Studying killer whales in the wild is expensive work. Transportation, equipment costs, boat maintenance and fuel are just some of the many daily costs faced by researchers in the field. By taking out a membership in the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program, you’ll help defray these costs and become a key partner in the killer whale research effort.


Vancouver Aquarium Cetacean Research Blog -- Leg 4, Summer 2012

Monday August 27th

T11 and her son T11A 

During the two weeks that we have been off the water, we have received few reports of northern resident killer whales, with the exception of a few matrilines from the A1, A5 and I11 pods, which have been hanging out in and near Johnstone Strait.   It is unlikely that they have been missed in areas that boaters frequent, so we have decided to return to the central coast—where there are relatively few observers—and look for them there.  Crew for this trip consisted of myself, Lance Barrett-Lennard, and research assistant Meghan McKillop.

A few minutes after setting out from Telegraph Cove we encountered a group of transient killer whales travelling slowly north past Alert Bay.  They turned out to be the T02C’s, one of the most commonly sighted transient groups in B.C., along with the T11’s and the male T12A.   We took a quick set of ID photographs for confirmation and then paralleled them at a distance of approximately 150 yards to watch for hunting events.   They circled Haddington Island and rounded Ledge Point within metres of the shore—looking for harbour seals, most likely.  No seals were evident, however, and they grouped up and drifted slowly north past Pultney Point—at which point we left them.

After fueling up and buying groceries for the trip, we headed across Queen Charlotte Strait.  The wind was light, despite the forecasts of moderate south-easterlies, and we had a comfortable crossing of the open stretch of coast between the northend of Vancouver Island the mouth of Smith’s Inlet.   We encountered an exuberant group of about 40 Pacific white-sided dolphins near the Storm Islands,  two harbour porpoises near the Bremmer Island, several  solitary sea otters just south of Cape Caution, and a  humpback whale near Table Island. 

We anchored for the night in Jones Cove, a tiny “hole in the wall” bay in the mouth of Smith Sound, conveniently located near a local hotspot for both humpback and minke whales. (written by Lance Barrett-Lennard)


Tuesday August 28

Large debris on shore

Not surprisingly given the previous day’s entry, we encountered both a minke whale and two humpback whales minutes after pulling out of the anchorage.   We then crossed over to the south end of Calvert Island and surveyed slowly up the west side of the island.  Rain and fog reduced the visibility to two miles or less and we didn’t sight any whales---although we did spot a large yellow buoy that had broken loose of its moorings and washed ashore near Dublin Point.  We are on the lookout for debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami and so paddled ashore to take a good look at it.  It was cylindrical, about 10 feet in diameter and 10 feet high with a curious tunnel through the middle.  It had no identifying markings but unlike most tsunami debris it had very little marine growth attached, so we speculated that it had not drifted across from Japan and was instead of more local origin.

The weather continued to deteriorate through the afternoon—heavy rain and increasing SE wind, so we headed into Pruth Bay on the northwest corner of Calvert Island for the night.  Pruth Bay is the location of the Hakai Institute, one of the most exciting new developments on the central coast in recent years.  More on that in the next posting.  (written by Lance Barrett-Lennard)

Wednesday August 29

Hakai Institute in Pruth Bay
The Hakai Institue in Pruth Bay -

Low, heavy clouds hung on the mountain tops as we paddled the dingy ashore for an early breakfast meeting with Eric Peterson, director of the Hakai Institute. Eric and his wife Christina purchased the land that the Institute is located on in 2009 from a company that operated a sport fishing lodge on the site.  The property is fabulously diverse from a biological perspective, containing protected shorelines, exposed shorelines, a saltwater slough, a freshwater marsh, rocky coastal terrain, sub-alpine terrain, stands of both red and yellow cedar, and the finest sand beach on the central coast.   Since purchasing the site, Eric and Christina have extensively renovated the pre-existing buildings,  built new ones, replaced the dock floats,  installed a extensive array of solar panels, established Internet connections via satellite links and open the doors to diverse researchers including terrestrial and marine biologists, archaeologists, and physical and biological oceanographers.   Over coffee and eggs, we talked about various new research initiatives,  including the possibility of setting up a fixed hydrophone on a rocky islet on a west-facing beach and streaming the sound over the Internet.

