Scuttlebutt is our seasonal newsletter with stories or snippets of marine life and marine community activity in Clayoquot Sound. Read the stories below or click on the links for more great stories from our team.
Sea lions, scat, and sightings aplenty – Josie Roberts
Clayoquot Sound is an area world renowned for its stunning coastal scenery and wealth of wildlife, attracting visitors from far and wide with a passion for the natural world. Tom and I are no exception – as recent biology graduates, we have come from the UK to intern here at SIMRS, with the hopes of gaining valuable experience in marine conservation, and enjoying the many wonders that Canada’s west coast has to offer.
This past week saw our first chance to venture out on the water to conduct actual science, as opposed to simply gawking at the breathtaking landscapes. Representatives from SIMRS and Parks Canada were given the opportunity to assist Wendy Szaniszlo in her research, via Vancouver Aquarium, which primarily aims to determine the seasonal diet of Steller sea lions in Clayoquot Sound. This project also aims to re-sight any branded Steller sea lions in the area, for analysis of sea lion survival rates, and survey for any entangled sea lions, for data collection and potential disentanglement.
On a crisp, clear Thursday morning we headed out to Long Beach Rocks where we first conducted a count of the sea lions present. Hundreds of overlapping growls indicated that most present were Steller sea lions, with a few boisterous barks from California sea lions in the background. Whilst the largest local colony of Steller sea lions can be found at Long Beach, their population in Clayoquot Sound totals to over 1000. Over the course of the day we saw up to 400 of these intelligent, playful mammals.
Field research is rarely as simple as counting, however, and after startling the sea lions into the water, Wendy, Jess (SIMRS), and Jenn Yakimishyn (Parks Canada) made a leap from our boat to the rocks. Once safely on the rocks they proceeded to collect samples of sea lion scat. Unfortunately, as volunteers, Tom and I were unable to join them in their collection. These samples, along with many others collected during the first two years of Wendy’s research, will be analysed to determine the species diversity of the sea lions’ diet. Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) are listed as a Species of Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act (SARA); the main threats to their population are currently accidental entanglements with fishing gear or debris, oil spills, environmental contaminants, and the relocation of sea lion populations away from their critical habitats, or the degradation of these habitats (see the full SARA registry page). Understanding a species’ diet can be crucial for its conservation; knowing what these sea lions are eating will allow us to elucidate if there is potential competition for prey species from fisheries.
Though impressive in their own right, the sea lions were not the only wildlife we sighted on our trip. We had the privilege of spotting a small wolf pack on the shoreline as we headed out to Long Beach from Ucluelet. They moved swiftly and elegantly over the rocks, with their coats being either the brightest white or the sleekest black. Following the scat collection, we also spotted the blows of multiple whales in the near distance, and were able to approach and observe two beautiful grey whales. Grey whales are most commonly seen in Clayoquot Sound between March and October, in their great migration between winter breeding grounds in the waters around the Baja Peninsula to summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. However, a subset of the grey whale population, known as the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG), do not follow this migration pattern, remaining in the waters of the Pacific Northwest throughout spring, summer and fall.
We hope that these fortunate wildlife sightings are just the first of many to come over the course of the next few months and will be intermixed with making contributions to the great work done here at SIMRS. Particularly, Tom and I hope to contribute to the monitoring and conservation efforts of the Bigg’s killer whales here in Clayoquot Sound.
We would like to acknowledge and thank Clayoquot Biosphere Trust and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada for funding Wendy’s sea lion research. Additionally, we would like to thank Brian and Brandon from Subtidal Adventures for the ride, and for the impressive initial sighting of the wolf pack.
Another Landlubber Finds Herself at Sea in the Name of Science- Megan Francis
British Columbia is often celebrated for it’s impressive biodiversity and rich coastlines that support iconic species. As a mainly land-locked species we’re restricted to admiring those lifeforms that navigate the areas where the land meets the sea. But where the coastline ends, life continues and the vast offshore waters host a world of species that rarely visit inshore waters.
