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Vancouver Aquarium Cetacean Research -- Leg 2, Summer 2012

Monday, July 16

After a weekend of ‘Celebrate Springer’ festivities (learn about Springer's story here) in Telegraph Cove our second field trip of the season has begun. The trip started a day late due to strong northwest winds that would have made travelling through Queen Charlotte Strait and north difficult.  Caitlin and Lance, the crew for this leg of the trip, spent the ‘weather day’ catching up with boat work, visiting with friends in the area and scoping out minke whales near Alert Bay with the crew from the Marine Education and Research Society .

Anxious to get started, we left Telegraph Cove bright and early to find glassy water and light fog through Broughton Strait.  A few Dall’s porpoise sightings made for a pleasant morning.  The calm weather was unfortunately short lived and after fueling up in Port Hardy, we departed cautiously into building wind. A quick humpback sighting in Goletas Channel and some active Dall’s porpoises in Bolivar Pass kept us entertained, but our hopes of making it past Cape Caution that day were dashed as we pounded into high swell through Queen Charlotte Strait.  Instead of continuing on, we swung in towards the mainland and decided to investigate Slingsby Channel.  At the confluence of Slingsby and Seymour Channel is the famous Nakwakto Rapids.  Nakwakto hosts some of the fastest flow  (14.5 knots at max ebb tide) in the world and navigating the rapids is only possible at slack tide.  Luckily, we arrived there just before slack and were able to sneak through.  On the other side, we were surprised to find a small group of approximately 15 Pacific white-sided dolphins.  They were unusually elusive but we were able to take a few ID photos before leaving them to continue on.

As we ventured further into Seymour and then Belize Channel we noted evidence of the coast’s past- a petroglyph painted on a granite rock face, a discarded steam donkey from long ago logging, and more recent forestry camps and roads.  On our way back out, we spotted two groups of dolphins, possibly members of the group we had encountered earlier in the day.  We anchored for the night in Treadwell Bay in Slingsby Inlet.

Tuesday, July 17th

Today was another early start to try to get a jump on the winds predicted for later in the day.  Before leaving Slingsby Inlet we took a quick peek at Nakwakto to see the rapids roaring during the ebb tide.  Impressive!  As we left the inlet we encountered a large swell but were able to make it up and around Cape Caution.  The rough sea made it impossible to survey for sea otters as we usually do in this area.  Instead we tucked into the mouth of Smith Inlet, a place we have found resident killer whales in the past.  While seeking shelter behind Table Island, we listened to the hydrophone with the hope of hearing killer whale calls, but no luck.  We found one lone humpback in the mouth of Smith Inlet.  Its blow was almost camouflaged by the spray of waves against the reef nearby.  

The winds died down and we continued north into Fitz Hugh Sound.  We stopped periodically to use the the hydrophone along the way, but neither heard nor saw any evidence of killer whales.  Another humpback whale was encountered near the bottom of Calvert Island.  Two years ago, the area was swarming with humpbacks and pilchards (Pacific sardines—a favourite food of humpbacks), but it seems decidedly quieter this year.  We anchored up in Fury Anchorage on Penrose Island, a popular spot for many boats travelling along the coast.

July 18th 

Photo Meghan McKillop

Contrary to our observation yesterday that Fitzhugh sound was ‘quiet’ for humpback whales this year, today proved to be humpback-filled.  We left our anchorage near Penrose Island and spent the better part of the day surveying Fitz Hugh Sound.  In total, we encountered over a dozen humpbacks in the area.  While none of the whales were obviously feeding, we did see the proof that there was food in the area.  We encountered several bait balls in which rhinocerous auklets, common murres and gulls appeared to be actively snacking on herring.

One humpback encounter today was particularly curious.  We came across an animal that seemed immobile at the surface.  When we approached a bit closer, the animal didn’t move.  Instead it lay almost motionless, breathing slowly and never submerging more than a few feet and always in the same area.  As this is unusual behaviour for humpback whales, we were concerned that the animal was possibly injured or entangled.  Entanglement in fishing gear can restrict humpback whale movement considerably, sometimes to the point that the animals are unable to move, feed or ultimately survive.  With our engines off so as to not disturb the whale, we sat nearby observing to see if we could detect any cause for concern.  It continued to lie at the surface, breathing normally.  Eventually the animal submerged and fluked, showing us almost its entire body.  We could see no evidence of injury or entanglement.  It was in good body condition (not thin) but we followed it at a distance for a short time to ensure it was ok.  By the time we left it, we were pretty sure that we had simply come across a napping humpback whale.