After leaving Pruth Bay, we headed out to the western entrance to Hakai Pass to scan visually and listen for whales with the hydrophone.   No luck.  Heavy seas and strong SE winds discouraged us from heading further west, so we headed east instead, into the more protected waters of Fitzhugh Strait.  There was less wind in Fitzhugh but visibility was restricted by drizzle and rain, but we did have a clear sighting of a humpback whale in the centre of the Strait.  We then ran into Burke Channel where we sighted a second humpback.  Heavy squalls began to blow through shortly afterwards reducing the visibility even further, so we decided to anchor up in nearby Kwatna Inlet.  Kwatna is a place where we have often seen Pacific white-sided dolphins in the past, but they were absent today---although we did see a single humpback puffing along close to shore.   We anchored in the head of the inlet, off the mouth of the Quatlena River, where eagles and ravens feasted on the first spawned-out chum salmon carcasses of the year. (written by Lance Barrett-Lennard)


Thursday  August 30 

The morning scene in our anchorage was nothing short of spectacular.  The rainhad ended and shafts of sunlight poured down through gaps in the cloud, which clung to the ridges and peaks of the steep, craggy mountains than flank Kwatna Inlet.

 The 'Skana's route Aug 28-30th, 2012
The route taken by the Skana from Aug 28-30th, 2012

We ran out of the Inlet and down Burke Channel, where we sighted a single humpback whale near Restoration Bay, and two more at the mouth.    We encountered three more in Fisher Channel and, for the first time in that particular area, heard the distance sound of group bubble-netting humpbacks on the hydrophone.  We passed through Nalau Passage into Hakai, where we hoped we might find resident killer whales feeding on Chinook.  Alas, no such luck—and not only were there no whales but very few boats from the nearby sport fishing lodges, which are winding up their season.  

We headed west out of Hakai and turned north into Queen’s Sound—another area where we have frequently found resident killer whales in the past, but struck out today.  We finally went into Swordfish Bay, on the southwest corner of Hunter Island for the night.  I had never anchored in Swordfish Bay before…it’s a tiny cove , tricky to get into with drying rocks in the entrance and too small to anchor in without a stern line (to prevent the boat from swinging around the anchor)—but it’s quite exquisite and we were glad to have discovered it. (written by Lance Barrett-Lennard)


Friday August 31

A group of Pacific white-sided dolphins that caused us
to loose our acoustic track on the killer whales

Our plan today was to survey the west side of the Goose Island group and upper Queen’s Sound.  We  spotted a dozen sea otters in kelp patches between the Gosling Rocks and Gosling Island, and dropped the pickle…aka hydrophone…near Duck Island.  We immediately heard unmistakeable—albeit extremely faint  killer whale calls.  We couldn’t  see the whales (they could have easily been 10 miles or more away)  and our directional hydrophone  isn’t effective on very quiet calls, particularly when there is a lot of wave noise, as there was today.  So, we chose a direction at random (west ) and ran for a few miles to see if the calls were louder.  They turned out to be about the same volume, so  we ran north several miles—at which point we heard nothing.  We then ran southwest past our the last place we had heard them.  They were louder, but infrequent, and we were concerned that the whales might stop vocalizing, in which case they would be very hard to find.  Sure enough, we couldn’t hear them at all at our next stop---the trail had gone cold. 

We decided to run towards the mouth of Hakai Pass---a common destination for resident killer whales, but on the way we ran into a noisy and frenetic group of about 60 Pacific white-sided dolphins.  After stopping to take identification photographs and make recordings, we resumed our search for the killer whales.  Still no joy…and the wind was increasing, reducing the chance of either hearing or seeing them.  Finally, we turned north again and survey our way to the Simmonds Islands, where—after a last listen for killer whales—we turned out of Queen’s Sound and headed to a small un-named bay near Dodwell Island to anchor and turn in for the night. (written by Lance Barrett-Lennard)


Saturday September 1

After running around trying to find killer whales yesterday, this morning we really needed fuel for the Skana.  We were up early and left our anchorage so we could be in Shearwater when the fuel dock opened up at 8am.  A forecast of gale force south easterly winds for the day meant working on the west side of Calvert Island or Queen Sound wasn’t an option so we didn’t feel too rushed in Shearwater.  We treated ourselves to breakfast in the Shearwater restaurant and caught up with some of the locals.  We then moved the boat to small bay near Bella Bella to connect with the office via Internet and tinker with items that needed to be fixed on the boat.

