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Fin Whales and Orca

By Janie Wray, Hermann Meuter, 13th August 2012

We were planning to travel out towards Caamano Sound for a whale survey and after listening to the weather report we knew we would have to leave early; it was going to pickup to at least 25knots NW. Once the boat was packed with our gear, fresh coffee in the thermos, we were off. After 30 minutes of travel we stopped, turned off the engine and listened for blows. We have learned over the years that this is one of the best ways to locate large baleen whales. This morning it did not take long and this method once again proved beneficial. We were soon surrounded by 3 humpback whales, 2 were seasonal residents and the other was a new arrival we had never seen before. After collecting photo IDs we saw another huge blow 1 km to the south. Looking through the binoculars we were thrilled to see this was a fin whale. It has only been in the last few years these massive baleen whales have been sighted in our research area so every encounter is sacred. We immediately departed in hopes of identifying this lone whale. With every sequence of breaths it would surface in a completely different location making a photograph difficult. Finally we were able to figure out the dive patterns and after photographing both the left and right side we shut down the boat to start a 30 minute recording. Fin Whales are not vocal within our hearing range but we still like to record in case the whale was vocal and we can later determine if this was the case using software on our computer back at the lab.

That was when the orca arrived!

Just as I had put the hydrophone in the water I heard a very distinctive “Ping.” This was certainly not a fin whale call but part of the repertoire of calls familiar to G Clan whales which belong to the northern resident community of killer whales. The calls were faint and with the breeze already rippling the water finding the whales would not be easy. We both scanned in all directions. The blow of an orca is far too silent to detect so our method of listening for blows was not going to work. Then a call from our out camp at Ulric Point. They had just spotted a large group of blows, to distant to determine species but my guess was these were the same whales we were looking for. We had to cross Campania Sound but it was worth it. So far, this year has been unusually slow in regards to orca sightings; we certainly did not want to miss this opportunity. Once we reached the Princess Royal shoreline 30 minutes later, near the location the crew at Ulric thought they had spotted them, we put the hydrophone back in the water. This time there was another “Ping” followed by G Clan calls and they were close. No sooner had I pulled the hydrophone out of the water and 3 orcas were floating under the boat, staring up at us! I was so shocked at first I almost forgot to grab the camera. As soon as they passed I started the boat and tried to position myself on the left side to get a few ID pictures. They appeared oblivious to our presence and carried on fishing as though we were not there. We could hear constant echolocation under the boat, a sure sign they were on the hunt for Chinook salmon. I pulled ahead and once again put the hydrophone in to listen. To watch orca is only part of the experience, to listen at the same time completes the picture significantly when trying to understand their behavior. So much is happening where we cannot see , under the water, so we may as well listen just in case there is a hint from a call type what may indicate what may happen next. That is exactly what happened. One very excited call and I knew one had caught a fish. Sure enough they formed a group, taking turns diving. I was certain that if we could see under water at that moment we would witness one orca holding a fish while the other fed, then a switch, one by one they would all have the chance to feed. I inched in with the boat hoping to get few scales samples to determine which type of fish they were feasting on. Then we noticed there were even more whales on their way towards us. There were lots of females, juveniles and calves with one massive male off to the side. They were traveling in small groups which made it fairly easy to identify each individual. We had the G23s and G27s, two G Clan families. What happened next truly took away our breath away. All 16 of these whales formed a long resting line, now traveling side by side, breathing as one, and then disappearing below the water’s edge. Minutes later they would again appear, so relaxed and so close to one another they were touching. This resting line formation went on for hours as they gently turned back from the direction they had arrived and traveled back south. We stayed at a distance and followed, not wanting to disturb these magnificent creatures as they slept alongside each other in utter peace.

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