After we had surveyed much of Fitz Hugh Sound, stopping regularly to listen to the hydrophone, we headed up Burke Channel for about five miles.  This is an area that regularly produces Pacific white-sided dolphin encounters.  No luck this time, but several more humpbacks were spotted. 

After a sunny day, by late afternoon a cold wind had picked up.  We anchored in the Kisimeet Islands for the night with the plan of heading into Lama Pass and towards Bella bella for fuel tomorrow.

July 19th

GPS track for July 18th and 19th

We woke up today to spectacular conditions: glass like water, sunny skies and little wind.  We slowly made our way towards Lama Pass, stopping frequently to scan and listen to the hydrophone.  We saw a few humpbacks and a lone harbour porpoise. 

We made our way into Lama Pass and headed towards Shearwater for fuel and a quick hose down of the ‘Skana’.  The local wharfinger, Christophe, informed us that there had been killer whales encountered several days ago near Idol Point.  We were keen to head out to that area to see if any of the whales were still around, but first we stopped in to meet with colleagues from Pacific Wild .  This year, Pacific Wild has set up two hydrophones in the area that live stream on the internet as a way to engage the local community as well as study cetacean usage of the area.  They had asked us to stop by to listen to some of the recordings they had obtained.  Elli, one of the interns with Pacific Wild, had isolated some calls that we recognized as belonging to A clan resident killer whales.  As always, we’re happy to be able to work with Pacific Wild and other local groups and organizations—the central coast is vast and collaboration is key to being productive here.

We left the Bella bella area and said a quick hello over the radio to lightkeeper Deb at Dryad Point Lightstation.  Deb and her husband Dan are observers with the BC Cetacean Sightings Network  and we greatly appreciate the reports they diligently send in on the various cetaceans that cruise past their lighthouse.  We promised to stop in for a proper visit when we were back through.

When we got to Idol Point, in Seaforth Channel, the area was quiet.  We then ventured down Queen Charlotte Sound towards the Goose Islands, using the hydrophone along the way.  Just after 6pm, close by our proposed anchorage for the night, we dropped the hydrophone one last time and finally heard what we had been waiting for- killer whale calls!  They were very faint and obviously quite distant, but perfectly clear.   Using a shield to create a directional hydrophone, homed in where the calls were coming from—many miles to our south.  Over the next two hours, we continued to search, using the directional hydrophone and scanning thoroughly with our binoculars.    We could tell that we were very close to them by 8pm, but a thick fog rolled in and it was, in any case, time to head to Goose Island anchorage for the night.   It was a frustrating to be so close to the whales and yet not see them--a reminder that studying wild animals, especially in a marine environment, can be a tricky task.

July 20th

The day started out a bit grey with a misty fog and some remnant disappointment from the night before.  We left the Goose Island anchorage early to try to get a jump on the day and floated out in the Queens Sound listening to the hydrophone as we had breakfast.  No calls heard, so we cruised towards the Gosling Rocks to check out the local sea lion haulout. There were about 125 Steller sea lions hauled out, and their roaring calls could be heard over the crashing waves. 

We then headed back into Queen Charlotte Sound, where we had heard the killer whales the night before.  Immediately upon dropping the hydrophone overboard, we heard the same type of calls we’d heard the day before!  We were very happy that they were still in the area, because they can easily travel 150 km a day and could have been long gone.

Fortunately, on our second stop to use the hydrophone, we spotted a few whales just in front of us.  What first appeared to be two family groups, turned out to be at least 6 matrilines: the C10s, C6s, D11s, I22s, G17s and the I11s.  The whales were extremely spread out and we spent the rest of the day following them down the west side of Calvert Island, taking identification photos and acoustic recordings as we went.

The whales were actively feeding at the beginning of the encounter and—as is typical of resident killer whales, sharing their prey.    What we saw from the surface were rapid chases, usually followed by tight circling during which the whale chasing the fish was joined by one or more others.  The whales then remained at the surface for a minute or so, during which time we saw their fins shaking periodically as they tore up and shared their prey—usually a Chinook salmon.

Killer whales were not the only species we encountered today.  For a couple of hours a group of about ten Pacific white-sided dolphins mixed in with the residents. This is a behaviour that has been observed frequently.  Transient killer whales actively hunt Pacific white-sided dolphins but residents tolerate them.  Because transients generally stay away from resident killer whales, the  dolphins may feel particularly safe when they are with residents.  Alternatively, they may  be feeding on scraps of prey left by the whales. 

We left the whales off the southwest side of Calvert Island in the late afternoon and ran to Fury Island again to anchor for the night, review the photos we’d taken and write up our field notes. A very productive day! 