The Department of Fisheries Oceans conducts several surveys every year that focus on marine mammal research. This August, SIMRS was invited to participate in a two week survey offshore British Columbia’s coast upon the CCGS Vector as a marine mammal observer. The focus of the survey was on fin whale populations and distribution off Vancouver Island, however as whale presence is often unpredictable and fickle, these surveys are opportunistic and offer a chance to collect data on all marine mammals that fall along our transects.
Fin whales are the the second largest living animal; reaching lengths of around 20 meters it pales in size only with the blue whale. These large baleen whales acquire this size by filter feeding on small ocean organisms like schooling fish and krill. Fin whale population studies are mainly done using photo identification- a non-invasive method of learning about a species by recognizing unique markings and shapes on their dorsal fin and back. The populations of fin whales and many other cetaceans offshore Vancouver Island are relatively understudied because of the notoriously grim sea conditions in this area. Unfortunately our study, like many before, was at the mercy of poor weather and we spent many days tucked away in protected waters doing sea otter counts and harbour seal diet studies.
Despite weather interruptions, the time spent at sea was eventful and full of life. As a marine mammal observer, we cover all daylight hours scanning the horizon, distinguishing whitecaps from whales. At first it seemed like finding a whale in 360 degrees of open ocean would be needle-in-a-haystack odds, but shifts were surprisingly eventful. It turns out it’s not finding the animals that’s challenging, it’s holding your lunch down while staring through a pair of binoculars in rolling seas. Between Haida Gwaii and the border to the United States we encountered over 12 different species of cetaceans. We passed through groups of humpbacks 40-50 in size, with their blows filling the air creating a forest of mist around us. We encountered groups of pacific white-sided dolphins, hundreds in size, that would excitedly charge towards the boat like an invading army, leaping synchronously through our wake. Possibly the strangest of sightings was the Northern Right Whale Dolphins- it’s name chosen for it’s lack of a dorsal fin, a characteristic shared with it’s namesake. The absence of a dorsal fin combined with it’s long sleek black appearance gives the animal the appearance of a flying snake or a leech when it’s leaping above the surface- a sight that never ceases to get a chuckle from someone. For every mammal seen there were hundreds of birds, flocking together in groups like the Sooty Shearwaters or soaring alone like the Black-footed Albatross.
Some encounters were less humorous than the dolphins. On our last day, we came across a large deceased humpback whale, afloat with the gases building up inside his body and bordered by a massive whale oil slick and an even greater aroma. Another day we responded to a search and rescue where a commercial fishing boat dragged onto the rocks and the boat broke apart on the rocks. Other days the shifts spent looking through binoculars would almost guarantee you a bout of nausea. But amongst the queasy days and the deafening fog-horn nights, the chance the spend time out of sight of land is nothing to turn down.
A Brand New Calf- Rod Palm
June 10, 2015, A new calf is always an exciting time for us Kawkawin groupies. At last count we had 272 (2012) of these mammal-eating Biggs (Transient) whales here in the Pacific NW. The population seems to have remained strong over the last few years with our healthy populations of pinipeds (seals and sea lions) stocking the larder.
We know that when female Kawkawin (Killer Whales) are close to due-date they will remove themselves from their gang and go to a sheltered location to give birth. On June 9 a female (T121A) was traveling with the Motley Crew (T023s) along the backside of Meares Island. The next day, Dave Tom reported two Kawkawin on the back side of Meares not 2.5 nautical miles from where the whales were on the previous day. They proved to be T121 with a brand new calf. The vessels of the Whale Watch fleet visited with the mom and calf for several hours giving John the opportunity to shoot numerous images for identification
Born tail first into a similar saline world as in the womb, the calf is nudged to the surface by its mom for its first breath of air. There it experiences a whole spectrum of new surface sounds – and what’s this sensation that pushes back down when the body rises above the water? You can even hear this calf’s first words/cries on John’s attached recording.
This lone mom was not seen here in Clayoquot until 2009 but then, as has been the case with many first time human visitors, she just kept coming back every year. And like other loan females, she is often found in the company of gangs (in her case for hunting support). We are hoping this trend continues allowing us to witness this calf’s growing up.
