Tofino whale research: Strawberry Isle Research Society
by Rod Palm, Tofino
February 7, a call comes in from Wilfred Atleo, Johnny Tom has been trying to reach me on the vhf radio. There are two Kawkawin who passed by Deadman Islets about 20 minutes ago. Great! This is a good excuse to get off the computer. It takes about 5 minutes to shutdown programs, get suited up and..."Where did I put that camera?"
They probably took the back door behind the islands, should be close to the red nun in Browning Passage by now. Sure enough, a shotgun blast like blow off the port side announces the big bull Arrow as he breaks the surface. Another blast and there is his Mom Innis.
These are familiar animals who have been visiting Clayoquot Sound most every year since we started logging Killer Whale visitations in January of 1991. Their catalogued number is t007 so of course we call them the Secret Agents. They often hunt these inlets with a particular preference for the waters around Meares Island. They are the only animals we have seen to investigate Gunner Inlet with its small Harbour Seal haulout.
Back to the encounter. The Secret Agents are traveling at a steady pace (about 5.5 knots) along a very predictable route up Browning through Tsappee Narrows. They don't even slow down at the Indian Island turning point where the whales often hang out as if deciding on which of three possible routes to take. These guys are on a mission. They are swimming into the ebbing tide, do they smell something? Cruising around the North side of Indian Island and there is the distinct, "Arr, arr, arr," bark of California Sea Lions. It sounds like it's coming from Eagle Bay, yes, wow, there are probably close to 100 Sea Lions here, even a few Stellers. Believing that the Agents will take advantage of this smorgasbord, I head into the heart of the activity. There is an astounding cacophony of barking lions, squawking gulls, beating wings, splashing fish and now the thunderous boom as Arrow breaks the surface and does a perfect belly flop on top of a hapless California Sea Lion. Innis follows up with a resounding tail slap.
As often happens, the whales carry on this abuse for about 10 minutes then retire to their corner at a distance of about a third of a mile. This is a curious behavior, perhaps they know the lion has sustained injuries that won't allow it to go very far and will weaken it further if left alone. This seems to be the case as the lion is gasping on the surface trying to dive with limited success. The dive posture is a kind of roll with a submerged duration of less than a minute and surfacing a very short distance away.
With the whales taking a break, it gives me a moment to really look around and reflect on what is going on here. The Kawkawin are predating the Sea Lions, the lions and the larger gulls are predating the fish who, along with the tiny Mew Gulls are predating the recent run of zooplankton that are feeding on the phytoplankton nurtured by the mineral runoff of the recent torrential rains along with a rise in temperature. Even after 47 years of working and playing on or under the water there are still moments that absolutely knock you on your butt. What a privilege to be in the centre of such a circle of life. Looking around through the mist, at the ancient rain forest, I feel as though I am witness to the same activity as it could have been played out several thousand years ago.
Back to the action. Wham! Innis, out of nowhere, slams into the lion with her head. Arrow does another belly flop followed by both whales raising havoc for another round. Silence, the lion is again alone but obviously in very rough shape with even more labored, shorted dives. He is desperately trying to make his way to the relative security of the main raft of lions. His crippled gait only gets him about 25 meters in 15 minutes when, you guessed it, they're baaack. This time I notice that one of Innis' moves is to break the surface right beside the lion and deliver a crushing judo chop with the leading edge of her pectoral fin. I haven't really noticed this martial art technique before but it is likely a common move. Ever learning.
The one sided bout goes on for about 6 rounds over a period of close to 2 hours leaving the lion alive but immobile on the surface. Innis does a swim by as if assessing the damage, does a u turn and almost gently takes the lion in her mouth and submerges. She is down for close to 5 minutes then surfaces with a dismembered section of the lion. The gulls know what's up and they're there in a wink very verbally bickering over the bits of blubber floating amidst the pool of blood.
It's over. The remaining lions and birds are back to their feast as though nothing had happened and the Kawkawin are back in their corner as though enjoying a siesta after their 400kg+ meal. It is with reluctance I idle away from this tableau with the thought that we are truly blessed to live here in the peace and environmental richness that is the West Coast.
The Strawberry Isle Research Society in Tofino conducts primary research and monitoring of various marine ecosystems in Clayoquot Sound. The Society promotes public interest and awareness of the marine environment and supports other researchers in their related studies.
To become a member of the society and to support its efforts, please contact Rod Palm at (250) 725-2211, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the society's website at www.strawberryisle.org