then another and another I truly wondered if I fallen asleep and was now dreaming. It was all just to perfect. I hesitated    to start the engine as that sound  would only break this moment of magic. So I sat and waited. My patience that day would be rewarded as a mother, her calf and 2 adult humpbacks formed a line and traveled towards the boat, so relaxed, gliding past as if I was not even there. Then to my surprise the little calf turned back towards the boat, did a complete roll just a few feet away, stopping half way and making serious eye contact as my heart and jaw hung over the side of the boat. The water at this time of the year is so clear I could easily make out specific markings on this unusual creatures face. Then just as quickly with a swift flick of this youth’s tail he was back at mother’s side. The sound of a huge inhalation caught my attention as this signalled that at least one whale in this group was about to take a long dive; chances were this meant I would get my fluke picture for an ID. I really wanted to know who this mother was! One after the other a whale would arch its majestic back then gracefully position its tail high in the air, just long enough for me to take a picture. Finally it was the mothers turn, with effortless motion her body arched and then the moment of truth as her black fluke slid through the water and then they were gone. Her tail was completely black, not a speck of white. Could it be? I checked immediately and can honestly say that tears followed shortly after I realized that yes, this was Velvet, black as black but in the outline of her fluke it a small dimple. We have been watching this whale for years wondering which sex she was. Now with her first calf ever by her side we knew for sure. I sat alone in our boat and sighed, feeling so proud for a whale that I really do not know.

It was then that I noticed there was 5th whale, fast sleep, floating on the calm surface. Had it not been for the whale taking a breath I would have never known of its presence. I dared not travel over there and disturb this sleeping wonder. Instead I followed these 4 whales as they playfully traveled back towards the entrance to Ursula, then they also slowed in their movement and much to the small calf’s dismay went to sleep. The mother was so relaxed with her small calf rolling about her side, obviously not at all ready for a nap. The other 2 whales were also side by side but a good 300 meters away from the mother. I decided to travel back and see if by chance the lone whale had woken up. I did not have to travel far as to my surprise not only had this whale awoken, it had followed my boat and even more probably this group of whales out of the bay. It suddenly fluked and I was grateful my camera was already in position; a perfect picture in less than a second.

It was now time for me to continue this survey as it was already mid afternoon and this left me with only 3 hours before I would have to race home before nightfall. My departure would have to be slow with all these sleeping whales. By the time I reached Ursula and it was safe to go to speed another 30 minutes had passed. There was a bit of wind picking up but nothing to serious. The sun was still shining and was actually warmer than I had anticipated. I turned into Verney and hoped I would see another blow soon.

I once again followed the stop, look, listen procedure. After 45 minutes once again I feared there would be no more whales. Then, directly in the suns glare the most beautiful sight ever, if you are a cetacean nut like me, blows! Big, beautiful, tall explosive blows.

It was a feeding group for sure, but not bubble net feeding. Though they would all dive together and surface together, there were no calls and no bubbles. I guessed they were diving deep and feeding on krill. I tried to collect samples when they surfaced but there was nothing in the water to indicate their prey. Instead I focused on identification pictures. Soon I realized I had at least 2 females and I wondered if they may be pregnant. I would have to wait till next year to find out that answer. There were 6 whales in total, but they traveled in 2 groups of 3. What I found most interesting was that 2 whales, both which are female, would switch from one group to the other every 5 or so dives. I had to wonder why, and if perhaps more than just feeding was going on. Oh, to be able observe these whales underwater could solve so many mysteries.

I knew I would have to depart soon as I was over an hour away from the lab and it would soon be dark. I decided just one last encounter as deep in my heart I knew this could well be the last survey of the season. I turned the engine off and waited. The plan was to put the camera down and just experience the event. To my delight and shock this group of whales surfaced about 100 meters from the boat, then as one they all turned and headed right towards me. Is it possible that they also knew this may well be the last time we encountered each other until the next season? This is a question I may never have an answer for, and in that moment it did not matter. Their massive bodies of pure intelligence were about to greet the boat and an extremely blessed occupant. I was going to leave the camera off, but I could not help myself. I put the camera to video so I could experience and record at the same time. I would find out later that even though I was not looking through the camera but instead absorbed in the whales, the footage actually caught this moment. Then once again a deep inhalation and these creatures of the sea disappeared one after the other. Now it was also my turn to leave. I stared the engine and slowly made my way towards Wright Sound.

The sun was just about to set, fortunately the sky was clear and I traveled home as the colors turned from light shades of orange to pink to that purple grey just before dark. I made it back to the lab with just enough light to tie up the boat and canoe back to shore. Hermann knew I would be cold and was kind enough to have started a fire in the lab. With a warm cup of hot chocolate I told him about my day. I was high on whale memories and thought sleep would never come. To my surprise though as soon as my head was on my pillow I was out, dreaming of the next day I would spend with my treasured companions of the sea.



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