On August 6, 2015, the CCGS John P. Tully departed the Institute of Ocean Sciences on a mission: to find and document some of the largest animals living in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. I was fortunate to be part of the science crew who would spend 12 days peering through binoculars, perching atop the Tully’s observation platform, called the monkey’s island, and scanning the horizon for any sign of a marine mammal. Our aim was to collect data on when and where these animals, many of which are at risk of endangerment, are spending time in B.C. waters. The following is my account of our adventure on the high seas.
The trip started out on a high note, as weather conditions were good enough to head for offshore waters through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This meant we would soon reach waters where there would be a chance to spot rarely seen species such as northern right whale dolphins or even a leatherback sea turtle.
On the second day of our survey, we were treated to just that: a sighting of a mixed group of northern right whale dolphins and Pacific white-sided dolphins. In offshore waters the two species seem to be found together fairly often. These animals are well known for exhibiting high energy behaviours, such as porpoising out of the water, leaping and breaching, which make for exciting and memorable sightings.
One of the inevitable, but less enjoyable, aspects about heading offshore is the potential to experience seasickness. Even seasoned mariners may feel queasy during the first few days of travelling in noticeable swell. I had only experienced seasickness once before, in waters off the Aleutian Islands, so I felt very confident that I was going to be fine. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case during the initial part of this recent voyage, but luckily a little medicine and a lot of ginger tea went a long way. Soon I was restored back to my energetic self.
The third day of the survey was one I’ll never forget. Around lunchtime, word was spreading that a large group of Risso’s dolphins had been spotted on the horizon. Risso’s dolphins are fascinating animals; their bodies are usually covered with many scars and scratches, to the extent that older animals may appear almost completely white. Growing to a maximum of four metres in length, they possess large, dark grey dorsal fins which resemble those of female killer whales.
The group of Risso’s dolphins we witnessed consisted of about 40 individuals and was very active, breaching, spyhopping and spending lots of time at the surface of the water. As if that wasn’t enough, a group of northern right whale dolphins, a shark (likely a blue shark) and a sandpiper also appeared around the vessel while we were watching the Risso’s. It was difficult to know where to look!
In the following days, the Tully transited through the “blue box,” an area off Cape St. James, Haida Gwaii where in 2013 a number of blue whales were observed. While we didn’t spot any blue whales in that area, on August 9th, we observed a number of groups of killer whales with one particular group rapidly travelling through the water in pursuit of prey. Another sighting of a large group of Pacific white-sided dolphins and northern right whale dolphins rounded out an exciting day.
That evening, the Tully anchored in Goski Bay, off Haida Gwaii. It was the closest I had been to those magnificent islands, which appeared spectacular under a fiery sunset. The intense smell of the forest was evident as the vessel rested in perfectly calm waters. It was hard to comprehend we were still in the early stages of the trip, as we had already seen so much and travelled so far. As I headed to my cabin that night I felt excited about the coming days and the sightings and adventures they would be filled with.
Tessa Danelesko is the coordinator of the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, a research collaboration of the Vancouver Aquarium and Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
This summer, Tessa was part of a 15 person research crew, led by federal marine mammal scientist Dr. John Ford, aboard the CCGS John P. Tully. The crew engaged in a marine mammal survey aiming to collect data on species listed as “at-risk” under the Species at Risk Act. This is the first in a series of posts about the voyage.