Onboard a research vessel (Part 1)
This is the recap of my first week aboard the CCGS RV John P. Tully, a Fisheries and Oceans Canada research vessel, conducting a two-week cetacean survey off British Columbia’s stormy west coast. I’m onboard as a guest researcher on loan to Fisheries and Oceans from the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Research Program. It’s the first time I’ve participated in one of Fisheries and Oceans’ cetacean surveys, but other experienced research staff from the Aquarium have joined many times over the last ten years.
The trip began on March 11th with the Tully’s departure from Sidney being pushed back to 16:00 from 13:00. Little did I realize that delays would persist for the next week at sea but in retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised– winter weather at sea makes for constant plan revisions on a trip like ours. No complaints in any case: BC’s central coast is incredibly beautiful and few people experience it at this time of year. The winter survey also adds valuable information for several whales listed as species at-risk. Little is known about their distribution in the more remote waters of BC in late winter.
Tuesday, March 11th
I arrived at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo just after 09:00 and, after getting re-acquainted with the other observers and loading gear, we split up into groups for the trip down to Sidney. I jumped in with three others aboard the Titan (rigid hull inflatable) and we made the trip down by water as the vessel was to act as the whale launch boat. We didn’t spot any whales in Trincomali Channel but we passed lots of fat harbour seals. Some Bigg’s (transient) killer whales could really clean-up in there right now. We arrived at 11:30– just in time to grab lunch on the Tully.
By the time we finished lunch, the ship’s crew had fetched the deck-cradle for the Titan from the warehouse and a second contingent of researchers had arrived by van with the “Big Eyes”—massive, deck-mounted binoculars that are perfect for spotting whales at sea. The crates were craned up to the Monkey’s Island (no one seems to know why it’s called that) atop the bridge, and we got to work mounting the bases to the deck. Under the direction of fellow observer Brian Gisborne, we meticulously cleaned the various pieces and assembled the Big Eyes. The crew secured the Titan to the aft deck and a truckload of fresh groceries was stored in the hold. The rest of the whale team was kept busy securing cargo in the wet lab. With all the gear stowed, our team received a safety briefing and a tour of the ship from the 3rd officer as we pulled away from the dock.
We had not even reached Haro Strait when observer Mark Malleson spotted a smoke flare from a vessel on the American side of the boundary. The crew launched their rigid inflatable for a real-life Coast Guard rescue. However, despite having lost power to his vessel, the crabber was not in immediate distress. He was trying to identify his vessel for a friend who was bringing him a new battery. The rescue crew returned and we continued our way north through the Strait of Georgia to Seymour Narrows through the evening.
Wednesday, March 12th
We passed through the Narrows at 09:00 on a high-tide and it was an eerie feeling to have the big ship rapidly pick up speed without applying engine power. Things got even more exiting when we got into ‘clean water’ on the other side of the tide rip when research team member Jared Towers got a heads up from colleagues at OrcaLab that they had briefly heard calls characteristic of the rarely-seen “offshore” population of killer whales on one of their hydrophones. Given the Tully’s conservative speed, the decision was made to launch the Titan and Jared, Mark, and research chief Robin Abernethy raced ahead at 30 knots to try and reach the top of Johnstone Strait before the whales left the area. They found the small group of whales just near Donegal Head, on Malcom Island. The whales were challenging to follow but the team managed to get photo ID shots of all the animals, including a calf, and they also managed to successfully biopsy two of the group for later genetic and contaminants analysis.
The morning observation schedule had been blown to bits by the surprise arrival of the offshores so far from the Tully. To compensate, the remaining team members covered the gaps, and were rewarded with a lone offshore sighting (the Titan away team warned that a few whales may have headed down Blackney Pass and into our path). There were no more sightings for the rest of the day. The crew organized a double knockout cribbage tournament and we got in a few games after dinner. So far, the whale team has won all their games and are in the winners bracket. Just as we were turning-in, we really started rolling as the Tully poked into Queen Charlotte Sound above Vancouver Island and we steamed north through the night.
Thursday, March 13th
Today is the first day I feel in sync with the ship’s schedule. The daily routine, like most operations, is run by the meal schedule: breakfast @ 07:00, lunch @ 11:30, and dinner @ 17:00. If we happen to be on shift when meals roll around we get spelled off by someone who eats quickly and runs up to relieve us. A typical observation shift has us rotate through 3 stations. We spend 30 minutes at each station and go from Port Observer to Starboard Observer then down to the bridge to the data entry position. If a sighting is made up top, it gets radioed down to the bridge and is entered into a form on a laptop. It’s a simple but effective setup and keeps the observers fresh for the next sighting.
Thursday morning started with thick fog in Milbanke Sound (along BC’s central coast), so thick that we got called back in from observation spots on Monkey’s Island since the 2nd officer wanted to sound the fog horn regularly. Glad he gave us the heads-up because the horn was uncomfortably loud on the bridge let alone if we had been right next to it. The weather looked to get increasingly nasty so we headed up Beauchemin Channel paralleling Aristazabal Island instead of going around the outside and exposing us to even greater winds. We passed by the lagoon where Sam (the juvenile killer whale) was stuck last year (maybe link to VA blog here). That sparked a discussion about the whale and I got to hear about a sighting in December where he was seen with the T55’s briefly (again near Knight Inlet). Shortly after that the T55’S were seen without him so he likely remains a loner for now. We passed Rennison Island at the top ~ 10 minutes ago and have only managed one sighting so far today given the poor visibility: a small group of Dall’s porpoise.
