Onboard a research vessel (Part 2)
Tuesday PM, March 18th
In the morning, we zigzagged north off the east coast (Hecate Strait side) of Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands). We snuck down to Cape St. James in the pre-dawn morning to align with the wind and to work some transects at first light. Unfortunately, the pea soup fog that’s dogged us this whole trip was still with us so the visibility remained poor. The team managed to spot a few fin whale blows despite the clawing fog so spirits were still high. We’ve not been as lucky in the crib tournament, however; we sent 4 players into the final 16 but will have only 1 in the final 8 so the Science crew has not represented as well as we’d hoped. On the other hand, researcher Sheena Majewski’s loss to the chef ensured that we would all continue to eat well.
Last night, fellow observer Bruce Paterson showed us a newer documentary on killer whales produced by the BBC Nature Unit. The film covered different ecotypes around the world and a piece with Research Scientist John Ford, of Fisheries & Oceans Canada, was well done. They had some footage of John as a young grad student as well as vintage film of Moby Doll, the first killer whale to be kept in human care. The older footage included a scientist (in the mandatory white lab coat) making vocal recordings of the whale in the sea pen at the North Vancouver docks– I wonder what ever happened to the tapes?
In the evening, we had a late killer whale encounter that started up after dinner. The sun had made an appearance for a few hours, there had been bow-riding dolphins for a shake, and the team was feeling re-energized. To cap the day, the observers on-shift spotted killer whales just outside the stunning Juan Perez Sound and the Captain agreed to launch the Titan. The whales turned out to be the I15’s, a group of northern residents that numbered ~ 15 animals. It was fun to keep track of the whole bunch and to lead the Titan across the spread out group via radio. We recovered the boat just as the sun set and revelled in what had been our most successful day to date.
Quick hit: It was a long-shot, but there was a chance we could have seen a blue whale off Cape St. James (they are sometimes sighted in the area in summer but unfortunately we had no such luck).
Wednesday, March 19th
Wednesday was our best weather day to date, and not surprisingly one of our most productive. We woke up to calm waters and clearing skies which stayed with us throughout the day. Almost immediately, the team spotted a humpback and some suspected killer whales deep within one of the many bays that carve out the east side of Moresby Island. The Titan was launched but was never able to confirm the sighting as it was recalled to the Tully soon after. Our vessel had received a medical search and rescue call, and unlike the alert last Tuesday, this one was more serious.
During this cruise, the Tully was the appointed search and rescue vessel in the region and our priority tasking was to assist mariners in need. In this case, a crew member aboard a test fishery vessel in the area had been ill for several days and was experiencing sharp abdominal pain. Tully 1 (the John P. Tully’s rigid hull inflatable) was craned down from the starboard side of the ship and a team led by the 2nd officer was dispatched to bring the sick man back to the Tully. The second engine was brought online and the Captain pushed the ship north to rendezvous with an ambulance at Moresby that could take the man to a hospital. Fortunately for us, the strait shot north took us across the path of more bow-riding Pacific white-sided dolphins, distant humpbacks, and basking Steller sea lions.
After delivering the patient to shore via Tully 1, we turned east and struck out for a return crossing of Hecate Strait. It was easy to see that we were to returning to the north coast in ideal conditions based on the volume of traffic on the water. Boats that had likely been waiting in Prince Rupert for better weather were streaming across to Skidegate and the fishing grounds around the archipelago. We collected additional sightings of a minke whale, Dall’s porpoise, and we passed through the arch of a rainbow the colour of which only exists on kindergarten classroom walls. My first trip to Haida Gwaii, was short but will be hard to forget.
Quick hit: It’s easy to write “we launched the Titan” but the process actually requires a lot of teamwork. The deck crew and a crane operator get the vessel out of its cradle and hang it from the Tully’s rail while the bridge crew position the ship into the wind to provide a lee for the small boat. Only then can the whale crew board and be lowered to the water.
Thursday, March 20th
Best whale day EVER. We worked with a monster group of offshore killer whales from Bonilla Island all the way back across Hecate Strait in perfect weather. We ended the day anchored off the southern end of Graham Island (Haida Gwaii). It seemed like I just couldn’t get enough of the place.
