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Vancouver Aquarium Cetacean Research Blog -- Leg 3, Summer 2012

Thursday August 2nd

The crew of the Skana on the third leg of the 2012 field season consisted of myself, Lance Barrett-Lennard, my wife Kathy Heise, and our 13-yr old son Lee. Kathy is a Vancouver Aquarium Research Associate with over two decades of research experience studying killer whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins and Lee is a keen sailor, a great deckhand and a sharp-eyed whale spotter. This is the first research trip we have made to the central coast together in three years and one of the few visits Kathy has made to the area since conducting research for her Master’s degree in the area 15 yrs ago—so we’re all keen to get started.

After driving up to Telegraph Cove from Vancouver and preparing the boat the day before, we got off to an early start. We had heard that the I15’s, a pod of northern residents killer whales not yet photographed this year (something we try to do annually to determine which members survived the winter and whether any calves had been born) had made a brief visit to Johnstone Strait the day before and then swum off to the northwest---the direction we planned to go ourselves. Before we had run many miles though we heard a Coast Guard radio operator taking about a report of a dead whale floating near Cape Sutil, about 25 miles from Pt Hardy. We decided to check it out, scanning for the I15’s enroute. In the end, however, we found no sign of the I15’s and by the time we arrived near Cape Sutil a strong NW wind opposing the current across Nahwitti Bar made sighting conditions very difficult. Despite our best efforts we were unable to locate the whale carcass.

We anchored for the night in Bull Harbour, where friendly local boaters described the carcass in detail. They had seen it floating upside down and remarked on the long pectoral fins—almost certainly a humpback whale. We decided to take another quick look for it in the morning but to carry on with our plan to cross the exposed waters of Queen Charlotte Strait to Calvert Island in good time, before the predicted NW winds pick up.


Friday August 3rd

GPS track of days route

Up at 5:00 AM to a light breeze and beautiful sunrise---but fog began to move in

shortly after we hauled the anchor. We searched for the whale carcass briefly in Goletas Channel from Nahwitti Bar to Loquillilla Cove without success. We did, however, sight two humpback whales, a few Steller sea lions and several sea otters in Bates Pass before beginning our run across Queen Charlotte Strait. Well, not really a run--fog and a lumpy NW swell made for slow going.

We had a little respite from the wind and fog in the mouth of Smith Sound, but the visibly plunged again as soon as we shut off the radar. Knowing that the SE tip of Calvert Island is often clear and calm when the rest of the area is fog-bound and the wind blowing from the NW, we headed across Fitzhugh Sound. Sure enough, we broke into brilliant sun, blue skies and rippled seas near Cape Calvert in the late morning.

After scanning and monitoring the hydrophone for a couple of hours we decided to try to work around to the west side of Calvert Is, where we’ve often found resident killer whales in the past. No joy---thick fog and a building NW chased us back, and we anchored up in Grief Bay for a late lunch and to wait until the weather improved.

After a couple of hours the fog had become patchy and we headed back into Fitzhugh Sound. A fishing guide reported a pod of killer whales in the mouth of Rivers Inlet near Duncanby Landing, but by the time we arrived the trail was cold and the fog reforming. We decided to anchor up in nearby Wilson Bay and resume the search in the morning.


Saturday August 4th

Our third early start in a row paid off today. Shortly after leaving our anchorage we heard the unmistakable calls of A-clan northern resident killer whales, and after 30 minutes of following their acoustic trail with our directional hydrophone we found them, near Sharbau Island. They turned out to the be the A24’s, a pod of northern residents that Kathy and I remembered first seeing almost 25 years ago in southern Johnstone Strait. Matriarch A24 was already 20 years old then—today she was accompanied by her four surviving offspring and a grandchild. A24 is also the grandmother of A73 (Springer), the famous orphan that became separated from her relatives 10 years ago--although Springer was not with the A24s today. She became a media darling after she was rescued and returned to her pod in a groundbreaking bilateral effort: today she is strong and healthy and spends most of her time with her mother’s first cousin A35.

Schooner (A64)

We had just enough time to photograph and record the A24’s and document them feeding alongside a couple of sport-fishing boats before they moved off into the mouth of Rivers Inlet. There, they swam for about 30 minutes with a humpback whale. The humpback initially made several loud trumpeting blows, suggesting that it was somewhat alarmed, but it then calmed down and swam quietly in formation with the killer whales for at least 30 minutes. We were interested in how long the association would last, but the fog set in again and the NW wind picked up, making it impossible to stay with them.

Fortunately for us the fog lasted only an hour, and we spent the rest of the day surveying in Fitzhugh Sound and Hakai Pass. We ran across four more humpback whales along the way, including one that was breaching and tail-lobbing—perhaps in an attempt to concentrate prey.