Friday, March 14th
Friday was grey in all kinds of ways. All of the Science crew (us observers) have been relegated to the loser bracket in the crib tourney and the fog has really set-in along the central coast. We did the Gill Island 500 (the name given in jest for making a run around the island while waiting for weather to improve) and we finally settled for another pass through Beauchemin Channel (this time running south). We did manage to spot a cluster of grey whales as we came out into more open water on the southern edge of the channel but it’s possible we missed others in the chop and the drizzle.
Saturday, March 15th
Saturday morning started with a bang as we had a great killer encounter right after breakfast in Laredo Sound (around the point that leads down to Kitasu). I was just gearing up for my shift in the back lab when one of the crew raced in all excited because there was a juvenile killer right next to the ship! I threw on the rest of my outerwear and raced up to the bridge. The shift that was on was busy guiding the 2nd officer to line up the whales for photo IDs. Turns out it was the A24’s, a family of 5 resident (fish eating) killer whales. The big bull was making a big show of breaching right off the starboard bow and after he swam on ahead the juveniles spent 5 minutes bow riding right below us. It was more like an aerial survey at that point as we watched them dart in and out of the pressure wave next to the ship. We could track them under the water as they glided effortlessly alongside us and then watch as they surged upwards to let their dorsal fins barely break the surface, like black sharks in the surf.
Since the whales were being so cooperative, we didn’t need to launch the Titan to get photo ID’s. The guys with the monster lenses just shot frames from atop the bridge and did well despite the driving rain. Good thing too because it was 50/50 that the Captain would have let us launch due to the marginal conditions and we were running into a stiff wind (recovering the boat would have been tougher than usual). Following the killer whale encounter, we steamed north up Laredo Channel and headed for the calmer waters of Principe Channel. As always, the decision on where to search is a balancing act of where we suspect whales may be and where the weather will permit us to work. For the most part, the past few days have been shrouded in fog.
Sunday, March 16th
Sunday was mostly Uggggly. We chanced a run north of Banks Island to the possibly more whale-friendly waters of Browning Entrance and we got smacked for our trouble. Good size seas & wind (40 knots gusting to 50) had the ship rolling and me running for the Gravol (and skipping lunch). Visibility was unfortunately pretty poor and the observation team was kept to the bridge until we came around Porcher Island and were approaching Prince Rupert. We then ran south in the very lovely and quiet Grenville Channel. I was hoping to see some porpoise on my last shift since it had been a marine mammal free day thus far and the BC Cetacean Sightings Network occasionally receives porpoise reports from the area. Unfortunately I was skunked on the sightings front although I did watch a log get tossed onto a beach through my binoculars on my earlier rotation. It looked like a matchstick flicked by an invisible finger and I would not have wanted to be storm watching from the beach at that moment– the power of the waves was shocking!
Monday, March 17th
As of the morning, we were still on the central coast, though desperate to get across to the Queen Charlottes. The Captain and our chief scientist Robin Abernethy are trying to get us positioned to make the run across Hecate Strait but so far every forecasted weather window has disappeared on us 6–8 hours beforehand. The morning was a good example where calm weather predicted for the late afternoon was updated to 30 knot winds with gusts to 40. We had anchored in Coghlan Anchorage the night before near the bottom of Grenville Channel and by breakfast we were reformulating the cruise plan yet again. The weather was beautiful on the inside at the time so I was doubting that we would take more lumps going up the outside of Banks Island again.
Surprise! By the evening we were anchoring in Carpenter Bay, a bit north of Cape St. James near the southern tip of Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). With other Coast Guard ship movements and the Tully being on SAR (search and rescue) duty, the last opportunity to work on the archipelago was slipping away so we just up and made the run across Hecate Strait. The crossing was a little rough but not too bad compared to what I’ve heard you can experience out here.
The day started well as we encountered the T140’s (a family of 3 mammal easting killer whales) in Caamano Sound before we crossed. Since I was already geared up I was sent with fellow observers Jared Towers and Mark Malleson to photo ID the whales. It was a total team effort to relocate them as it started sleeting on us and the whales were being pretty cagey. All of us had one re-sight at one point or another that kept us close and the Big-Eye crew also sent in a couple of timely updates. At one point the whales were doing 10.5 kts (and clearly were not pleased with the attention they were getting). After a few good shots (considering the weather), we let them be and gladly went back to the Tully for some hot soup to warm up.
Crossing Hecate Strait took up the rest of the day. Late afternoon was mostly fog but we also spotted a fin whale, a small humpback whale, and a northern fur seal with a yellow flipper tag! As the sun was setting we could start to make out the spine of the Charlottes in the distance and it marked the first time I’d seen the archipelago.
Despite the many long hours observing in poor conditions, the team has been rewarded with a good variety of species. So far, we’ve encountered all 3 killer whale ecotypes, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall’s porpoise, grey whales, fin whales, humpback whales, elephant seals, Steller sea lions, and a lone fur seal.
Tuesday, March 18th
We’re chancing a run south to Cape St. James where we’re hoping to sneak in some transects along the slope leading to deeper waters before the winds shift again. With some luck, we’ll add some different whale species to the tally before we’re obligated to return to the central coast. Hard to believe a week has gone by already and I’m looking forward to the next 7 days.