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Whale Update....

Northern Residents

September was still pretty active for northern resident killer whale sightings but October has been very slow. 

A36s and A12
The A36 brothers, Plumper (A37) and Kaikash (A46), with Scimitar (A12) were regulars in the Johnstone Strait area this September. Dr. Barrett-Lennard had a good encounter with the B7s west of Hakai Pass along the central coast on September 13th – the matriarch Scarlett (B7) appears to be going strong and has outlived two of her sons.  The A30s, A34s, A24s and A23s were also seen regularly around the Johnstone Strait area in mid-August.
On September 30th a super pod of over 70 killer whales were seen in the Johnstone Strait area – this is one of the largest groups encountered in the area this summer.  The group consisted of the A34s, A30s, A23s, A36s, G3s, I11s and I15s.


Southern Residents

Ken Balcomb porpoise
Photo: Ken Balcomb, CWR

All three southern resident pods were around the Salish Sea consistently in September.   Encounters seemed to regularly be of mixed groups of J, K and L pod whales.  Most reports of the southern residents come from along San Juan Island and around southern Vancouver Island, but there are still a few reports of the killer whales making their way closer to Vancouver. On the morning of October 3rd some killer whales were seen off the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal.  The whales looped around south thru Boundary Pass and on Oct 4th rounded Turn Point and headed back south down Haro Strait.  This large mixed group included Lobo (K26), Lea (K14), Kelp (K42), Tanya (L5), Polaris (J28), Star (J46), Princess Angeline (J17) and Moby (J44).

On August 26th a report quickly spread thru the media that a killer whale, identified as L90, was hit by a boat.  This turned out to not be the case, but L90, also known as Ballena, has been seen swimming and breathing rather abnormally since early July.  She is regularly seen trailing awkwardly behind the group, but is not looking emaciated, so she is getting food.  The Center for Whale Research has been watching her closely, but unfortunately there is not much they can do for her.   



T2C and calf Garry Henkel
Photo: Garry Henkel

Tasu (T2C) has a new calf!  Mother and calf seem to have first been seen on September 25th and were repeatedly seen the days following off Quadra Island and Desolation Sound. 

On September 29th Pandora (T21) and Kwatsi (T20) were seen battling the strong currents thru Seymour Narrows. Four days earlier they were seen in Johnstone Strait with Esperanza (T18), Mooyah (T19), Galiano (T19B) and Spouter (T19C).  The T18/19s have been seen again in the Johnstone Strait area early October.

At the end of July Sidney (T123) and Stanley (T123A) were discovered stranded on a beach near Prince Rupert.  It took a while for our colleagues Graeme Ellis and Jared Towers to get good ID photos to identify the whales, so we were not able to accurately report the stranding until now.  When the tide came up, the two transients were able swim away on their own and we are happy to report that they were seen in early September off Nanaimo by John Ford and Graeme Ellis and are reported to be looking healthy. Unfortunately there hasn’t been any sign of Thrasher (T123B) in the last couple encounters.

October 2011
In this issue

 Whale Update
 Field Notes
 In the News 




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Field Notes....

An update from the field!

The August field trip started out with lots of action, picking up easily where we left off in July. Team leader Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard continued to focus on the waters along the Great Bear Rainforest of BC’s remote central coast.  His primary goal was to document use of the area by killer whales, but was also interested in the use of the area by humpback whales, Pacific white-sided dolpihns and sea otters.
In the last newsletter we told you how large and remote the BC central coast is and how even though there are lots of killer whales around, that doesn’t mean its easy to find them. So we were excited and optimistic to find killer whales four days in a row at the start of the August field trip. The weather was pleasant, low wind and low swell, which greatly increased the sighting visibility and accoustic detection ability but it also felt like we’d found a hot spot for killer whales. 

breach LBL

The boat was moored in Port Hardy for a couple weeks between field trips and the first killer whale encounter occurred shortly after leaving the dock. It was a mixed group of A and G clan whales that were encountered in Queen Charolette Strait, just north west of Malcolm Island.  The group was slowly traveling east and consisted of the A36 brothers with Scimitar (A12), the A11 matriline with Springer (A73), and the A23, A30 and I15 matrilines. The next day, after crossing over to Cape Caution and travelling north to Calvert Island, a small group of three killer whales from the G17 matriline, G40, G60 and G78, were encountered in Queen Charlotte Sound.  These three siblings have lost their mother and seem to travel slightly apart from the rest of the matrilne, who that day were thought to be a group of whales just visible over the horizon.  The following day, in nearly the exact same location as the day before, the D11 matriline was encountered. Christie (D11) and Ashby (D25) were identified first – they were both foraging at the time.  Fisher (D17) was foraging a couple hundred meters away with her two calves, Shearwater (D21) and D26 – Shearwater was playfully breaching waiting for mom to catch lunch.  The next day on August 18th, in again nearly the same location as the previous two days a larger group was encountered consisting of the C10, G17 and I11 matrilines.  The younger whales were very playful, breaching and spyhoping on top of each other, while the adults were foraging.

Unfortunately the ideal weather of the first four days changed after that.  A day was spent in Shearwater on boat maintance, and Lance’s 11 year old son joined the research crew.  As the winds picked up a day was spent looking for Pacific white-sided dolphins in Burke Channel and another couple of days were spent coawering in a sheltered cove waiting out the storm force winds and pelting rain.  On August 28th, back near Vancouver Island, the A34s were encountered near Malcolm Island.

