photo credit: NOAA/Vancouver Aquarium. Two killer whales share a moment, filmed by a remote controlled vehicle.
Even while being kept at a distance where it would not disturb the whales, the hexacopter took images so sharp it is possible to tell that some of the whales are pregnant.
The footage they took is disturbing. Some of the Northern resident orcas they tracked are lacking in body fat and in very poor condition. While they were tracking one, it failed to surface and appears to have died. While there could be many causes of death, the researchers are concerned that the whales in the area are affected by declines in the Chinook salmon population, one of their main food sources.
One particularly intriguing aspect was the observation that A46, the brother of the whale that died, called extensively after losing his sibling. NOAA’s John Durban speculates he may still have been seeking his lost brother, or telling the rest of the pod the sad news.
However, it’s not all grim times for the whales. The scientists managed to get the photo above of two orcas nuzzling (or maybe playfully head-butting) each other. Orcas spend their entire lives in family pods, which in some cases can be an entire century.
My contribution: One of my photos of the researchers is included in this film clip.
A mysterious and beautiful sea fog unfurled before us as we sailed through the Sounds this morning. In the gloom a whale could be heard breathing. It appeared briefly before heading to fathoms unknown. Within half an hour, the fog lifted to reveal the snow-capped mountains and dense forests. Three Dall’s porpoises were seen bow riding in the straits. Around the Plumper islands, over 60 seals were seen lolling about on the rocks and in thewater due to the low tide. Unusually enough, a group of Harlequin ducks were nestled in the rocks close to the seals. Another humpback whale was seen slowly surfacing. On seeing its fluke, our on board naturalist Kyle was able to identify it as ‘KC’ which is short
for ‘Kelp creature’. This whale got its name from being found as a calf in 2002, rolling around in the kelp! Today, it appeared doing a great log impression as it was moving slowly along, taking shallow dives and remaining close to the water surface. Off Stubbs Island over 20 bald eagles were observed feeding in the rip tide.
The glorious weather continued as wecruised out for our afternoon trip. The Dall’s porpoises came back to our
delight. They swam amongst various species of birds which included bald eagles and rhinoceros auklets. Pigeon guillemots ducked ahead of us, while young salmon or smolt leapt like pieces of silver out of the water.
The fog rolled back on in, but word of a large pod of Pacific white sided dolphins bolstered our spirits. Within moments we were surrounded by a bucking, flashing, whizzing pod all around us. We gasped and squealed in delight as the dolphins enveloped us along with the fog. Surrounded on all sides, hundreds of dolphins entranced us with an incredible display of acrobatics and bow riding.
According to Captain Wayne, for every dolphin we saw surface, approx. five dolphins were below. That was giving us numbers of at least 500!
Conger, a humpback which has been seen every year in this area site since 2009 was nexton the scene. Alison, our naturalist on board was able to identify it for us. We watched it glide effortlessly through the shallows.
We were also very lucky to observe a lunge feed. We had the advantage of seeing its white pectoral fin through the crystal clear water. This made it easy to track it’s movements as it fed.
‘KC’ showed up again near Cracroft point in Johnstone Strait. True to its name, it was seen with a strand of kelp draped across its face on surfacing! The fog was well and truly gone at this point. The sun and the scenery continued to deliver as we returned, well fed with wildlife images that would continue to endure.
The eagles were out in force this afternoon! Sailing towards Blackfish Sound we saw some young bald eagles and adults sitting amongst the trees and flying forth. Rhinoceros auklets swam in tight groups. A brief spotting of a Steller sea lion in the kelp provided our first marine mammal view of the day. Its cousins, a couple of harbour seals were hauled out nearby. Young salmon or smolt were jumping out of the water around us. It is believed that this could be anti-predator behaviour but also potentially practice for their future epic travels!
Our excitement built as the first humpback whale of the day was spied from afar. It was identified as ‘Black Pearl’ by our on board naturalist, Kyle. Dall’s porpoises appeared quickly on the scene and started to splash and bow ride around the boat. The porpoises approached the whale and no sooner had the sleepy whale surfaced it trumpeted, perhaps in annoyance at the inquisitive intruders!
The weather continued to improve as we cruised along and the sea was still and calm. We were extremely lucky to see two harbour porpoises swim to the stern of the boat, cruising in our wake. Around the Whitecliff islands we had a gorgeous view of a bald eagle in the sunshine while across on another rock we saw a black oystercatcher.