There is however a concern here: that this mom is 17 years old and certainly should have had a surviving offspring by now. As the first viable (surviving its first year) calf this offspring of T121A gets the identification T121A1 but I’m thinking “Fortune” would be a good name as this channel is its birth site.
A big tip of the hat to Jennifer Steven and John Forde of the Whale Centre who, after a couple of days, finally nailed this identification. That was particularly difficult as the large scrapes seen on the white saddle patch are new and not present on the most recent identification catalogues.
Next time – introducing Jessica Edwards, our new able staffer, and her introduction to whale necropsy.
A Close Encounter of the Scary kind – Rod Palm
May 13/14 at 15:45 finds Peter Schulze (skipper/interpreter for Ocean Outfitters) on the return leg of a Hot Springs trip hoping to find a whale for his tourists. Thirteen miles and getting close to home when, off Cleland Island, he sees a disturbance on the surface of the water. This could be it. Yes! There are several Kawkawin (Killer Whales) excited about something. This is the matriarch Esperanza’s gang who we’ve only seen a half dozen times over our 20+ years of monitoring. Oh-oh, is that a Gray Whale with them, yes, and there is also a calf. It’s tough to see what’s going on but a pattern emerges, the Kawkawin are trying to separate the mom from her calf. Mom’s not taking this kindly as can be seen by the powerful sideways slashing of her massive tail. This super-sized judo chop could seriously injure or perhaps even deliver a mortal blow. The Grays are rolling with their heads down in order to keep an eye out for any attacks from below while steadily working their way towards shallower water. Josh Bradford (pilot for Atleo Air) above the drama can clearly see a couple of the Kawkawin hanging back a whale length or two waiting for an opportune moment, then charging in from behind and below in an attempt to ram the calf. On one of these runs, a Kawkawin gets a grip on the calf’s tail but is unable to hang on to the tapered smooth surface. As the calf breaks free, a trickle of blood can be seen on the trailing edge of his/her tail.
This interaction has been sporadic in nature with periods of relative calm disturbed by flurries of aggression, where the water is white with the thrashings of the combating animals’ tails, pectorals and whole bodies for that matter. The incident was observed for close to an hour; it ended when three of the Kawkawin backed off leaving just two marauders who, shortly thereafter, also broke off the attack. Both species then calmly travelled their separate ways as though nothing had happened.
It’s interesting to note that, though excited, the juvenile Kawkawin was not participating in the attack, perhaps on good advice from his/her mom.
Our BC community of Bigg’s Kawkawin seem to have done quite well on seals, dolphins and other marine mammals; they rarely show any interest in the Grays and when they do, the attacks appear somewhat disorganized as though they’re not quite sure how to deal with the Grays.