In September Lance and a UBC graduate student, Carla, took the Skana out for another short field trip.  Heading out in the fall, the weather wasn’t quite as cooperative as mid-August, but they still have two good killer whale encounters.  On September 13th the B7s were encountered off the west side of Hakai Pass. They were slowly meandering along, and more the to excitement of Lance and Carla than the B7s, passed by a mola mola (also known as an ocean sun fish). Slingsby (B10) swam by and checked out the mola mola, but they don’t make for very good eating, and he left it alone. Two days later on September 15th, back near Vancouver Island, the G3 matriline was encountered off Jepther Point, at a second but less well known rubbing beach.  Unfortunatley it was late in the evening and the sun was setting so the encounter had to be kept short in order to get settled in an anchorage for the night.

Two days later the Skana had into some engine troubles and is currently getting repaired. 


B10 and mola mola
Photo: Lance Barrett-Lennard

2011 Members Newsletter 

The BC Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program’s 2011 annual print newsletter, the Blackfish Sounder is finished and in the mail to houses all over the world.  This year’s issue asks ‘Why do killer whales breach’, are we really seeing an increase in transient killer whales and pays tribute to our old friend Ruffles (J1).  The members’ newsletter is sent to everyone with an adoption that is new or has been renewed within the last year.  If you purchased an adoption for someone else with the last year and would like to see the Blackfish Sounder, please log onto our website and visit the News section.  I’m sorry but the Blackfish Sounder is only available to members and donors of the adoption program.  



In the News....

Humpback Entanglement 

This past summer, three humpback whales were reported entangled off the BC coast.  Two were successfully disentangled, and one was never re-located. 
The extent of cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise) entanglement in fishing gear and lines in BC waters is not well understood.  With a large and mostly uninhabited coastline, many entangled animals likely go undetected or unreported; therefore determining the scope of this problem is difficult.  However, even considering the small likelihood of detection, 54 reports of entanglements cetacean species have been received by the BC Marine Mammal Response Network since 2008.  Humpback whales have been the most commonly reported species entangled in BC, though many other species, especially smaller cetaceans, are affected as well. 

Entanglement can happen with a variety of gear, such as crab and prawn traps and gillnets. The majority of entanglements involve line wrapped through the animals’ mouth, around their pectoral flippers, or around the tail peduncle (stock) or flukes.  While entanglement can cause drowning right away, especially in smaller cetaceans and sea turtles, it can also cause long-term impairment and a slow decline in body condition.  Entanglements can affect the animal’s ability to properly feed or swim and the line can cut into the animal’s body, causing infection or deformation.

In early August, a humpback whale was reported off the coast of Tofino tangled in crab trap gear including several floats and more than 100 meters of rope.  Crew from the Whale Centre were able to cut off all the gear and free the whale which had likely been entangled for several weeks judging from the extent of its injuries.  For video of the event and the complete story see here.

In the Strait of Georgia in late July, another humpback whale was reported in Active Pass trailing a buoy behind it.  This whale was re-spotted several times and attempts to disentangle it were unsuccessful.  Through photo-identification, the whale was determined to be Canuck, a whale previously spotted in Johnstone Strait this year.  Unfortunately for Canuck, the gear is no longer visible at the surface making the whale difficult to identify and report.  His body condition is deteriorating and his survival has become compromised.   Attempts to notify and inform the public have not resulted in any subsequent sightings of Canuck.  For a complete story see here.

A third entangled juvenile humpback was reported on BC’s central coast in Caamano Sound in late August.  This whale was caught up in a large gillnet which covered its blowhole and also made it impossible to feed.  Local observers from Gil Island and local First Nations reported it immediately and stayed with the whale through the night in order to track it so a speedy disentanglement could be attempted as soon as trained personnel from Fisheries and Oceans were on-site.  The next morning, a crew arrived and after several hours, the whale was free of gear.  For a video of this event see here.

It is important to remember that anyone who encounters an entangled whale should not attempt any action on their own, but should report it right away.  Entanglements should be reported ASAP to the Marine Mammal Response Network at 1 800 465-4336 or on Channel 16 on the VHF radio. 

entangled humpback - Cetacea Lab
Photo: Cetacea Lab


A Rare Sighting

The Robson Bight Ecological Reserve in Johnstone Strait is a very unique and special place for all kinds of marine life.  The waters and rubbing beaches of the Bight are listed as critical habitat for northern resident killer whales – but killer whales are not the only type of marine species to frequent the Bight.  Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall’s porpoise, and various seabirds are all residents of this area, as well as all five types of pacific salmon species, important seaweeds and invertebrates.  However, this September marked two unprecedented visitors to the area since the Reserve was established in 1982 - fin whales!
Fin whales are the second largest whale after blue whales and can reach up to 26 meters in length.  Historically, fin whales were once abundant in BC waters but whaling efforts in the early 20th century all but decimated their populations.  The result is that fin whales are listed as threatened under Canada’s Species At Risk Act and today sightings are rare, and generally occur offshore.  So when Marie Fournier, a whale researcher at OrcaLab, spotted two animals around 22 meters in length, with blows reaching 5 meters into the air, she couldn’t believe her eyes!
Jared Towers of Fisheries and Oceans was notified and was able to take several identification photographs.  As luck would have it, one of the whales in Robson Bight was the same animal he had photographed in Hecate Strait last summer.  Furthermore, farther north on Langara Island, about 50 fin whales were sighted this year.  Considering in previous years it was unusual to spot 5 or 10, it appears as if BC’s fin whale population may be on the rebound.  Researchers in BC and Alaska suspect what may be happening is that fin whales have been slowly recovering for the past 45 years since the last whaling station was closed in 1967.  John Ford, a marine mammal specialist with Fisheries and Oceans, expects the apparent increase in their numbers lately is the result of a steep curve of population growth.   Hopefully this sighting is not the last of its kind in Robson Bight; and by identifying individuals through a growing photo catalogue, the status of BC’s fin whale population can be better understood. 


News article: Times Colonist

Fin whale - Jared Towers
Photo: Jared Towers