Field Notes 2013
Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada
May 4: Our first confirmed cow/calf pair sighting for this year came today (photo, right), and it was worth the wait! My huband Don and I were on a break from the dock, getting an ice-cream cone at our neighbor Cam Shaw's chocolate shop when Cam took a moment to step out of the back kitchen to tell us this amazing story: Early that same day (May 4th), Cam was surfing at north Long Beach, about 15 miles south of Tofino. A typical start to his day, except that on this particular morning surf, he encountered our first confirmed Gray Whale mother/calf pair of the 2013 migration season!
Cam was out just past the surf line near Incinerator Rock when he saw spouts and whale activity in calm water not too far off. He stopped to watch two Gray Whales, one large adult and one quite small whale; the small whale stayed very close to the surface, spouting and breathing more often than the adult. Cam paddled with the northerly drift along the beachfront, paralleling the northbound mother and calf for about twenty minutes. During this time, the calf spyhopped and looked towards Cam several times, rolled in the water, nuzzled its mother, and was generally very active. As Cam returned to the beach after this extraordinary encounter, his wife Kim took a photo of him with Incinerator Rock, where he first saw the Gray whale mother and calf, just on the horizon.
We have had a handful of flat calm, sunny warm days, and the fog that typically marks the end of our warm weather spells is just now sneaking into the harbor. This migration season has been an interesting one, and we know that there are a good number of Gray Whale mother and calf pairs still coming our way in the next few weeks. Perhaps one or two pairs will stay to feed nearby, along with the other summer resident Gray Whales typically in the area.
Best for now,
April 30: We are really late for a confirmed Gray Whale cow/calf observation this year! (Although we have seen at least two Humpback mother other and calf pairs already…). The most likely was on April 21st, when senior guide Jay Feaver reported a possible Gray Whale pair amidst a group of 5 animals, but he was not confident enough with this sighting to confirm a cow/calf observation.
Numbers for Gray Whales appear to be peaking, with frequent groups of 4 and 5 whales seen swimming by together. Lots of feeding going on, especially off Long Beach, to the south of us – this is interesting, as this is typically a May-June feeding area. As well, guide Randy Frank netted a sample of krill in an area where a group of Gray Whales was feeding north and offshore of Tofino by a few miles.
We will try again to look for mothers with calves once this NW wind drops down a bit tomorrow!
All best for now from the blustery west coast of Vancouver Island!
April 16: In Tofino, we have had unusually strong and frequent W-NW winds for the time of year. As of two days ago, the seas were at last calm enough for us to get back out onto the open coast again.
And when we got back out there, we found that, while most of the whales continue to swim past us northward on their migration, a number of Gray Whales had already stopped to begin feeding at Long Beach (approx. 15 miles south of town); we typically see the whales begin to feed at an underwater pinnacle at north Long Beach in early May, so this was a bit of a surprise.
Meanwhile, we have had an unconfirmed report of a possible Gray Whale mother & calf pair off Long Beach on April 8th, but no 'eyes on' and no source confirmed — so we are still watching for our first confirmed mom-calf pair.
April 2: We are now keeping eyes on the water for the first mother and calf pair of the migration to reachTofino, expected in the next couple of weeks!
The pace of the Gray Whale migration has changed in the last week. On March 24th a Gray Whale was seen stopped and feeding near Foam Reefs, just north of Tofino. The whales have generally been travelling more slowly, diving and showing tail flukes every day since March 25th. By March 30th, a small group of 3 whales, likely young adults, were truly dawdling their way along the coast, stopping to roll, play, and 'mock mate' in the waters off our near-shore islands; also several Gray Whales seen breaching, or 'jumping,' since March 30th.
March 24th was an especially exciting day! We watched the migrating Gray Whales, a pod of Bigg's (transient) Killer Whales, and our first Humpback Whale of the season all on the same day! As noted in our last report, some resident Gray Whales are already back in the area; in addition, the summer resident group of Humpback Whale that frequents Clayoquot and Barkley Sounds will return in late-May or early-June, and Killer Whale pods will continue to visit us for a number of days each month all through the year.
And finally, I have an unusual 'mini-fauna' event to report from this past week. Click on the photo "A Rare Sight" for the story.
