By Doug Sandilands
Late in the fall, Barkley Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island, BC, reclaims its status as a remote region. The whale watching tour boats remain tied to the dock; sport fishing boats are hauled and winterized; even commercial fishing boats become a rare sight in these waters. The BC Cetacean Sightings Network chose its waters as the destination for the fall cetacean survey aboard their research boat Tsitika.
Since 2000, the Sightings Network has received over 600 sightings from this area. Over 50% of these sightings are from the summer months, with only 2.5% are from November to February. The low numbers in the winter months are probably due to a combination of fewer observers and less whales, dolphins and porpoise. Between October 25th and 28th, the BCCSN team planned to add sightings from the months when few boats are on the water and to meet some of the locals who are in the area year round.
This was to be the BCCSN’s most ambitious survey to date – a three day survey, on the west coast, in the fall months, when the Pacific storms arrive on the coast with their greatest strength. The days leading up to the survey saw hurricane force winds in the area. The team left from the Vancouver Aquarium with their fingers crossed, monitoring the VHF weather radio transmissions and worrying about delays.
On the first day, October 25th, the survey team was joined by Wendy Szanislo, a local marine mammal biologist, whale watching boat captain and expert on the local waters. Wendy would prove to be a great resource, directing the team through the waters she knows so well. Strong seas in the morning prevented an early departure from Ucluelet, but by noon the weather began to calm. With Wendy’s excellent local knowledge she was able to direct the survey to cetacean hotspots around Ucluelet and into Barkley Sound, but unfortunately, the scans revealed no blows, fins or splashes.
Although the first day of the survey had yet to reveal any cetaceans or sea turtles, the BCCSN survey team was able to spend some of the afternoon meeting up with local observers who provide reports to the Sightings Network. Peter Mieras and Kathy Johnson are two of these dedicated observers. They are owners of Rendezvous Dive Adventures remote diving lodge tucked into Rainy Bay at the eastern end of Barkley Sound. This fall, they had seen a humpback whale interacting closely with boats and they were concerned that it may have sustained a small injury from getting too close. The BCCSN survey team was able to check in with them about this animal and also chat about sightings in the area. Observers are so important to the Sightings Network and it was great to touch base in person!
The second day of the survey was spent in Barkley Sound, conducting a designed line-transect survey. Early on, a humpback whale was spotted briefly, but disappeared quickly. The rest of the day, again, revealed no whales, dolphins or porpoises and the team returned to Ucluelet slightly disappointed with the lack of cetaceans but smiling over the abundance of California and Steller sea lions, numerous sea birds and warm, calm weather!
On the third day, the survey team decided to start out early and headed north for a day of searching Clayquot Sound. By 10 am they were moving up Tofino Inlet and Fortune Channel, to an area Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard of the Vancouver Aquarium had suggested there might be a resident population of harbour porpoise. In 1999, Boris Culik and Sven Koschinski from the Institut fur Meereskunde in Kiel, Germany, conducted a study in these inlets to examine the effects of acoustic deterrence devices on harbour porpoise. That year there was a resident population of harbour porpoise and the study concluded that they were indeed deterred by these devices.
The sea was glassy calm and conditions were perfect for spotting. At the entrance to Tofino Inlet, several tiny blows were spotted close to shore at Indian Bay from more than 1½ km away! After 20 minutes the team was sure there were at least 12, and as many as 20, harbour porpoise in this bay!
Wendy tipped the team off that Cow Bay and Ahous Bay on Vargas Island nearby might be good places to spot grey whales. She was right. They immediately saw a grey whale blow as they entered the area! The whale was approached for a closer look, as part of the survey’s goal was to collect photo-identification shots of the grey whales present to share with various projects studying these animals. The Be Whale Wise Guidelines require boaters to keep a distance of 100 metres at all times, and that vessels move out of the path of whales that are approaching them. However, a Marine Mammal License from Fisheries and Oceans Canada allows researchers from the BC Cetacean Sightings Network to approach whales slightly closer for short periods of time to contribute to photo-identification studies.
The whale was approached to approximately 60 metres and its right flank photographed. Immediately, the team noticed the animal had injuries that were unmistakably caused by a propeller. These photos will be helpful both for understanding the history of this whale – comparing it with locations and times this whale had been seen prior to the strike, and to follow the outcome of the whale. Will the wounds heal? Or, will the whale not be seen again?
Wendy reported that two other grey whales had been observed with propeller scars this summer in the Clayquot / Barkley Sound area. This whale’s injuries appear to be part of a trend occurring across BC’s coast. Humpback whales, killer whales, fin whales, grey whales and beaked whales have all been victims of vessel collisions. This is a serious threat to these populations, many of which are listed as endangered or threatened and are recovering from whaling. The survey team sent the pictures and a report of this whale to BC’s Marine Mammal Response Network. This new province-wide network, coordinated by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in conjunction with other groups, including the Vancouver Aquarium, monitors whale strandings, entanglement, ship strikes, whale watching incidents, stranded seals and all other incidents involving marine mammals.
With time for one last stop, the survey team headed to Ahous Bay, and it was their most rewarding stop. As they approached Ahous Bay through Brabant Channel they started seeing numerous blows. Slowing down, it was obvious that near the reef there were quite a few grey whales; five total.
After collecting ID shots of these five animals, the survey team quickly and regretfully turned back towards Tofino. It had been a great trip. What luck to experience this part of the coast at this time of year with such good weather! By the next morning they were back at the Aquarium and the west coast was shrouded in fog and drizzle, the barometer was dropping, and the next fall storm was on its way.