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Vancouver Aquarium Cetacean Research Lab --  Leg One, Summer 2012

Tuesday June 19th

After more than a week of boat preparation (spring cleaning, servicing, hauling the boat for a bottom scrub and final check, stocking up with provisions and winding up office work at the Aquarium) we were finally ready to depart on the first leg of our summer field trip on BC’s beautiful central coast.  Crew on this leg: myself-- Dr Lance Barrett-Lennard, head of the Aquarium’s Cetacean Research Lab and research assistant Meghan McKillop.  We got underway at 4:00 PM cruised out of Vancouver Harbour, turned NW and headed up the Strait of Georgia.  As everyone who does their own boat maintenance knows, the first day on the water feels after all the time spent preparing is simply magical. The weather was also magical...sunny, light airs, rippled seas—perfect for a boat like ours.  We anchored up at beautiful Jedediah Island for the night, had a quick dinner and paddled ashore to stretch our legs. Authored by Lance Barrett-Lennard


Wednesday June 20th

photo Meghan McKillop

Another good travelling day—thin clouds and flat seas.  We angled across the Strait of Georgia towards Quadra Island,  sighting a few Dall's porpoise and harbour porpoise along the way, headed up the west side of Quadra past Cambell River, arrived at Seymour Narrows—where the tide can run to 14 knots or more—at slack tide, and stopped briefly bit further north to look at Chatham Point lightstation...where Lance and his wife Kathy Heise had served as lightkeeper for three years in the late 1980’s.  The plum and apple trees had grown but relatively few other changes were was and is a coastal icon.  Further along the coast, in the central part of Johnstone Strait near Kelsey Bay, we ran into a group of 300 Pacific white-sided dolphins, charging back and forth and feeding actively.   Pacific white-sides were common offshore but rare in coastal waters through much of the last century.  They began to appear in nearshore areas in the mid 1980’s, mostly in the winter, a fact Lance and Kathy started documenting when they lived at Chatham Point.  We are interested in the movements of dolphins and whether individuals stay together for long periods, so we spent a couple of hours taking identification photographs.  Like most cetaceans, dolphins accumulate scars throughout their lives and many individuals are relatively easy to identify.  After leaving the dolphins we anchored for the night in Pt Harvey. Authored by Lance Barrett-Lennard


Thursday June 21st 

Up early and underway for Telegraph Cove, where we went ashore briefly to catch up the local whale news with Jim and Mary Borrowman, pioneers of guided whale watching in British Columbia, long-time supporters of research and owners of Orcaella Expeditions.  Telegraph Cove is home to the Whale Interpretive Centre, a wonderful museum situated on the docks on the “old” side of the cove—we stopped in quickly to catch up with staff members Michelle and Olivia to admire the fabulous work they’ve done preparing it for the summer season.  We then ran the Skana up to Port Hardy for fuel, passed by the Bell Islets and Storm Islands, and rounded Cape Caution.  Cape Caution makes the northern end of the range for many summer boaters in BC—it always feels as if the research season has really started when we pass it.  We have seen sea otters off C. Caution in the past couple of summers---no such luck this year, but it was choppy and we could have easily missed them.  However, we did see our first humpback whale of the season just south of the Cape.  We anchored up for the night in tiny Jones Coves, in time to work on a shake-down-trip repairs on the Skana.  In particular, we had to troubleshoot a problem with our satellite phone so that we could send out these blogs...problem resolved at 1:30 AM! Authored by Lance Barrett-Lennard


Friday June 22nd

Photo Lance Barrett-Lennard

We woke up this morning to grey, drizzly weather but light winds.  A morning routine is to use the rain or dew from the night before to wipe the salt spray off the windows.  While doing this a windshield wiper popped off and fell overboard.  Luckily we had an extra onboard, but they are not a perfect fit and required about ½ hour of modifications to make it fit.  Once we were underway we moved out into Smith Sound to drop the hydrophone in the water and have a listen for whales while we sat and had breakfast.  After breakfast we headed through Irving Pass where we saw our first minke whale.  There must have been some feed in the area because we also saw two humpback whales and lots of sea birds.  We carried on to the south end of Calvert Island and into Hecate Strait.  In Hecate Strait I saw some distant blows and splashes over the horizon.  Despite great visibility on the water we couldn’t find the whales again, but during our search we came across a group of about 500 Pacific white-sided dolphins.  There were lots of young animals in the group and many were yellowish in colour from diatoms on their skin.  We took some photo IDs and made a sound recording – they were very vocal.  After leaving the dolphins we anchored up in Adams Harbour off Hakai Pass for the night.  Authored by Meghan McKillop


