endless summer

by orcalab

Signs that Fall is here are everywhere. It’s dark when I get up at 6am, the first hint of a new day on the horizon; the forest floor has turned gold and green as the cedars shed their summer cloak; honeysuckle leaves litter the boardwalks and garden ground; bright red honeysuckle berries are being plucked by tiny wrens; jays are sitting in the apple tree, feasting on the fruit we imagined as apple pie; the last roses are fading; fronds of great bull kelp are landing on the beach, food for next year’s garden; the sudden daybreak howl of sporty boats heading to the hot fishing spots where we have our hydrophones has gone; sea lions are beginning to heave their huge bodies onto haul-out rocks along the way; most of our assistants have left, heading back to school or home; and in their absence we are spending more time in the lab at night, recording the voices of the orcas, who are still here. We love this time of year. When it’s sunny or at least not raining, the light is soft and generous, the days are still long and warm, and the orcas are still endlessly fascinating.

A few days ago (20th) a crowd of orcas suddenly appeared in Blackfish Sound. We had no hint they were coming, though if we had read the mood of the A30s and A23s as they rested, socialized and frolicked for hours near the entrance to Blackney Pass correctly, we might have guessed something was up. Eventually, a single “ping” heard on the Flower Island hydrophone alerted us to the presence of G clan orcas, either the I11s or I31s, and not long after we heard the voices of G1s followed by A1s. Woohooo… it looked like we were back to party-time, as so much of the preceding weeks of this summer has been.

The tide was ebbing at the time, with slack a couple of hours away, so we didn’t expect the new arrivals to come into our view soon. Instead, we waited, hoping they would choose Blackney rather than Weynton Pass for their entry to Johnstone Strait. At exactly slack tide, the A30s & A23s made their move, travelling swiftly north through Blackney Pass and (one might imagine) into the arms of the G3s, I11s, A34s, A36s and A12. It was so sweet, watching and listening to them arrange themselves, as first one group would appear, only to turn back, then another with the same result, and then another, until the parade began and all the orcas (more than 55 of them) made their way into Johnstone Strait. Acoustically, they presented us with a wonderful mix of clan and family voices (sadly not heard by Orca-livers as our internet connection was down) that faded into silence as the orcas made their way east in Johnstone Strait. And then, without a rub or a word so far as we knew, they vanished.

An entire day passed, without news – despite active searching efforts from whale watchers – apart from a possible sighting of the A34s far east in Johnstone Strait and a confirmed sighting of transient orcas near Campbell River. It was as if the entire event was a mirage, or a dream. Then, another day later, the A36s brothers, with A12, were sighted to the north of us in Queen Charlotte Strait. Putting that together with the hint of an A5 call heard during the preceding night but not located as to origin, we knew that at least some of the crowd had returned. What transpired for most however, remains a mystery. We just don’t know whether the G clan groups managed to sneak past our hydrophones without breaking silence, or took another route “out”, or whether they remained closeted somewhere in inlets to the east (unlikely). So many eyes and ears practicing vigilance, but no clues. What we do know, is that late afternoon on the 23rd the A36 brothers, with A12, swam back into Johnstone Strait via Blackney Pass, entirely silently save for a few calls at the “corner” as they entered, and that a few hours later they returned in the company of Simoom and her A34 brood, singing in wonderful and soothing harmony as they made their way west and eventually northwards. Whether and when they will return, we know not, but we have the comforting assurance that all is well in their world.

‘All is well’ is a fair summary of our impression of this summer’s scene. In contrast to previous recent years, we didn’t see the restless pacing of groups back in forth in Johnstone Strait – east one day, west the next – that had us worried about food supply and in particular Chinook salmon abundance. Rather, for weeks on end during the second half of July and through August, it seemed like the old days had returned. We came to expect that orcas travelling east in the Strait would turn around after a rub and head back to the west, stopping for a bite in Robson Bight and continuing on to Blinkhorn or Turn Point, socializing and foraging along the way, before turning back to the east again and repeating the cycle; or heading out through Weynton Pass or Blackney on the ebbing tide and returning on the next flood, all the while at ease. We loved the social mixing that occurred, and welcomed the return of the Bs, who all but gave us a pass last year. When the I15s came to town, as happened on several occasions, they did their usual number, driving the social intensity up and up with their crazy excited voices, until it seemed the very fabric of the ocean would burst. The only answer to such tension was a day off, agreed silence on all sides, until the recovered orcas, energy back, were ready to greet old friends once again, with voices raised as if the parting had been for an age instead of a day.

Among the many wonderful moments of this summer, we marked the return of Springer (A73) yet again. This was the 9th time Springer has returned since her repatriation to her community and family in July 2002. Her presence has become so regular that we expect to see her every year, and have taken to leaving our “Welcome Home Springer” sign up over the winter, rather than taking it down and waiting for her to return before putting it up again. We do, however, take it down briefly each year and repaint it, so it’s fresh for her arrival. This year, we used some odd paint (tempura) in the initial repainting, which spattered when raindrops hit it, so the sign was down for some time before it went back up. I started to get a bit nervous about the delay, because it was already August and Springer was due anytime, but finally we had it up, and it looked great. Whether it was coincidence or not, that very night (August 9th) Springer returned, heading into Johnstone Strait via Blackney Pass accompanied by all the other members of the A4 pod, and the A5s as well. It was a couple of hours before midnight; the tide was flooding, so their passage was easy. Several of us stood on the lab deck, listening for blows, while Tomoko and Helena sat inside, managing the recording. At 10:45pm, perhaps reacting to a sound, I glanced inside the lab, to see Helena and Tomoko, both beaming, with arms raised in celebration… Springer was back! She was in Blackfish Sound at the time, and half an hour later in front of the lab, where, the listeners swore, several of the orcas paused and floated at the surface, one of them clearly vocalizing in air, before carrying on. It was an easy stretch of the mind on that magical night to imagine that this was Springer checking out her sign, through darkness and all. Improbable, yes perhaps, impossible… hmmm.

Also on the wonderful list was the return of Uni, the glaucous-winged seagull we’ve come to admire and love for longer than we’ve known Springer. She’s here all winter, leaving in May and returning late August or in September – this year, she came back on August 24th. Uni is a great hunter with a secret that none of the other seagulls have managed to figure out. She paddles around the kelp floating at the surface, looking intently into the water, and then suddenly ducks her head in, emerging with a green urchin in her beak, which she takes to shore, breaks open and eats. The other seagulls sometimes crowd around her watching jealously and eating her scraps, but she reveals nothing and has little tolerance for company. Watching Uni is one of the delights of our days, as are the hummys, the ravens, the harlequins and fox sparrows… the actual list is much longer.

Did I mention boat noise? Well there is even happy news about that. This morning, CBC Radio reported that 5 cruise ships are tied up in Vancouver Harbour, disgorging their 20,000 passengers for a day’s shopping and sight seeing, before heading off to warmer climes. Yesterday, all 5 of them passed through Johnstone Strait, one after another, blasting it with underwater noise from end to end. But yes, it’s the end of the cruise ship season, and the boat noise that comes with it!

So Fall has arrived, and with it, almost on cue, the first schools of finning chum salmon are flooding into Johnstone Strait. Chums are the orcas’ second favourite food, and we’ve become accustomed to the orcas hanging out at the entrance of Blackney Pass, hour after hour, picking off the chums as they swim through. The Gs are especially fond of this season and this part of their diet, but we’ve been missing them the last few years. If the first signs we’re seeing are followed by more, perhaps the Gs will be back, others too, and our Fall will be as full of orcas as this endless summer has been.

Posted by Paul
September 25 2011