July 21st

GPS track for July 20st and 21st

Good conditions encouraged us to get another early start to the day.  Leaving Fury Anchorage we stopped multiple times along the south and western sides of Calvert Island to listen to the hydrophone and scan with hopes of finding more whales.  We had a brief sighting of active Dall’s porpoise, but otherwise didn’t encounter much.

Early in the afternoon we heard some distant calls on the hydrophone- more killer whales!  Carefully searching the area, we located the whales in northern Queens Sound.  It was the G17s and the I11s. When we first encountered them they were spread out again, but shortly afterwards they  grouped up and went into resting mode.  Swimming pectoral fin to pectoral fin, the rhythmic sound of their breaths carried across the calm waters of the Sound. With the exception of a few quiet calls, we heard very little vocalizing from the group. 

As the whales cruised slowly, we became aware that we were not the only creatures watching them.  Nearby, several small sea otter rafts were taking notice of the black dorsal fins moving past.  In fact, one lone sea otter had the whales pass by very closely but neither the whales nor the otter seemed too interested in the other.

We were surprised by the route the whales took, picking their way through a series of small islands.  A few animals even draped seaweed across their backs as they swam through some of the kelp beds.  The whales were still moving slowly in resting mode when we left them around 7pm.  We anchored up for the night at Stryker Island.  

July 22nd

GPS track for July 22nd and 23rd

We woke up to find that we had been joined in our anchorage by several large floating logs and numerous broken branches festooned with kelp.  We picked our way out to Codfish Passage in glorious sunshine and floated on calm seas while making Sunday pancakes and listening to the hydrophone.  We heard the quiet grunts and croaks of rockfish, the snapping of invertebrates and the hissing of nearby mussel beds—but no whales.

After breakfast we slowly surveyed out in Milbanke Sound and down Seaforth Channel towards Bella Bella.  Several sea otters floating on their backs near Tuft Island raised their heads to watch us pass and two Dall’s porpoises swam by us at high speed near Rempstone Rock, but the humpback whales that usually frequent Milbanke Sound eluded us today.

We took on fuel in Shearwater and spent the afternoon at the dock giving the trusty Skana a little tender loving care--changing the engine oil, fuel filters, and zincs, etc, washing the windows and decks, cleaning up until the boat sparkled inside and out. Afterwards, we were treated to a sumptuous dinner by the staff at Pacific Wild and talked hydrophones and whale sounds until late in the evening.

July 23rd

We got underway at 7:30 and dropped in at Dryad Point Lightstation, just outside Bella Bella for an early morning visit.  Lightkeepers Dan and Deb had kindly offered to pass on photos and video they had taken of a group of killer whales that had passed slowly by their light a week and a half earlier.  We immediately recognized members of the D11 group of northern residents from the of the groups we had seen ourselves a few days ago.  Like many BC lightkeepers, Dan and Deb record their whale sightings and send them to the BC Cetacean Sightings Network a citizen science data-collecting program that Caitlin heads up at the Vancouver Aquarium.  It was nice to finally put a face to the name that has accompanied many whale sightings received over the years.

Photo Lance Barrett-Lennard

After leaving Dryad, we ran west out Seaforth Channel into Milbanke Sound.  As we rounded Cape Mark, we could feel the NW breeze freshening and the swell beginning to build.  We revised our plan to survey down the west side of Goose Island and opted instead to pass down the more sheltered east side.  It was a fortuitous decision as it turned out, as we heard killer whales in the late afternoon and found them a few miles NW of Edna Island.  At first we only able to see two adult males, C14 and C18, brothers from the C6 matriline of northern residents.  Then we spotted C28—a young member of the C10’s.  Eventually we spotted more members of both groups, spread out widely.  Just as we thought we had finished with them and began to head for an anchorage for a late dinner, we spotted more members of both groups mixed in with members of the A24 matriline!  It was choppy by this time and the visibility was limited at times by drifting fog—but the real difficulty in accounting for all members of the various groups was that they were extremely dispersed.  On the hydrophone, we heard few calls but considerable echolocation, a sign that they were foraging for fish—but from what we could see from the surface they were catching relatively few.  They were, in other words, working hard for their food.

Near the end of the encounter, we spotted a large male Steller sea lion ahead of the killer whales.  Despite the fact that resident killer whales do not eat marine mammals, he seemed very nervous and swam up to our boat, apparently sizing it up as a possible refuge if he were attacked.  We didn’t relish the prospect of a 500 kg sea lion hopping on board with us, but fortunately for both him and us the whales showed no interest in him as they passed by.