Saturday June 23rd

We got a slow start this morning unfortunately and spent three hours fixing our anchor winch which stopped working half was through pulling up the anchor.  We were worried that it was the motor and we would be without the anchor winch for the rest of the summer (which means pulling the anchor up by hand every day) but luckily it was just some wiring.  Everything on a boat is in a tight, awkward spot but Lance was able to fix the wiring so we had it working again.  We also decided to re-splice the point where the anchor chain attaches to the rope line to prevent any extra stress on the anchor winch.  Once that was all fixed we ran from Hakai Pass into Fitzhugh Sound.  We saw two breaching humpback whales but didn’t get close to get any photo IDs. We then run through Nalau Pass and into Kildidt Sound looking for transient killer whales.  We didn’t find any killer whales but we did see our first sea otter. We anchored for the night in an un-named bay at the north end of Hurricane Island. Authored by Meghan McKillop


Sunday June 24 

photo Lance Barrett-Lennard

Up early this morning and left our anchorage to float in Queen Sound, have breakfast and listen for whales.  We saw a humpback in the distance breach about 6 times in row! We continued to the north end of Goose Island were we came across a buoy with Japanese characters written on the top – possible tsunami debris.  We took pictures and collected some of the goose-neck barnacles that were attached to the rope on the buoy.

A little later we came across a group of sea otters resting together in a so-called raft off Marshall Reef.  We’ve noticed in the past that sea otters on the central coast are extremely wary of boats, and that rafts break up and individuals start to swim away when boats come within a few hundred metres---so we kept our distance. 

We came across our first group of killer whales of the trip an hour or so later, In Milbanke Sound.  They were transients, T69A and her two offspring T69A2 and T69A3; and T109A and her three offspring, T109A2, T109A3 and T109A4.  The youngest calf, T109A4, was born this year and was still pinky-orange in colour. The transients appeared to upset a humpback that was in the vicinity and swam through a group of Pacific white-sided dolphins sending them scattering.  After taking identification photos and sound recordings we left them and anchored in secluded Rudolph Bay off the west side of Price Island.  Authored by Meghan McKillop 


Monday June 25th 

photo Lance Barrett-Lennard

After a very full day before, Monday morning felt a bit sluggish.  It was sunny and clear with light winds as we left our anchorage and headed into Loredo Sound to drift while we ate breakfast and listened for whales on the hydrophone.  It was very quiet, however, and we spent the morning travelling slowly east in Hecate

Strait, scanning with binoculars and stopping every half hour or so to listen for whale calls with our hydrophone. 

Everything changed shortly after lunch when our research colleague Graeme Ellis called on the satellite phone.  Graeme is a long-time killer whale researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the go-to person for killer whale identification in British Columbia.  He reported that he was with a group of over 50 rarely-seen offshore killer whales about 35 miles away, and could use help taking ID photos. 

We headed around McInnes lightstation and traveled north up the west side of Aristzabal Island and joined Graeme, who was on board his boat the Roller Bay.  The whales stretched over a couple of miles and were in a playful mood, rolling around in the shallows near shore, spyhopping and carrying kelp around on their noses.  After taking ID photos, we dropped the hydrophone and recorded an absolute cacophony of whistles, clicks and scream like calls as the whales moved slowly off to the west.

The unplanned trip to join Graeme left us low on fuel, and after leaving the whales we turned back to the east in the direction of the nearest port, Klemtu.   As the sun set we anchored for the night in Higgins Pass, within striking distance of Klemtu.  Another long but very interesting day.  Authored by Lance Barrett-Lennard and Meghan McKillop


Tuesday June 26th

We hauled the anchor at 5:30 AM in order to pass through the narrowest and shallowest part of Higgins Pass at high tide—6:00 AM.  The federal government’s official ‘Sailing Directions’ recommends that the pass only be transited by sailors with local knowledge.  I can claim such knowledge, having lived at nearby Boat Bluff lightstation more than 20 years ago—but I was a bit concerned that my knowledge might have rusted.  We made it through without incident, however, and a little later I was catching up with old friends from that part of my life on the First Nations Fuel dock in Klemtu.  After a couple of hours filling the fuel tanks and telling-and hearing-whale stories, we were underway again.