On our approach to Stubbs Island, more whale activity was observed. At least one whale was seen which appeared to be moving slowly and doing many shallow dives. Captain Wayne dubbed this whale ‘Sleeper’ for the day due to its languid, leisurely dives. Black Pearl made another appearance on our return through the Johnstone Strait and gave us a wonderful view of its fluke as it dove down ahead of us.
At the Plumper Islands a large eagle’s nest with an adult sitting guard was seen high up in the trees. Down below a skittish seal slid into the water while its more laid back counterpart eyed us circumspectly. A pigeon guillemot made a brief appearance before making a dash for the deep. Our trip had an exciting end to it with a couple of super fast Dall’s porpoises speeding in front and behind the boat!
The morning’s trip was full of wildlife to excite and delight us. Our first encounter was with a few Dall’s porpoise which swam parallel to us. Around the Plumper Islands a big bait ball attracted the attention of a flock of bald eagles. They swooped and dove in amongst the fish. The trees were so densely packed with eagles that according to captain Wayne, it looked like a snow covered Christmas tree with all the bald heads. Harbour seals were seen at two haul out points as we cruised by.
As we continued on our way the air was punctuated with the sound of humpback whales breathing near and far from us. The air was still and calm and their sonorous sounds echoed through Blackfish Sound. Our on board naturalist Kyle was able to identify the whales. Horizon was the first whale spotted of the day, followed by Black Pearl and Cutter. Conger was seen on the way back in to port.
The whales made their presence felt on the afternoon trip too. They were not the only cetaceans to escort us on our way. Some playful Dall’s porpoises bow rode and leapt around us as we headed out from port. On entering Blackfish Sound, the blows of the humpbacks were seen ahead to our starboard side. Two whales swam in unison, breathing and diving in near synchronicity. On surfacing some tail (fluke) slapping was observed and one of the whales trumpeted loudly at the surface! A harbour seal peered up from the water, possibly wondering what all the fuss was about?
The afternoon continued with the whales fluking and providing us with ample opportunities to photograph their flukes for identification purposes. Our afternoon naturalist Sophia identified Black Pearl which made a reappearance along with Conger. At least two other whales were seen in the Sounds, with one doing a magnificent breach that leapt too fast for our cameras. The Dall’s came back to leap about the bow. For the bird enthusiasts, common murres, bald eagles as well as rhinoceros auklets flitted, swooped and swam around us throughout the day.
The morning started fine and bright, with a mature bear seen on exiting Telegraph Cove. It was sitting in the salal, relaxing in the warm weather. A very busy morning ensued with sightings of Dall’s porpoises, rhinoceros auklets and harbour seals. The humpback whales heralded our arrival to Cracroft Point. Five were seen in all and we were treated to an amazing display of breaching! Of the two whales that breached, both were identified. One was identified as ‘Stripe’, a humpback which has been seen regularly since 2002. The other whale identified was named as ‘Conger’. This whale has been seen annually since 2009. The orca brothers Kaikash and Plumper were also seen in the vicinity, adding to the excitement of the morning!
Our afternoon trip had Kaikash and Plumper reappearing to the delight of us all. Kaikash swam nearby while Plumper stayed further away. A cruise ship steamed past us and while doing so, Plumper appeared close to us. Swirling water stirred fish to the surface, watched by hungry bald eagles. They dove and deftly picked their prey from the water. Cruising through Johnstone Strait, the characteristic blow of a whale was seen close to the forested shore. Closer inspection showed it to be a sleepy humpback! It surfaced slowly and exhaled gently before sliding below the surface.
We headed towards eagle’s nest to observe one of the parents return to its nest. It called to its mate to return before leaving its young. A male Steller sea lion swam past us, as did a harbour seal. A humpback swam in parallel with us and on each successive dive, began to move progressively closer. It surfaced to our starboard side and provided us with a magnificent look at its fluke. Due to its proximity to us, we were able to get good shots of its fluke for our identification. Two budding naturalists from Edmonton, David and James helped our on board naturalist Alison in identifying the whale! The whale was identified as’ Guardian’ from the MERS catalogue (www.marinesociety.org).
Harbour seals slid under the kelp as we sailed by and splashed noisily in the water. We passed back by eagle’s nest, watched closely by one of the adults who appeared to look down haughtily upon us. The magnificent silver grey sky was the perfect backdrop for some bald eagles that wheeled around in circles.