T55s in Lama Pass

After an hour or so of intermittent Internet connection we moved the boat to a dock we could get better reception.   Lance stretched the anchor line out along the dock to re-do the rope-to-chain splice.  He had just cut the end of the rope when I looked when out of the window and glimpsed two killer whale fins passing by the dock---this is where organized chaos takes over.  We threw the anchor line and chain onto the bow of the boat, put the computers on the floor, lunch dishes in the sink, untied the boat and headed after the whales.

It turned out to be a small group of transient killer whales, the T55s---T55, her adult son, daughter and juvenile offspring.  They were acting in typical transient fashion---long dives and zig-zagging across the channel.  We followed them past Bella Bella and into Lama Pass, where the male split off from the group and traveled almost parallel along the opposite side of the channel in what appeared to be hunting mode.  The females checked out a group of hauled out harbour seals but it didn’t appear that any kills were made.  We finally left the group in Fisher Channel as it was getting dark and starting to rain.  Lance spliced the anchor line together on the bow of the boat with his headlamp on and we finally anchored in Long Point Cove off Fisher Channel for the night. (written by Meghan McKillop)

The route taken by the Skana on Sept 1st


Sunday September 2

A77, A35 and A70 in Fitz Hugh Sound

T12A in the sunset

The high pressure system meant the weather forecast for the day was not in our favour again, but after yesterday’s unexpected killer whale encounter we weren’t feeling so down.  In the morning we left our anchorage and headed into Fisher Channel to see what the conditions were like.  It was much calmer than predicted, so we surveyed our way down Fisher Channel and into Fitz Hugh Sound.  We saw several humpbacks in Fitz Hugh Sound and could hear humpback calls on the hydrophone.  Just past Addenbroke Lightstation we stopped once again to confirm the identification of a distant blow—another humpback—when we suddenly spotted killer whale fins!

This time it was resident killer whales, the A35 matriline.  The group consisted of the matriarch A35, her four offspring and her two grandchildren.  They were spread out and appeared to be foraging, but after a while grouped up to rest as they travelled north along the west shore of Fitz Hugh Sound.  Towards the end of the encounter we dropped the hydrophone in the water to record their vocalization, but they were completely silent.

Since the weather was better than predicted---but the forecast called for bad weather the next two days, we decided to make the run past Cape Caution and back to northern Vancouver Island.  We left the killer whales near the mouth of Kwakshua Channel and headed south down Fitz Hugh Sound, down South Passage, rounded Cape Caution and into Queen Charlotte Strait.  It was starting to get dark and we were making dinner while underway, when suddenly we spotted another group of killer whales!

It was a small group of transients, T109A and her three young offspring.  We dropped everything again and headed over to get identification photos.  The young whales were very playful, stopping to pull on some kelp and spook a group of sea birds.  We then noticed a male a few hundred meters away and went over to identify him.  It was T12A, a lone male whose mother died about four years ago and has been traveling by himself or on the edge of other groups ever since.  By this time it was getting too dark to photograph the whales so we parted ways and headed into Slingsby Channel to anchor for the night--and re-heat our dinner!  (written by Meghan McKillop)

The route taken by the Skana on Sept 2nd, 2012


Monday September 3

We woke up to a beautiful sunny morning, but just outside our anchorage the water was running hard through the Nakwato Rapids---it’s an impressive sight from a distance, but the whirlpools and overfalls make it very dangerous for boaters.   We had a quick breakfast and headed out Slingsby Channel before the ebb reached its peak.  The tide runs less swiftly through Slingsby than Nakwakto---even still, the fact that the current was agains the incoming northwest swell made for a  sporty ride out into Queen Charlotte Strait.

