2011 was another great year here at the Vancouver Aquarium’s B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network. Our program continued to grow, allowing us to better understand the distribution and occurrence of cetaceans along the coast. Our database now contains nearly 65,000 sightings of 23 species of whale and three species of sea turtles! This knowledge is used and shared to better affect the conservation of these animals, and it couldn’t be done without all the observers that report their sightings. Later this month we will be tallying up our Top 20 Observers of 2011. If you still have sightings to report, it’s not too late! We are always happy to receive them, even if they are from the past.
To wrap up the year, here is part two of some of our favourite sightings with photos from 2011 (see part one):
New calf for a small population. Southern resident killer whales are in trouble. With only 89 members in this genetically distinct population, they are listed as endangered in both Canada and the United States. As a result, it’s always good news to hear of a new calf being born. In early July, we received word from many of our observers in the southern whale watching fleet that K27 was spotted with a new baby. The calf was identified as a male and given the scientific number of K44 by the Centre for Whale Research. Mortality is high for killer whale calves in the first year, so we will keep our fingers crossed that this young male survives and thrives. We don’t know yet who fathered this calf, but research published in 2011 looked specifically at mating systems in this small population, where inbreeding is of high concern. See here for more information.
Introducing the little guys. Killer whales are the black and white icons of the coast, but they aren’t the only cetacean sporting these colours. The Dall’s porpoise is another monochrome speedster found in B.C., often spotted zooming through the water throwing a ‘rooster-tail’ splash. While Dall’s porpoises are fairly common, they aren’t reported as often as other species- probably because they are smaller, easier to miss, and often confuse observers who aren’t aware that they exist. In early August we received a report of small cetaceans off Saturna Island, but the observer was unsure what species they were. The animals were described as speeding through the water and bow-riding off a small vessel (behavior often observed with Dall’s). The photo accompanying the sighting confirmed they were Dall’s and we were able to introduce these new observers to some of the lesser-known ‘little guys’ that share our coast.
Bubblenets! Witnessing a humpback whale create a bubble net to feed is probably one of the most curious and exciting wildlife spectacles in B.C. Primarily observed from the central coast northwards, bubble net feeding is a technique used by humpbacks to concentrate their food. The whale (or whales for that matter, as in some areas like south east Alaska large groups will use this technique as a team) blows bubbles from its blow hole in a circular pattern around a school of fish. As the bubbles rise, they create a wall around the fish. The whale may continue to blow bubbles, spiraling inwards, making a tighter and tighter circle. The school then starts to condense as a response to the bubbles surrounding them, concentrating them into a nice tight ball. At the pivotal moment, the whale(s) lunge through the ball of fish, engulfing a mass amount of prey in one quick movement. The photo here, submitted with a report from Calvert Island, depicts this spectacular behavior beautifully.
Slow down to spot the harbour porpoise. Dall’s porpoise aren’t the only little guys that are sometimes overlooked. Their cousins, the harbour porpoise, are even smaller and more elusive. Harbour porpoises can be found around the coast, but sometimes an observer needs to slow down to see them. In fact, in 2011 nearly 20 per cent of the harbour porpoise reports were from observers on land or in kayaks, two perfect vantage points to look for these creatures. This photo, taken at the mouth of Esperanza Inlet in early September from a kayak, was a good reminder that what we see may sometimes be a function of how we look.
Hunters. Sometimes a sighting report can make you feel like you are right there. That was the case in early September when we received word from two mid-Island eco-tourism guides about the spectacle they observed when a group of transient (mammal eating) killer whales cornered approximately 200 Pacific white-sided dolphins in Phillips Arm. Transients have developed this specialized technique of trapping speedy dolphins in inlets since catching them in the open water is difficult. The flurry of activity, tactical hunting, and hurried escape of many of the dolphins was surely a sight to see. The observers were very lucky as well; this specialized hunting tactic is not often witnessed.
Big blue. Rare sightings make our day, so you can imagine our excitement to receive word of a possible blue whale off the west coast of Haida Gwaii. As described by the observer, “a large (LARGE) whale grey/blue in color was observed. Two large blowholes and a body that continued flowing through the water after taking a breath then a tiny dorsal fin.” Photos were the final confirmation that it was indeed a blue whale. This sighting is only the 27th blue whale in our database! Blue whale populations were severely decimated by commercial whaling. While it is still unclear how many blue whales now exist, in December, six blue whales were documented off the coast of Washington by Cascadia Research. In the North Pacific, blue whales are more commonly seen off the coast of California, where the majority of the research on these behemoths is being conducted.
Thanks to all our observers for submitting their sightings in 2011, contributing to a better understanding of these incredible creatures. Have a sighting to submit? Do it here.