We found a few humpback whales in Milbanke Sound, then crossed to Queens Sound--which was very quiet in the whale department, once again.  We didn’t find any sea otters either, perhaps because choppy seas made sighting challenging.  After a thorough look around the McMullen Islands we anchored for the night in a small bay in the Iroquois Islands.  Authored by Lance Barrett-Lennard


Wednesday June 27th

We hauled the anchor early  this morning and traveled west into Queen Sound.  The winds were forecasted to be a bit higher than we like to work in, but we wanted to see what the conditions were like.  As we sat and ate breakfast near the north end of Goose Island, the winds didn’t seem too bad but everything was quiet on the hydrophone.  After breakfast we continued to survey south down the east side of Queen Sound. We came across a raft of sea otters but they were very jumpy so we didn’t get close.

As we travelled south in Queen Sound the swell continued to get worse so we carefully traveled through the Spider Islands and into the more protected waters of Kildidt Sound.  Then we traveled through Nalau Pass and across Fitz Hugh Strait before stopping in the entrance to Burke Channel.  We floated in Burke Channel for a while listening to the hydrophone and making dinner.  Then we anchored in Fougner Bay for the night.  Authored by Meghan McKillop


Thursday June 28th

We woke up this morning with the forecast calling for high winds again so we decided it was a good day to head into town to top up our supplies.  We left our anchorage and traveled north up Fisher Channel.  We detoured briefly to check out another potential anchorage in Kisameet Bay that looked good on the charts – it was a pretty spot, although deeper than indicated on the charts, but looks like a great little anchorage. 

We stopped near fog rocks in Fisher Channel to survey and listen to the hydrophone – sure enough we heard the distinct squeaks of Pacific white-sided dolphins.  We found the dolphins just a little farther north of us in Dean Channel.  It was a group of about 150 dolphins with a mix of some larger, easily identifiable animals, and many young animals.  When we first encountered the dolphins they were very vocal and the larger dolphins were playful and bow-riding - then rather suddenly that all stopped and the dolphins became quiet and more stealthy in behaviour.  We searched around expecting to see some transient killer whales, but never did see what seemed to have spooked the dolphins.   A little while later we saw a humpback whale, also surfacing  very quietly as if was trying its hardest to be inconspicuous.

We left the dolphins and traveled west through Lama Pass and tied up at the dock in Shearwater for a couple hours.  We met up with some local researchers from the local NGO Pacific Wild, based on Denny Island, to catch up on research projects and talk about collaboration.  Authored by Meghan McKillop


Friday June 29th

In view of a favourable early morning weather forecast (light winds) and an absence of reports of killer whales anywhere in our vicinity, we decided to run back up the coast to Caamaño Sound, where we knew that sport fishermen were having some success catching Chinook salmon—also the favoured prey of resident killer whales.  We ran west out of Seaforth Channel, across Milbanke Sound, past the lighthouse at McInnes Island and west into Hecate Strait.

The winds were relatively light as we surveyed along the Hecate Strait side of Aristazabal Island but the visibility was restricted by drizzle and fog—at times dropping to a mile visibility or less.  We heard nothing on the hydrophone and the only cetaceans we saw were a group of frisky Dall’s porpoise that came speeding over to play in our wake.

After a careful but unsuccessful search for transient killer whales among the harbour seal haulouts in the beautiful Harvey, Moore and Anderson Islands, we finally anchored up at 8:30 PM in Borrowman Bay, on the NW end of Aristazabal Island.  Scientists constantly remind themselves that “negative data” --in this case documenting the absence of whales—is a useful finding, but most would admit that obtaining “positive data” is more satisfying.  Fingers crossed for tomorrow. Authored by Lance Barrett-Lennard


Saturday June 30th

Woke up to a cool breeze that stiffened considerably as we motored out of our anchorage.  Following our usual routine, we stopped as soon as we were clear of land to listen to the hydrophone while making breakfast.  As we were eating we heard a loud, long flute-like note on the hydrophone.  It was immediately familiar, but took me a minute or two to recall where I’d heard a similar sound before---it was in southeast Alaska, in the vicinity of humpback whales using a group feeding technique called bubble netting.