We spotted some animals after 9AM and we suspected maybe 15 – 20 whales. We launched the Titan and poked our way west, directing the small but speedy vessel onto smaller groups of animals. We worked until we ran out of daylight and by then had basically travelled all the way back to Haida Gwaii. We suspect we spotted 50 plus whales today and managed to get photos of roughly half that number. They were spread out over such a massive area and the Titan was kept busy trying to take photos, collect prey samples, and obtain biopsies. At some points, we could spot groups of 5-10 animals 3 miles to the north of us and another 5-10 3 miles to the south of us. It felt like we were in the middle of some widely spaced offshore buckshot! The Titan crew were real troopers and worked the whole day without returning to the ship and without a break. The small groups of whales would typically surface a few times and then take long dives, often re-surfacing on a different heading than before. This made it challenging to systematically collect data on the water and as a result, the Titan crew was spending extra time with each group so whales further afield had to be let-go.
With daylight fading and the bridge crew offering to assist, the remainder of the team aboard the Tully began to photo ID in earnest which required some deft movements from the large ship. Spotters radioed headings to a coordinator on the bridge who worked with the commanding officer, navigator, and helmsman to bring whales (on their left sides) alongside. Minute course corrections, finicky speed adjustments (and the occasional 180) that come easy to a small vessel were executed smartly by the crew of the 225 ft oceanographic ship so that photographers could snap a salvo of photographs. We estimate we managed to add 5 or 6 IDs to the total in the last hour (which the Titan would not have been able to reach before dark) and I think it really brought the crews together.
Quick hits: Offshore killer whales are thought to prey primarily on sharks and possibly flatfish. Also, we observed surface behaviour indicative of feeding (while we were over Dogfish Banks no less) but we were too far from the action to confirm what type of prey the whales were consuming.
Friday, March 21st
Today felt like we had an offshore hangover (strictly the whale kind). There was a low, grey blanket for a sky and I think we were all somewhat mentally fatigued from the extended tracking yesterday. We sped back across Hecate Strait to Banks Island this morning into a stiff wind which whipped up the whitecaps and increased the difficulty of spotting whales. The team did manage to locate some lone humpbacks in the Strait and some frolicking grey whales near the Bonilla Lightstation.
Tully 1 and the Titan have been put to good use on this trip and have subsequently been refueled several times from the stores on board. Since the Tully was the primary SAR (Search and Rescue) ship in the region throughout the survey, the vessel needed to maintain a large gasoline reserve to respond to potential marine emergencies. While we still had ample fuel for SAR duties, we needed to replenish the stores if we needed to put the Titan on the water for another day like yesterday. That’s why we steamed down Principe Channel and headed toward the community of Hartley Bay and its commercial fuel dock.
That afternoon, colleagues at Cetacea Lab on Gil Island reported killer whales on their hydrophones in Wright Channel but we did not reach them before dark. Had the whales headed north, there may be time to do some work on the water and still be close enough to Hartley Bay to refuel in the AM. Unfortunately, our last hope in the crib tournament (observer Christie McMillan) went out in the quarter finals and the Captain will play the Chief Engineer for the Tully Crib Championship.
Quick hits: I’ve always been down on treadmills, but after using the one on board a bunch of times I may be rethinking things for my basement at home. Also, Jell-O from a glass goblet tastes better than Jell-O in a bowl.
Saturday, March 22nd
Snow day. We woke up in Coghlan anchorage to snow on the decks and the shores around us. It was a stunning sight. We weighed anchor and steamed around the corner to Hartley Bay. The snow was turning to slush rapidly and the Monkey’s Island was quickly becoming a swimming pool. Since I had drawn the early shift, I sourced a shovel from the deck crew and began shovelling. Once the drains were cleared, fellow observer Bruce Paterson laid into the squeegee (packed by the team for just such an occasion) and directed the 3 inches of standing water to the drains while I heaved saturated snow off the top of the wheelhouse. Apparently it looked like random ice bombs were sailing past the bridge windows from down below.
As my shift wound down, I volunteered to hop in with the group running the Titan and Tully 1 in to town to top up their tanks. Being Saturday morning, the fuel dock was just opening up so there was some brief time for me to explore. The community has a network of boardwalks along the waterfront that cross the river and extend into the entire village. I had a few minutes to pass by the church, the community centre, the longhouse, and to see a recently carved totem pole.