A mola mola, also known as a sunfish

We surveyed across Queen Charlotte Strait, along the north end of Hope Island and over to the north end of Vancouver Island, where we saw a few scattered sea otters.  The sandy beaches along the north end of Vancouver Island are good feeding spots for summer resident grey whales, and sure enough we saw our first grey whale of the season.  We took some identification photos and video while the grey whale rolled around in the kelp close to shore. 

After leaving the grey whale to continue our survey west along Vancouver Island we came across a mola mola, also known as an ocean sunfish.   Mola molas are odd, disk-shaped  fish that are often seen swimming on their sides just below the water surface or vertically with their dorsal fin out of the water.   We then continued to survey down to Christensen Point before turning around and heading back to Hope Island.  On our survey back we saw another grey whale and a humpback whale, and then to our surprise we saw the mola  mola again—or perhaps it was its cousin.   We’d taken still photos the first time—this time we shut down the engine and hung a waterproof video camera over the side to take a little footage.  It was very cooperative, swimming  lazily towards the camera before turning away at the last second.  We continued east over Nahwitti Bar, into Goletas Channel and anchored in a small bay near Kalect Island for the night. (written by Meghan McKillop)

The route taken by the Skana on Sept 3-5th, 2012


Tuesday September 4

The anchorage at Kalect Island opens into Bates’s Pass which, as I noted on August 10, is one of my favourite places—it just never disappoints.  This morning was no exception---as soon as we entered the pass we encountered flocks of rhinoceros auklets and delicate Bonaparte’s gulls.  We could see schools of small fish writhing in the dark water below the boat –no doubt attracting the birds and the single humpback whale we spotted feeding near the north end of the pass.  We stopped to deploy the hydrophone  shortly after passing  the humpback and immediately heard two or three short, quiet killer whale calls—transients!  There was little wind and the sightings conditions were good, but we were not able to spot anything.  We ran out towards Pine Island---nothing seen or heard there, and the relaxed behaviour of a group of four Dall porpoises suggested that they were not aware of any transients nearby.  A couple of miles further on and still nothing---the trail was definitely cold by now—so we decided to search on the northwest side of the Storm Islands where we’d seen the T109A transients  on Sunday.  No luck once again, so we ran south again along the east side of the Storm Islands.

As soon as we arrived back in Gordon Channel and dropped the hydrophone we heard clear but distant calls of northern resident killer whales.  Sound propagation in the sea varies greatly depending on temperature and salinity layering and our ability to detect it varies greatly with background noise from boat engines and waves---so it is hard to estimate how far away the whales are when we hear them.   That said, I suspected this time that the whales weren’t close, because the hydrophone picked up the calls best when it was 10 feet below the boat rather than at 60 feet down—suggesting the sound was propagating in a surface layer.  Sure enough, we followed their sounds for eight miles before we finally found them---back near Pine Island!    This distance would not have been unusual if the conditions were quiet, but on this occasion there was a fair bit of background noise from distant shipping.

G78 in Gordon Channel

We quickly recognized the whales as seven members of the G17 matriline, including adult males G40, G60 and G59.  The female G23 and her brother G38 have not been seen for some time and were missing again during this encounter.  The whales were spread out and feeding.  Gulls dropped down several times to pick up scraps as the whales surfaced indicating that they were catching something, but we couldn’t tell whether it was their preferred prey ( Chinook salmon) or another species.  Despite the fact that we’d heard the whales from a considerable distance, their vocalizations were quiet and sporadic---not the loud, excited calls we usually hear during foraging.

After taking photographs to confirm their identities and making a couple of long recordings, we made the decision to leave—we had lots of distance to cover before dark.  As we moved off to the east, the whales grouped up and drifted slowly off to the west.  We ran east down Gordon Channel, passed along the top of Malcom Island, entered Blackfish Sound and anchored for the night near Mound Island.  Along the way we spotted five humpback whales and two groups of Dall porpoises.  Our colleagues at OrcaLab informed us by radio that the A30 matriline of northern residents had been seen in Blackfish Sound shortly before we entered it, but it was nearly dark by this time and we didn’t stop to search for them.  In the morning, we will go the last few miles to Telegraph Cove, where Meghan and I will put the Skana  to bed  before returning  to our “indoor” jobs in the Cetacean Research Lab at the Vancouver Aquarium.