Cheers for now,
March 19: Here in Tofino, we are mid-Whale Fest (see Pacific Rim Whale Festival, and the Gray Whales continue to move north past our shores.
Remote Passages' vessels have launched onto the open coast most days since March 1st, and with reasonable sea conditions we have consistently observed northbound Gray Whales. Trip notes show lots of Gray Whales travelling in pairs, occasionally in a group of three, and less frequently on their own. Guides report that there is real "migration energy" about the whales, as they power on, taking mostly shallow dives, rarely fluking or veering from their northward course.
Yesterday our boats came across a large number of Bald Eagles diving against a group of 50-60 California Sea Lions congregated on a school of spawning herring near Hot Springs Cove, 30 miles north of Tofino. This kind of activity is a signal that one or more Gray Whales may soon slow down and move inside to feed on herring eggs along inlet shorelines.
A few miles to the south of Tofino, in Barkley Sound, researcher Wendy Szaniszlo recently received a confirmed sighting of a long-time return resident Gray Whale, locally known as "Admiral." Part of a group of 200 – 250 Gray Whales known as the Eastern Pacific Feeding Aggregation, Admiral returns most years to feed in the waters off Clayoquot and Barkley Sounds instead of going all the way to Alaska. In July of 2002 we learned that Admiral was in fact a 'she' when one of our experienced guides reported sighting this well-known whale with a young calf. We will now be on the look-out for other returning residents, including "Two-Dot Star" and "White Dot" (the latter possibly already seen in the area).
At the moment, the crew at Remote Passages Marine Excursions is huddled in the boathouse as a strong wind & rain storm blows by us. We have already enjoyed participating in the opening day parade of the 27th Annual Pacific Rim Whale Festival, and have attended several other festival events and presentations. One of our favourite presentations was by Dr. Andrew Trites of the University of British Columbia. He spoke about the background and successful completion of the "Big Blue Project:" locating, moving, cleaning and at last re-assembling a Blue Whale skeleton at the UBC Biodiversity Museum. We are looking forward to more 'whale festing' and whale watching after this storm passes.
We will check back in with updates soon, and we're keeping our eyes on the water for any early mother and calf pairs.
Cheers for now,
March 5: At Tofino, we had expected our first northbound Gray Whales about a week and a half ago, based on reports from Observation Post # 6 (ACS-LA) at Palos Verde Peninsula, just north of LA. Locally, guide Jay Feaver did see a Gray Whale on a surf weekend at Hesquiaht (approx. 60 km N of Tofino) in mid-February, as well as several elusive individual whales on early-season whale watch trips. But we put out the call to the community via Long Beach Radio (CHMZ 90.1 FM), and held out for a sighting of two or more whales travelling together, showing the typical heart-shaped spout of the Gray Whale, and surfacing for several consecutive blows travelling consistently northward.
The first confirmed 2013 sighting of northbound Gray Whales off Tofino was finally made on March 3rd by our friends, Jeff George & Caroline Woodward – lightkeepers at Lennard Island. Jeff spotted two Gray Whales heading north during his last weather report at 9:40 a.m. on Sunday, March 3rd. Caroline e-mailed the sighting to our crew at Remote Passages Marine Excursions later that day (after mail and supplies had been offloaded from the regular lifeboat delivery to Lennard Island!). Caroline has since sent the following additional note:
" … Also saw 2 sets of spouts yesterday (Monday, March 4th) off Lennard. So happy to see the big guys chugging past us! When Jeff sent (his March 3rd) report in to wildwhale.org, they said our sighting was corroborated by a watch in Ucluelet (20 miles to the south) and it was the first two spouts seen for 2013. Very nice feeling! Glad you are spreading the word with your many networks as it perks everyone up to know the migration is on."
It was a special treat for me personally to see two repetitions of three small blows as we flew over the Palos Verde Peninsula coming out of LA airport last week, on Feb. 27th. I like to think these were the three Gray Whales reported by the Observation Post #6 volunteers on the same date. If so, we should see these same three whales again off the coast of Tofino in a few weeks.
We are thrilled to once again welcome the great Gray Whale migration, connecting our communities all along the west coast of North America! — Kati