We anchored up at 6:15pm in Pruth Bay, had dinner on the boat and paddled ashore to walk over to beautiful West Beach, an idyllic sandy bight facing directly into Queen Charlotte Strait. Pruth Bay is the location of Hakai Institute, a fabulous research centre created by the Tula Foundation that is breathing new life into the area.


Sunday August 5th

Woke up to a clear fog! The wind was light but predicted to pick up strongly by late morning so we hauled the anchor and got started early once again. Our plan was to run out Hakai Pass and survey in Queen’s Sound, but picking through the steep opposing swells as we headed west out of Hakai Pass at 7:30am made it clear that it wasn’t going to be a good day for finding whales in open water. We decided to try working in the lee of Goose Island, but by the time we arrived it was getting decidedly uncomfortable—time, it seemed, for a day off.

We anchored in Goose Island Anchorage where, fortuitously, we found our research colleagues from Pacific Wild having a staff retreat. We joined them for the rest of the day for a picnic on the beach, a treasure hunt for the kids, exploring and a bonfire and barbeque as the sun set. It was a great day for all of us--Lee in particular, who takes any chance he gets to check out new islands and shorelines.


Monday August 6th

Morning broke with no sign of yesterday’s blustery NW winds and the forecast spoke of light winds all day, so we decided to survey in the exposed waters of Queen Charlotte Sound west of the Goose Islands. Shortly after passing south of the islands and turning to the northwest we picked up distant calls from Pacific white-sided dolphins on the hydrophone. The tinkling sound of their echolocation gave us a clue that they were heading towards us, and shortly thereafter a group of about 65 came into view.

We could see splashing in their midst and after checking them out with the binoculars realized that they were accompanied by, or perhaps more accurately were accompanying, a large humpback whale. It is not unusual for Pacific white-sides to mob humpback whales, which often indicate their displeasure with trumpeting blows and tail swipes. In contrast, this one seemed relatively relaxed. Perhaps it was just mellower than the average humpback whale or perhaps the dolphins had been with it for hours and it was exhausted with trying to discourage them...but in any case, it swam along slowly at the surface, rolling on its back from time to time.

G59 surfacing

We usually take identification photographs of a few well-marked dolphins during every encounter. Today, however, it was hard to find distinctive individuals with prominent scars or nicks in their dorsal fins--we noted that there were no small calves present either. Pacific white-sided dolphins are often strongly attracted to boats and this feisty group was no exception, zooming towards the boat every time we increased our speed even slightly. In the end we took a few photographs and a short recording then moved on.

After a couple more hours of scanning and listening with the hydrophone we were surprised to see a group of killer whales quite close to us. They were tightly grouped, apparently resting and absolutely silent. We approached them as slowly and quietly as possible and quickly snapped identification photographs, recognizing as we did the G27 and G29 matrilines of northern residents, and at least one member of the G17’s. We then paralleled their course several hundred yards away, as they drifted slowly north. After they passed Cape Mark, a spot known locally for good Chinook fishing, we moved a mile or so ahead of the whales and dropped the hydrophone. We heard nothing initially, then a few quiet echolocation clicks, then more echolocation and suddenly a cacophony of explosive, strident vocalizations as the whales spread out and began to hunt. A flock of shearwaters, startled by the whales, took off, making a sound on the hydrophone like heavy rain.

The whales foraged along the shore as far as the entrance to Seaforth Channel, then grouped up, stopped vocalizing and began resting again. It was 8:00 PM by this time and so we bid them farewell, and headed east to anchor in beautiful Dundivan Inlet for the night.


Tuesday August 7th

The Skana’s stern drive was due for maintenance, so we ran into Bella Bella in the morning and arranged with Shearwater Marina to lift the boat out of the water. The maintenance was straightforward: we changed the oil in the lower end of the stern drive unit, switched the props to a spare set we carry that are slightly coarser-pitched, and scrubbed the algae off the trim tabs and hull. After re-launching we were underway again by mid afternoon.  


Wednesday August 8th

Dawn broke windy, wet and foggy, so we remained in the anchorage until mid morning, catching up on notes and filing photographs and sound recordings. The rain eased, visibility improved and wind abated by 10:30, so we hauled anchor and headed out. We soon spotted a humpback whale foraging near Martha Island and stopped to snap ID photographs. The wind and rain returned as we ran north up Milbanke Sound and eventually the conditions became unworkable—so we headed into Klemtu at 3:15 and tied to the dock for the rest of the afternoon.

