gray whales in our back yard

Tofino Time Readers' Choice Awards:
The Best of Tofino 2010

by Marla Barker, Tofino

the letter 'I'I’ve heard innocent questions from many people wondering whether or not they will miss the opportunity to see grey whales near Tofino if they miss the annual Whale Festival. Let it be known that although spring is the best season to catch grey whales migrating in our neighbourhood, whales are around the west coast of Vancouver Island at any time of year – not just for cameo appearances for nine days every March.

Unfavourable sea conditions, far fewer whales, and less people on the water to spot them in the off-season are some of the reasons why the hype around whales here can seem a bit seasonal. Not unlike many of us, most of the greys and humpbacks we see here feeding in the summer make their way to warmer waters off of Mexico or Hawaii over the winter months. These are far journeys to make, but worth the effort. After many weeks in a bizarrely unique feeding frenzy, filtering gulps of mini marine life, their bellies are full. They’ll live off of fatty reserves for the coming months until they can return to the great nutrient-rich, cold-water grocery store. All of this fuss and starvation for the sake of getting their groove on – mating and giving birth are most successfully accomplished in warmer waters.

The reality is that not all grey whales follow the textbook routes we have mapped out for them. Legions of whales have been calling feeding grounds in Clayoquot Sound home for months out of the year, and for years of their lives. These whales are known as ‘residents’ or part of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group.

Some greys off the beaten track are stragglers travelling with young. Some may not make it further north than Vancouver Island on migration. And some are renegade whales to a whole different degree. In fact, one who traveled here lately came all the way from Russia! Those who have been following his story know that Flex – a 14-year-old western Pacific grey whale – was tagged and nicknamed last October by Russian and US scientists. Flex has been tracked, tweeted about, and become the talk of the town as he’s travelled across the Pacific, lining himself up on the approximate migration route that the eastern Pacific greys take. These genetically different eastern and western populations have distinct territories that typically do not overlap.

On their remarkably long journey, eastern Pacific greys most often start off from the warm, shallow calving lagoons in Mexican waters where they are born. Holding course from there, most of the whales travel northbound within 5 kms or so from shore – at times grazing right alongside rocky headlands – and head up toward Arctic seas seeking food, before turning southbound again. That’s an annual migration much longer than most other mammals dare make, upwards of 16,000 kms or more roundtrip.
Amazingly, it’s suspected that sticking to shallow seas, grey whales navigate using seafloor contours, ocean currents, possibly the earth’s magnetic field, and even the ‘tastes’ of familiar rivers and bays to guide them. Flex, on a solo quest, has crossed the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, passed Vancouver Island in February and has kept on trucking. His tag has since fallen off, but based on his speed and trajectory, he’ll be meeting up with northbound migrants now. Maybe he’ll join the crowd and we’ll be seeing him back here soon.

I find it shocking to know that three years ago in the spring of 2008 two local whale watch guides captured positive ID photos of Flex right here in our back yard in Barkley Sound. For me, this fact further reinforces how hypothetical much of our knowledge is about the behaviour and lives of whales, and how im­portant it is to take interest in and promote the grassroots work of local socie­ties, biologists, naturalists, guides, photographers, and interested folk. Local marine mammal biologist Wendy Szaniszlo’s photos have played a key part in establishing Flex’s timeline. Her contribution further reinforces how much we have yet to learn.

The grey whales’ history along our coast is deeply rooted in Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations and post-contact culture, and has shaped many kinds of in­dustry extending from the heyday of the oil and blubber trade to scientific research and tourism. For centuries, long before the reality of harpoon guns and commercial whaling, before people started to look at spouts on the horizon wondering how many barrels of oil they were about to achieve as a result of their kill, these whales were sacred.

When a whale was hunted by Nuu-chah-nulth nations, nearly every part of the animal was put to use – primarily the oil, blubber and meat, but also the bones, baleen and tough tissues. Some young men would prepare for five years or more to become a whale hunter and hunt from ocean-going cedar dugout canoes. According to Barbara Touchie, a Ucluelet First Nation elder, “the oil was used in cooking and as a fire starter, the meat for food, and the bones for clubs and combs. Whale vertebrae served as chairs, sinews were used to bind harpoons, and whale oil was also a trading commodity. Finally, the water in which the blubber was boiled was converted into glue.”
According to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), commercial whaling had critically reduced the eastern Pacific herd to roughly 2000 individuals by the late 1800’s. With the help of public pressure, grey whales were finally protected from commercial whaling by an international agreement by 1947. This agreement allowed a natural rebound that saw eastern Pacific grey whale numbers return to pre-whaling proportions – upwards of 20,000 – a conservation success story.

Their western Pacific relatives have not fared so well largely due to human factors including ongoing hunting, oil exploration, offshore mining, toxic spills and industrial noise. Roughly 130 animals remain – one of the most endangered baleen whale populations in the world. Once-thriving Atlantic grey whale populations can now only be found in history.

Today mainstream culture is coming around to the Nuu-chah-nulth worldview that whales are sacred. We no longer depend on their oil to light our lamps or to add flavour and soften food rations that have been carefully overwintered. But for those who seek it, there is a wonder that comes hand in hand with the presence of whales. The sighting of a single spout or tail can connect us with nature in a way that clearly demonstrates how tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, how much we have yet to learn about the oceans and the creatures who call them home, and how everything really is connected.

There are currently more than 65 species at risk (listed under COSEWIC) within Nuu-chah-nulth territories – extending from Brooks Peninsula down to Port Renfrew along the west coast of Vancouver Island. This includes marine mammals, fish, reptiles and invertebrates, as well as seabirds, terrestrial mammals and birds, plants, lichens, and the list goes on.

Some of these living things take much less of the limelight in our day-to-day lives than grey whales; but when you live in a place like the wild west coast – where whale sightings can sometimes seem commonplace – it’s hard to imagine that they too are considered a federally and globally recognized species at risk of becoming extinct.

And they’re right here in our back yard, any time of year.

Marla Barker is a local guide and species at risk coordinator. She hopes you’ll get out on the water to spot yourself a spout!

Tofino Whale watching articles

Tofino Time March 2011

tofino | tofino time | activities | accommodation | events | directory
maps | travel | food | art & artists | photos | horoscope | tides
search | magazine | issues | articles | advertising | contact us

hosted in tofino by & studio tofino
© 2002-2014 copyright Tofino Time Magazine in Tofino Canada
© 2002-2011 Tofino Time Magazine & ThinkTank Design Inc.

Grey whales are found in the waters around Tofino & Ucuelet all season - not just for the Pacific Rim Whale Festival.

tofino time march 2011