Life goes on...Rod
It’s 10:00ish on Oct. 15 when Steve Lawson and partner Susan Hare pull up alongside my window, “Hey Rod, there is a Sea Otter alongside Kevin Bond’s float who may be injured” – “Thanks much, I’m on it”. There’s the Waxnii (Otter), all wrapped up in the kelp alongside Kevin’s float and yes, there is a toony-sized open sore on a knuckle of his awkwardly postured right hind flipper. What’s most curious here is that despite the fact that I’ve cautiously approached to within about 10 feet there has been no sign of a flight response. OK, I’m going to tie my boat up to the float and try for a closer inspection. That done, I slowly wander over...read on
The first time we were privileged to encountered Risso’s Dolphins (Grampus griseus) was back in 1999 when we spotted a dozen of them 27 nautical miles (NM) offshore while conducting a continental shelf survey of birds and marine mammals. Then in 2006, they were spotted on 2 occasions – again, well offshore. This year, they were back with 2 sightings...read more
Killer Whale RIP
September 12, at 14:00, 8 nautical miles off Long Beach, Claire Mosley (Biologist on Jamie’s Whaling Station vessel “Leviathan 2”) spots something curious floating in the distance; a few pleading words to Skipper Chris McCue and the course is altered to check it out. They didn’t expect this but there it is – a big bull Kawkawin (Killer Whale) dead in the water. Chris calls us, and the machine starts turning. Here’s the skinny: a call to Skipper Marcel Theriault (Ceara Salvage) – says he could have his vessel “Beach Hopper” on scene within an hour; a call to Graeme Ellis and John Ford (the top whale brass at the Pacific Biological Station [PBS]) – “Can you guys budget a recovery?”; their network kicks into gear and within an hour Marcel is on his way. “Meanwhile back at the ranch”–oops sorry, back at the whale, the whale-watch fleet has been rotating a presence so that the location is not lost. A call back from PBS and Marcel is on site and has the whale in tow by 17:30. Shortly after, the Coast Guard vessel “Atlin Post” takes over to tow against the ebbing tide....read more
Here is another one:
On July 19, Peter(whale-watch driver/guide for Ocean Outfitters) shot Kawatsi (T020) rolling over
and showing off his lump, pectoral flipper and white eye patch. Research folks have known
about this deformity for some time but aren’t sure what it is. Dr. Martin Haulena (Vancouver
Aquarium Vet) suggests an abscess or seroma (ruptured small blood vessels). Dr. Stephen
Raverty (Provincial Animal Health Center pathologist) agreed that it may be an abscess and
added hernia or tumour to the list; I like the hernia idea as I sport one myself in about the same
place. Nonetheless, he doesn’t seem at all hindered by this oddity.
Kawatsi, aged about 50,and his younger lady friend Pandora (T021), aged about 45, have been
regular visitors to Clayoquot Sound for at least the last 22 years. Pandora delivered two
offspring over that time but neither has survived. Both Kawatsi and Pandora are getting a bit
long in the tooth but we hope to see them for several years to come. Longevity is still a bit up in
the air; the oldest living male we’ve known is Yankee One (T031) at about 59, and at about 50
years, Langara (T010) is the oldest living female.
Killer lump - Snippet 10/09/13
Click links below to read great stories about the wild West coast marine life
Sea Otter and Ocotopus - Snippet 16/08/2013
Here is another snippet from Rod!
John Forde (whale watch driver/guide for The Whale Centre) shot these two near Tree Island on
August 3. Mom (T041A) was nudging the calf (T041A2) along and lifting him/her up indicating
that the youngster had very recently been born. I’m thinking we may name it Tree if it survives
thee first critical year.
It’s curious to me that Mom and infant were not with the Grandmother (T041). We know that
oldest daughters will often leave home to start a new gang when they have their own offspring.
This practice regulates optimum gang size but in this case there were only two surviving
members as the big male (T044) had died in April 2011. If this new Mom does not hook back up
with her Mother....
Clink Links below for more Scuttlebutts!
Turtle Alert! - Snippet 13/07/2013
Snippet Low Tide Bears - Snippet 16/07/2013
Rare Sighting - Snippet 01/08/2013
Snippet Killer Whales T069As - 23/06/13
Lion Strategy - Snippet 05/06/2013
Sealion Branding - Scuttlebutt 2013 - 05
Hardcore Killer Whale Activity - Scuttlebutt 2012 -10
Brown Pelican - Scuttlebutt 2012 - 12
Saw-Whet Owl, who are you? - Scuttlebutt 2012 - 12 - 2
Principal Investigator’s Summary Report - Scuttlebutt 2011 -12
A Friendly Visitor - Scuttlebutt 1992 - 07
500 Fathoms - Scuttlebutt 1994 -10
Transient Killer Whales in Clayoquot Sound - Scuttlebutt 1995 -03
Humbacks, Killer Whales and Otters - Scuttlebutt 2009 -04
There just happened to be - Scuttlebutt 2009 - 05
Kawkawin, Killer Whale, Orca, Black Fish - Scuttlebutt - 2009 -06
Waiting for the Whale - Scuttlebutt - 2009 - 07
Big Momma - Scuttlebutt - 2005