Klemtu is a small First Nations village that will always be special to Kathy and I. We spent a year at nearby Boat Bluff lightstation in the late 1980’s and Kathy took a job as an elementary school teacher in the village, teaching a lively class of grade 3, 4 and 5 students. The village was and is incredibly welcoming, and the friends we made there are friends for life. Klemtu has made many improvements over the intervening years, including the construction of a stunning longhouse, an impressive and welcoming guest lodge and a shiny new ferry terminal that connects the village to the world. The boardwalks that ringed the bay that the village surrounds are gone, replaced by a road. I have been back to village many times but it was Kathy’s first time she saw (and appreciated!) all the changes with fresh eyes.

We spent the afternoon touring the longhouse and connecting with old friends and—in Kathy’s case— former students. We were joined on the dock that night by several fishing boats, heading for a salmon gillnet opening in Fitzhugh Sound. This would not have been an unusual occurrence when we lived in the area over 20 years ago but it is now. The fishing fleet is, sadly, a shadow of its former self and gillnet openings are few and far between. As one of the fishermen we chatted with pointed out wryly, salmon fishing used to be a living, now it’s a hobby.

Lee will likely never know anything like the salmon fishery that Kathy and I remember so well...when fishermen were kings, coastal  towns had fishboats tied up 5 or 6 deep on the docks, processing plants worked round the clock and –for a couple of months every year, money flowed like water. At the time, no-one could imagine that the small boat fishery would fade so drastically, a victim of overfishing, habitat destruction, and a variety of poorly-understood environmental changes.

Thursday August 9th

The weather much improved, we pulled away from the dock at 6:30am, hoping to get a good start on our trip south. As we motored slowly along the Swindle Island shoreline, we spotted a single humpback whale foraging close to shore. It was creating bubble nets (circular columns of bubbles) and using them to corral small schools of herring which it could then devour in a single massive gulp. It is a behaviour we had seen many times before but which never fails to fascinate us--it is such a clever, complicated trick.

Humpback coming through the bubble ring

A little later we passed two more humpbacks chuffing along slowly together, and a mile or two further on we had the most extraordinary experience. It started when we saw a single humpback whales lying perfectly still at the surface—resting, we hoped, but since we didn’t see obvious breaths, possibly dead? We stopped three hundred yards to one side and shut down the engine to watch more carefully for breaths. After a minute or two it blew and inhaled deeply—to our relief. It then arched slowly, and slipped below the surface, heading away from us. We were about to start the engine and move on when it suddenly blew beside us, having looped back towards us unseen. After inhaling deeply again it lay beside us. We didn’t start the engine for fear of startling or even injuring it, so we simply watched. After 10 minutes it swam slowly underneath us, exhaling underwater as it went and rocking the boat with its bubbles. It then surfaced on our other side and lay there for another 10 minutes— then moved back to the first side again. Finally it swam slowly away, leaving massive “whale footprints” on the surface trailing into the distance. We had no idea what compelled it to act in this way, but it was yet another reminder that whales have ‘personality’ ...every one is an individual whose reactions and behaviours are shaped by a lifetime of different and differently-perceived experiences — much like humans.

The rest of the day seemed relatively ordinary after that encounter. We surveyed the SE shore of Swindle Island for possible locations for a fixed hydrophone for our colleagues at Pacific Wild, fueled up in Shearwater and ran down Hunter Channel to anchor in a cozy un-named bay from which we could start our crossing of Queen Charlotte Sound the following morning. We paddled ashore in the dinghy after dinner to stretch our legs---which in Lee’s case meant full speed sprints and hurdles over rocks and driftwood--and ended that most interesting of days in contemplation around a campfire on the beach.

Friday August 10th

Aug 10th track

We hauled anchor and were underway well before sun-up, so that we could cross Queen Charlotte Sound before the predicted NW wind came up. We crossed the seaward entrance to Hakai Pass, ran down the west side of Calvert Island, passed the Sea Otter group and crossed over to the west end of Hope Island, off the northern Vancouver shoreline. As we approached the west end of Hope Island we passed several small clusters of sea otters, resting on their backs and grooming in their characteristic way. We saw four humpback whales of the west side of Hope Island, crossed Nahwitti Bar, and drifted in Bate’s Pass (one of our favourite places in the world) to make lunch, surrounded by flocks of rhinocerous auklets. Continuing on we noted a resting humpback and two small groups of Dall’s porpoises in Gordon Channel, more Dall’s near Malcolm Island, and a humpback feeding near Stubb’s Island. One hundred and eleven miles after leaving our anchorage at Hunter Island, we finally reached Telegraph Cove and secured the Skana to the dock. Fittingly, our berth was beside the iconic Gikumi, the first commercial whale-watching boat in British Columbia. This ended the Skana’s third research trip of 2012 - check this site for the next one, starting on August 27.