Photo Meghan McKillop

Bubble-netting is a highly-coordinated hunting technique used by groups of three to six or more humpbacks to corral small fish or krill into schools that they can engulf in massive mouthfuls. The whales start by diving below their prey and blowing a ring of bubbles around them.  The rising bubbles form a circular curtain that the fish are reluctant to cross—they are, in fact, trapped.  The whales then lunge up through the cylindrical curtain in a group, driving the prey ahead of them and gulping them down as they approach the surface.  The flute-like call coordinates the behaviour which, as you can imagine, requires that all the whales do the same thing at the same time.

Scanning with binoculars, we quickly spotted four whales simultaneously erupting from the surface a mile from our location.  We quickly pulled up the hydrophone and motored over to take identification photos of the whales and to try to determine what they were feeding on.   Both objectives were fulfilled at the same time, as our photos clearly showed herring spilling from their mouths every time the group lunged to the surface.  After an hour or so we moved on to search for killer whales, feeling very privileged at being witness to what must be one of the most spectacular sights in the natural world.

As we turned in to Caamaño Sound a few miles later we called our colleagues at CetaceaLab, a remote whale research station situated on the south end of Gil Island.  They passed on a report of killer whales in Whale Channel, about 15 miles north of us.  We immediately headed to the vicinity, spotting the whales close to shore at 2:30 in afternoon.  They turned out to be mammal-eating transient-type killer whales, now commonly referred to as Bigg’s killer whales.  Six whales were present in the group, all five of the T60’s, including a new calf less than a year old, and an old female called T2B---also known as Pedder. 

The whales cruised slowly along the shore of Gil Island, passing right in front of Cetacealab before turning south to move slowly out towards open water.  We took ID photos as always, dropped the hydrophone to eavesdrop (as usual with transients, they were silent), and then slowly paralleled their course at a distance of 500 m to watch for signs of hunting or feeding.   They seemed sleepy and satiated however, and showed no interest in feeding...although they did pass close enough to a humpback whale to give it a good scare! 

We finally left them at 8:00 PM and an anchored for the night in Emily Carr Inlet...a beautiful bay entered through a tiny gap—impassable to boats bigger than the Skana!  Authored by Lance Barrett-Lennard


Sunday July 1st

When we woke up this morning we the tide was very low and we had to carefully pick our way through the ‘backdoor’ of Emily Carr Inlet...a second gap only slightly wider than the first.  The weather forecast for the day wasn’t great so we decide to stop in at Cetacea Lab to visit with the directors Hermann Meuter and Janie Wray and their staff and volunteers to exchange photos and recordings taken the day before. 

After our visit at Cetacea Lab we continued our survey up Whale Channel.  We saw a couple groups of Dall’s porpoise rooster-tailing along the surface--a good indication that there were no transient killer whales hunting in the area--and a couple humpback whales.  Then we ran up to Hartley Bay to refuel and fill up our water tanks before anchoring for the night in Hawk Bay on nearby Fin Island. Authored by Meghan McKillop


Monday July 2nd

The weather forecasts have been inconsistent the last couple of days.  Last night the forecast called for strong southerlies but we were pleased in the morning to hear lighter winds were now called for.  If this forecast was accurate, it would mean that we could work our way down the west side of Aristazabal Island which gave us a better chance of finding killer whales than in the sheltered pass on the other side. 

We left our anchorage and travelled through Otter Channel, down Estevan Sound and across Caamaño Sound.  The seas were moderate in Estevan Sound, picked up considerably in Caamano Sound (likely due to a combination of wind on current) and were moderate again off the NW tip of Aristazabal Island.  We heard the wonderful sounds of feeding humpbacks again on the hydrophone and saw a couple surfacing near shore. 

As we continued down the west side of Aristazabal Island we saw a group of Dall’s porpoises zigzagging around and throwing a rooster-tail splash behind them.  But as we continued the wind picked up from the SE rather than switching SW and abating, as predicted.  We had to run straight into the rapidly building swell, and were forced to turn around and run back up around the north tip of Aristazabal, where we could take cover in Laredo Channel.   

We listened to the revised weather forecast at 4:00 PM and found it was significantly different from the one in the morning, making us glad we had turned back. We surveyed across Laredo Sound to Meyers Pass, then down Tolmie Channel, into Finlayson Channel. The rain had now changed to showers and Finlayson was sheltered and calm.  Drifting on a calm sea under a leaden sky eating our dinner, watching distant humpback whales among the rain showers and listening on the hydrophone was worth the stormy day.  The full moon burst through the clouds and stars began to appear just after we anchored in Nowish Cove--a second bonus. Authored by Meghan McKillop and Lance Barrett-Lennard