I snuck in a quick call to my family to check-in (Hartley Bay has Telus cell service) while the boats were fueling. We also had a good conversation on the docks with some members of the Gitga’at Watchmen organization who shared a Facebook video with us from on their smart phone. The video showed a group of Bigg’s killer whales hunting sea lions next to a small boat that was recording the encounter outside of Prince Rupert. Observer Jared Towers was able to ID a handful of animals in the encounter, which was apparently gaining popularity in social media. It reminded us that we were disconnected (to a degree) from most of the online world and we simply chalked it up to good timing that we ran into some folks who thought we’d be interested in the post. Little did we know the chance meeting would foreshadow our own afternoon.
I was already feeling a step lighter thanks to my brief shore trip so I was doubly excited to join the crew to work some killer whales that were spotted down Laredo Channel in the afternoon. We raced south in the Titan to catch up to the group of what turned out to be 9 Bigg’s killer whales. The Tully maintained a safe distance behind us and we were also flanked by the CCGS ‘Arrow Post’ which just happened to be in the area on a fisheries patrol. Jared quickly ID’ed some of the animals as being part of the same group in the viral video of killer whales attacking Steller’s outside of Prince Rupert 3 days before.
We ended up making 3 approaches and I got to try my hand at photo IDs for 2 of them. On the first pass we took pictures of their right sides (the Bigg’s catalogue includes pictures of both the left and the right sides). The second pass was to attempt a biopsy since the whales had remained calm during our first approach and because the big bull (T70), rarely seen outside the central coast area, was not in the genetic databank. Just as we began to close the gap to the whales, a panicked group of dolphins appeared ahead and raced towards us at high speed.
Not wanting to interfere, we immediately slowed down to hang back. A few killer whales altered their course to intercept the dolphins and we expected to witness a foraging event. But nothing happened. Surprisingly, the whales that had peeled off from the pack re-surfaced with the rest of the group to continue south while the lucky dolphins escaped to the north. It’s unclear why the whales didn’t chase a potential meal but it’s possible they had recently eaten. Marine mammals preyed upon by killer whales often leave hints of their demise in the form of an oily sheen on the surface and/or a sickly sweet smell on the air and we passed through a funk on the way to the animals.
Our second attempt at the biopsy went smoothly and we swung around so we could scoop the floating dart from the water with a pool dip-net. Inside was a small plug of blubber and skin– a valuable nubbin no bigger than an HB pencil eraser. We snapped some left-side photos on our final pass and then began to make our way back to the ship where we would later store the skin in a chemical solution and freeze the blubber for later analysis.
Before we had covered half the distance to the Tully, I spotted a low flying green aircraft (I’m sure I said “What the **** is that!?!” because it looked like a radio controlled toy). Turns it out was ‘SpeedAir’, DFO’s aerial reconnaissance patrol craft and I managed to snap a few photos of the Tully and the plane working the coast in the same frame. It was an awesome end to a great day. The whole team celebrated with popcorn and a movie in the lounge before we turned in.
Sunday, March 23rd
Today was a calm and bright day, potentially the last one of the trip according to Environment Canada’s predictions. We took full advantage of the opportunity and went up the exposed west side of Banks Island along a stretch of coast we hoped would be a hotspot for both fin whales and killer whales (the top of which was where we had encountered the group of offshore killer whales a few days ago). We came across ~8 fin whales, occasionally in pairs but mostly solo individuals, and never close enough to warrant a launch. We also passed a handful of suspected grey whales and I saw Steller sea lions on Danger Rocks and the odd one in the water too. There were no killer whales sighted today but we still feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to scour this stretch of coast. The veterans on the team mentioned that oftentimes this spot is simply too rough to work effectively.
We anchored near White Rocks, just at the top of Banks and around the corner from Bonilla Island (the namesake for one of the sea lions in the Open Water research project run jointly by UBC and the Vancouver Aquarium. Bonilla really stands out as different looking compared to Banks and the other islets nearby. It reminded me of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea—and I made a note to look up its geology to see if the difference is more than skin deep. The Captain made the crib championship interesting by forcing a second game, but in the end the Chief Engineer took the crown.
Quick hit: A cursory Google search led to an old Geological Survey of Canada Report that suggests that Bonilla Island and Vancouver Island share a similar geological past, much different than the BC coast proper.
