Tofino whale research: Strawberry Isle Scuttlebutt - December 2006
by Rod Palm, Tofino
Well it's definitely fall. We see the Cormorants and Oyster catchers have moved back here into the sheltered waters of the inlets. The Steller Sea Lions are back on their haulouts and the California Sea Lions are starting to trickle in. The lions have been off to their respective rookeries where the bulls blusterously defended their spot on the rock while trying to keep all their ladies corralled and content with their new pups. Most of the Gray Whales have left; I understand there's a big party happening in the lagoons of Mexico. The Humpback Whales are on their way off to spend their winter in Hawaii. You have to hand it to those whales, good planners. The mass migration of Homo Tourestrian is pretty much over but, as with the whales, there seems to be quite a few who just can't get enough of the West Coast and don't want to leave. As I write this, there are still several out of towners in the Co-Op and eight Gray Whales in Ahous Bay.
What has been going on in Clayoquot since last New Year? Quite a lot actually. Over the winter right into spring there were rivers of Pacific Sardines (Pilchards) up in Tofino inlet that attracted very large numbers of Steller and California Sea Lions. It seems there was so much food that there was no need for them to go anywhere else so they staked out a haulout near Berryman Point. This was an opportunity for us to document the establishment of a brand new haulout. The site was populated by close to 300 dog pilled, barking, roaring, shoving and let's not forget, as my daughters say, 'very stinky' hulks arguing for space on a narrow strip of rocky shore and a pickup sized islet. It was interesting that adult bull Stellers were conspicuous in their absence. Haven't figured that one out yet. The animals started leaving in early May and the site was abandoned by the end of May. Will they come back this year? I think it likely and this time we will be ready to document their arrival. Our network of water folk, in this case, fish farmers, bear watchers and log salvers are giving us at least weekly reports on the site.
The first Gray Whale making his way up the coast was called in by John Forde on Feb. 2, right on schedule. The Moms are slowed down with their calves so we don't see them going by until about the first week of May. As is usual, there were varying numbers of animals who stayed in the area for the whole summer. Sometimes vacuuming down clouds of Mysid Shrimp along our exposed rocky shores or digging in the mud of Ahous Bay for Ampelisca Shrimp. A 'friendly' showed up in Cow Bay on June 14 and entertained many tourists before leaving on July 9. 'Friendlies' just love people watching. They will, without apparent trepidation, approach a boat, give it a couple of nudges with his/her snout, maybe go underneath and lift the boat up a touch then stick its head out of the water and have a look at the gaudily costumed creatures giggling away and making funny clicking noises with little boxes they hold in front of their faces. What a sight it must be for them.
Post British Columbia commercial whaling (1972), Humpback Whales were not seen in our area until August 1995 when three feeding animals were reported in Russell Channel. Since then we have seen a slow growth in reports of not only numbers but also days of occupation. In '95 they were reported on 10 days with the greatest number in one day being 3 animals. Compare this to this year when we had reports on 139 days with the maximum number in one day (July 7) being at least 28.
The Humpback Whales started showing up on March 25 this year when the Tom brothers called in an animal feeding on the Pilchards in Tofino Inlet. This animal was likely just cruising up the coast and either followed the little fishes or their smell into the inlet. By the end of April and continuing on into early October we were seeing numbers of animals every day that weather permitted the fleet to get out into the open ocean. What a delight for visiting Adventure Tourists. Feeding Humpies are a spectacular sight. Their huge pectoral flippers allow them to pivot in a tight turn of less than their body length while they herd fish such as Herring or Pilchards into a tight group. The whale then lunges straight up through the fish with its cavernous mouth agape. The momentum brings the whales head clear out of the water amid a shower of silver fishes and spray. At this point you can also see the alarming distension of their pleated throat that allows for an immense volume of fish and water.
Kawkawin (Killer Whales) abounded this year with at least 54 days of visitation in Clayoquot. The most distressful event of the year was a little whale we came to name Trauma. On May 10, Peter Schulze and Richard Chiovitti photographed seven Kawkawin traveling up the coast. They described a severely injured juvenile within the group. On reviewing the images it was seen that the youngster was the 3 year old offspring of t023c who is a charter member of a gang we call the Motley Crew. The severity of this animal's injuries prompted us to name it 'Trauma'. The skin on the right side of the dorsal fin and on parts of the body was grated off right down to the blubber. There was wrinkly discolored (greenish) skin down the back and a deep gouge in the rostrum. The only thing I, or other authorities for that matter, can imagine may have happened to this animal, is that it got caught in a wave, thrown on the rocks and dragged down the barnacle meat grinder. Yes, whales screw up sometimes too. Trauma struggles to keep up with the other whales. He/she was doing short shallow dives while sticking like Velcro to the side of its Mom. On June 13 the Crew was traveling with a large group of other transients who, typical of gatherings, are engaged in high energy aerial acrobatics and general high jinks. Not so for all, Trauma and Mom are calmly trailing along behind. On June 21 the Crew was traveling up Browning passage and for the first time Trauma was showing some frisky behavior and not always stuck to Mom's side. It even broke away to come over within 3 meters of the boat to check me out. The Crew went down to Barkley Sound for a couple of days then disappeared for almost a month when, I'll be damned; they showed up in Southern Alaska. Marilyn Dahlheim reports that Trauma appears to be doing just fine. Since then, they have been reported on several occasions around and about the islands on the mainland side of Hecate Strait. Up to this writing, the last sighting was in the straits on Sep. 19. We anxiously await the next report on Trauma's condition. Every month that passes increases his/her chance of survival.
Risso's Dolphins made an appearance 3 miles off Wilf Rocks on July 5. This is the closest to shore that we have ever seen these deep ocean animals. From Richard Chiovitti's images, we were able to distinguish 21 individual animals by the prominent scratches on their bodies.
For the bird buffs. 2006 was the biggest year yet for Brown Pelicans. These are a large bird with a wing span of close to 2 meters. Suffering habitat loss and shell thinning via pesticide ingestion, their numbers dropped seriously but since 1970 have been steadily recovering. Their normal range is the Southern United States down to Chile with occasional sightings in Southern British Columbia. From May 24 to June 22 flocks of as many as 50 birds could be seen on wing or roosting on unforested locations such as Cleland Island or Long Beach Rocks.
Here's a first for the West Coast of Vancouver Island. On October 14, a Slaty-backed Gull was sighted 32 miles off Wilf Rock. This report was from the vessel "Storm Petrel" while on a bird watch. The bird was seen and photographed by Adrian Dorst and several other prominent birders. Slatys are more common to the Bering Sea.
Well that's it in a clam shell. See anything interesting or out of the ordinary, call it in. Rod Palm at (250) 725-2211 or vhf Cannel 18