After leaving the whales a second time we ran for Triquet Island and anchored in a shallow and picturesque bay on the north end, to write up our field notes and cook a very late dinner.  Another long but very rewarding day. 

July 24th

The forecast called for NW winds of only 10-15 knots today, so we left our Triquet Island anchorage with the plan of surveying on the Goose  Bank, 20 miles offshore.  The Goose Bank was once a popular fishing area for commercial trollers fishing for Chinook salmon, and –not surprisingly—a good place to find resident killer whales.  We ran out Fulton Passage, across foggy Queens Sound, past the Gosling Rocks and down to the eastern side of the Goose Bank.  As we got close we realized that the forecast was off a bit...the winds came up to 20 knots and the short, steep seas and low swell reduced our ability to spot whales.  The sound of the waves created a lot of noise on the hydrophone and also reduced our ability to eavesdrop on any whale calls and home in on them acoustically.  The seabirds out there included species uncommon closer to shore---northern fulmars, great numbers of sooty shearwaters and a single tufted puffin.  The only marine mammals we saw was a small group of Dall’s porpoises, racing around and throwing rooster-tails of spray in their characteristic manner.

After a couple of hours of bouncing around rather unproductively on the Goose Bank, we decided to put the waves behind us, and headed off to the SE, towards the southern end of Calvert Island.  En route, we passed four humpback whales feeding close together, and few miles later we spotted a single humpback off in the distance thrashing, breaching and slapping his tail flukes.  We wondered if it might be tangled in fishing gear and went over to investigate, but could see nothing wrong.  Its appearance was a little unusual, however.  It had a dense cluster of barnacles resembling a fez growing on the top of its head a metre or so ahead of the blowhole, and its tail flukes were heavily scarred with parallel teeth marks from killer whales---at some point in its life it had been severely mauled.

Continuing on, we rounded Cape Calvert at 4 PM and were relieved to find ourselves in much calmer waters.  We spend the rest of the afternoon drifting in Fitzhugh Sound, listening to the hydrophone and doing maintenance on the Skana’s auxillary outboard engine.  Our anchorage was Safety Cove, a large bay on the eastern side of Calvert Island.  As we turned in for the night we could hear an owl hooting in the trees along the shore and stars disappearing and reappearing as wisps of fog blew across the island from the west.

July 25th

GPS track for July 24th and 25th

Last day of the second field trip of the summer for the Skana.  Plan for the day:  survey all the way from the central coast to the north end of Vancouver Island.   We left the anchorage early and drifted in lower Fitzhugh Sound, eating breakfast and listening to the hydrophone.  The visibility was about a mile in fog, but as we headed south towards Egg Island it dropped down to a hundred yards or less.  We used the radar to pick our way through the reefs and small islands in the mouth of Smith Sound, stopping every three to four miles to listen for killer whale calls with the hydrophone. 

After we passed Cape Caution the visibility improved somewhat and we drew a heading for the west end of Hope Island, between Port Hardy and Cape Scott.  About halfway to Hope Island we were finally rewarded by the distant sound of killer whales.  Our directional hydrophone needs slightly louder calls to be effective, so we took a chance and ran two miles south.  The calls at that point were distinctly louder and our hopes of finding the whales soared—but fell again when the whales stopped calling just as we were getting a directional fix on them.  The whale had probably grouped up and begun to rest.

We had determined that they were somewhere to the SW, but knew that finding them in the fog—now thicker again—would be very difficult if they didn’t start calling again.  At our next stop two miles later we couldn’t hear any killer whale calls at all.  We strained our ears for the sound of blows over the wind, but no luck.  We could, however, hear the excited calls of Pacific white-sided dolphins off to the west, and decided to check them out while waiting for the killer whales to announce their presence again.

The dolphins, which we found a few minutes later, were porpoising along the surface at great speed, heading, no doubt, for a patch of prey that they had just detected.  An unusual movement caught our eyes, and we realized that a single Steller sea lion was in the middle of the group, which numbered about a hundred.  The sea lion was porpoising too....but evidently having a hard time keeping up, as it slowly fell to the back of the group and was finally left behind.  This sighting was a first for Lance, and something that Caitlin had seen just once before, in Johnstone Strait. 

After leaving the dolphins we criss-crossed lower Queen Charlotte Strait hoping to hear the killer whales again, but as the wind came up we knew it was hopeless and headed for an anchorage on the side of Hanson Island.  Tomorrow we will make the short run to Telegraph Cove Marina, put the boat to bed, and head back to Vancouver.  It will be a short turn around for Lance, who will return in less than a week to start the third trip of the field season.  Stay tuned!