‘’Off into the wild blue yonder!’’ were Captain’s Wayne’s words as we sailed out of Telegraph Cove. Glorious sunshine greeted our 36 guests and crew as we basked in the unfolding view and the sunshine. It seemed the Dall’s porpoises were revelling in the sunshine as well. Within minutes of our departure a few were bow riding the boat!
In amongst the Plumper Islands a mature bald eagle was spotted and a harbour seal spied us momentarily before vanishing into the azure blue. We approached a rock face which had a Pigeon Guiilemot sitting in front of its nest. Some of its enough to see its enormous nest beneath it. It transpires that this is the first time in 5 years that this nest has been used by the eagles!
Passing by Stubbs Island we saw some Harbour seals lolling in the sun, some partially submerged with water. A Steller sea lion swam past them momentarily through the kelp and appeared to escape their attention. Passing through Blackfish Sound, at least 2 Humpbacks were seen with snow capped mountains as their backdrop. As one exhaled nearby, the other appeared in the distance. After some time the far away whale was identified as ‘Cutter’. The sightings continued on as shouts of ‘whale’ emanated from every corner of the boat! Another whale appeared in the distance as we sailed ahead.
As we entered the Broughton Archipelago, the distant whale was spotted again. A local researcher by the name of Jared Towers confirmed the whale was actually a Minke! The Minke’s identity was confirmed as ‘Galaxy’. When we thought that we had seen all of the whales to be seen, an Orca appeared! It was confirmed to be a resident or fish eating Orca, the first seen of the season! It was also confirmed to be an Orca which they call ‘Kaikash’. Kaikash and his brother ‘Plumper’ were orphaned some years ago. They were actually ‘adopted’ by a lone female called ‘Scimitar’! She would travel with them and actually feed them fish! Plumper was spotted briefly later near the research boat. With all the excitement of the Orca sightings, a smaller creature was seen afar in the sea. It was realized that it was a sea otter! A creature which is rarely seen in these parts and also the first of its kind seen this season!
The sun continued to blaze as we approached port. A Glaucous Wing gull swooped to skim some smolt from the water surface. The skittish salmon leapt and darted on the water surface in the dazzling light. Coming full circle, a few Dall’s porpoise splashed alongside us as we neared home. So much to see, we had the time, we had the sun, luck and the weather gods were on our side! The wide blue yonder was wild indeed!
An enduring dream to visit Canada and a certain obsession with the creature they call ‘’Blackfish’’ saw me finally here today. We cruised out on the gorgeous Johnstone Strait with the able and affable Captain Wayne. Guiding and commentary were provided by the very knowledgeable naturalist, Kyle. The boss Roger also happened to pop along to take some photos.
First on the menu were a few Dall’s porpoises that whizzed through the sea in front of us. Birds of varying species provided us with some company too. Rhinoceros auklets rested gently on the water surface and rose to fly as we approached. The eagle eyed crew spied a young Pigeon guillemot on a craggy ledge.
On approaching a rocky outcrop, the ‘rocks’ began to stir and roll gently to reveal plump and pretty Pacific harbour seals. Their bodies ranged in hues of dappled cream to grey. The haul out had approx 40 of these shy seals. The breathtaking scenery continued as we headed into Blackfish Sound, home of the fabled orca. More harbour seals were seen lolling contentedly on the rocks. Suddenly word was in that a Leviathan was in our midst! Not one, but two it turned out, two humpback whales breathing on the water surface!! After some movement on the water surface the whales began their deep dives and we were rewarded with photos of their magnificent flukes. This was also a great chance for the crew to photo-id the whales tails (flukes) to pass on to researchers for population estimates.
If this was not enough excitement, word had come in from a local boat that orca were spotted nearby. Shortly after, we began to see some increased activity ahead. Five active orca were throwing some shapes in front of us! The pod consisted of 4 adults and a baby! We were treated for the next 40 minutes to an incredible display of tail lobbing, breaching and spy hopping. Camera batteries and memory cards were exhausted as we were given ample opportunity to witness nature at its best.
Exhilarated and satisfied, we turned to make our return back to port. It turns out the wildlife had other ideas! The Humpbacks reappeared and showed us their magnificent flukes as they descended into their realm. Cruising back happily, we were escorted by more harbour porpoises that bow-rode the boat. On our approach to Telegraph Cove, Roger spotted a black bear on the shore. The hungry bear deftly turned many boulders on the beach in search of food.
We returned to shore full of amazing mental and photographic images. The trip fulfilled my dreams and more. I will be back!
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