Monday, March 24th
Today marked our slow return south towards Vancouver Island and the start of the home stretch for the research cruise. It was still a productive day as we came across the C10’s, a family of resident (fish-eating) killer whales in Squally Channel late this afternoon. They were in a tight resting line from when we spotted them to when we put the Titan in the water (~20 minutes) but they seemed wary of the small boat as it approached. Maybe it was because they had a small calf in the group? Regardless, the whales moved across the channel to avoid the Titan and the team chose not to over pursue. We had proof that all the C10’s were accounted for, and had some okay photographs of the calf, so the boat team broke away to visit colleagues at Cetacea Lab on Gil Island to share photos and thank them for all their timely updates while we were in the area.
The team aboard the Tully was kept busy as the ship worked hard to photo ID a humpback near Rennison Island. We were rewarded when the humpback ‘fluked’ (the term used to describe when the whale exposes the underside of its tail) as it dove, which allowed those on Monkey’s Island to snap ID photos. The nicks on the fin and the unique colour pattern on the underside are similar to our fingerprints and can be used to ID individual humpbacks. After the day’s end, the Tully continued to steam down Princess Royal Channel overnight.
Quick hit: SPLASH (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpbacks) was an intensive, international collaborative effort to study humpbacks in the North Pacific from 2004 through 2007. The final report is available online (http://swfsc.noaa.gov/MMTD-SPLASH/). Also, the Tully makes its own fresh water so it doesn’t need to take on potable water in port. I found I had to drink more than usual and I suspect the salt content was slightly higher that what I’m used to.
Tuesday, March 25th
By noon we passed Ivory Island Lightstation and had handed-off Search and Rescue duties for the northern region to the CCGS Tanu. The plan was to continue on directly to Port Hardy but we could still slow for whales if warranted. A similar option may not have been available on the final day, depending on where we were, as the vessel had to keep a tight schedule. The research team gave a ~30 minute overview of the Cetacean Research Program to the crew at 13:00. Topics included background info on cetacean species listed as At-Risk in BC, whale surveying 101, and the natural history of BC killer whales. Researcher Sheena Majewski added a quick recap of aerial survey work in BC used to count sea lions and harbour seals.
It was a stunning evening as we passed through Fitz Hugh Sound. Those of us who had rotated through our stations stayed on deck as new teammates started their shifts and before we knew it everyone was together atop the bridge enjoying the sunshine and the views. It had been a long couple of weeks but as we the sun faded and we refused to go in, I realized I was going to miss the camaraderie of our little group. We anchored in Smith Sound for the night to be positioned to cross Queen Charlotte Strait and to hopefully find some interesting whales on our last morning before debarking.
Wednesday, March 26th
Our last day was a memorable one. We had resigned ourselves to packing up the field gear after we crossed back to the northern end of Vancouver Island without sighting any whales. In the midst of stacking cases and stuffing foul weather gear into bags, we heard an excited radio call from Monkey’s Island: a small group of killer whales had been seen in Goletas Channel. Despite only being 30 minutes from the dock, the Captain graciously agreed to put the Titan in the water one last time with the caveat that the Tully would continue on to Port Hardy to stay on schedule. Conditions were excellent so it was an easy condition to meet, not to mention it meant the trip would end on a high note.
We had just received a VHF radio call from our small boat crew letting us know they had caught up with the 3 Bigg’s killer whales when observer Brian Gisborne, squeaking out the last few minutes available on the Big-Eye binoculars, sighted yet more killer whales on the horizon. The whales were out towards the Numas Islands, and easily reachable by the Titan. We were confident our teammates would be able to find them, and with Port Hardy in sight, we worked quickly to disassemble the deck-mounted binos.
The next hour was a blur as we finished packing up our cabins, hauled bags and cases to the aft deck to be craned off, and said hasty goodbyes to Tully crew members as they left to run errands during their brief layover. The Titan team arrived with photo IDS of all the whales, including the bunch by Numas, and we prepped the little boat to be trailered back to Nanaimo. Amidst the organizing (and reorganizing) of what gear would go in what vehicle and with whom, we took a momentary break for a group photo on the dock with the Tully’s bow in the background. It’s a simple tradition, but it will be a great memento from an amazing experience.
I would like to thank Dr. John Ford and Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard for the opportunity to participate in the 2014 winter/spring survey. A huge thank-you goes out to my fellow observers for their help, their insights, and their sense of humour which made the trip educational, rewarding, and fun. We as a group are indebted to the White Crew of the CCGS John P. Tully for their integral assistance and hospitality for 2+ weeks.