Summary: December 16th 2022 to January 31st 2023

Orcas: A23s,A25s, A42s, A94, D01s, T002Cs, T101s, T60s

Humpbacks: Stingray, Maite plus others

Gray Whales, Pacific White-Sided Dolphins, Sea Otters, Sea Lions

You might look at the dates above and think, “My, a lot of time has gone by since the last summary!” and you would be of course quite right. It does not mean that it has not been busy, quite the opposite. Cam and Mat are having an exciting time at the Lab and as you will see they have been kept very busy monitoring the hydrophones and keeping track of all sorts of marine mammal visits.

We begin where we left off with the arrival of the A5s (A23s and A25s) on December 16 2022. Bigg’s orcas had been vocal in the wee hours before whereas the A5 calls happened in the late evening from 10pm on. Dolphins had shown up in the afternoon – amazing how many times dolphins and Bigg’s show up around the same time. 

Afterwards, nothing happened for five days save a lone Humpback Whale travelling west sighted off Telegraph Cove by Jim Borrowman on December 19. On December 21 Alex looked out and saw a group of large whales travelling close together. She counted approximately 5. Turned out to be Gray Whales. Gray Whales are not common in this area but several years ago our caretakers David and Brittney saw 8 travelling in the same manner through Blackney Pass heading west around the same time of year. Jared believes these Gray Whales are headed to their winter sojourn in Baja, Mexico. These December 21 whales were spotted again later in the afternoon by Craig and Favi when they rounded Donegal Head and headed toward Lizard Point in Queen Charlotte Strait.

Bigg’s orcas made another appearance in Blackney Pass on December 23. Jared Towers cautiously identified them as the T002Cs.

Another 5 days went by. December 28 and again there were A5 calls in Johnstone and this time the group went in for a rub at Strider Beach starting at 4:40pm and ending nine minutes later. Our sense was that it was the A23s and A25s coming from the east. Logical because around December 26 they had been seen off Savory Island in Georgia Strait. This time they most likely did not travel far as they were heard the next day (December 29) off Cracroft Point when travelling west.

Meanwhile, the area was still peppered with unusual winter sightings of Humpback Whales. Jim Borrowman noticed three that went past Telegraph Cove on December 25, a mum and baby and another larger one. On December 30, a Humpback was reported by Yvonne up in the inlets near Cramer Pass.

But the A5s were not done either. Three days after the last encounter on December 31   they were back and travelling close to Vancouver Island. We listened to them from 10:52pm until 3:48am. Eventually they disappeared to the west.

The New Year actually began with Bigg’s orcas making an appearance on January 3. Although active during the day we only heard them in Blackfish Sound at 9:29am and then in Johnstone Strait at 11:30am. They had given Blackney a wide berth travelling to the Strait via Weynton Pass.

Yet another humpback was seen off Telegraph Cove heading west on January 7. Another (or perhaps the same?) was seen off Port McNeill the next day.

On January 8 it was Alex Morton who first spotted the A23s and A25s of Donegal Head. We soon heard their calls but like the Bigg’s days before they took Weynton Pass and arrived in Johnstone Strait  by 1pm. They did a decently long rub between 3:06pm and 3:53pm at Strider Beach. Their movement was eastward.

Between January 11 and January 15 events toggled between Bigg’s and Northern Residents.  Bigg’s orcas returned January 11 and travelled through Blackney Pass. The ever vigilant Cam and Mat took enough photos so that they could be identified by Ely Durand as the T060s. The T060os are one of the most frequent of the Bigg’s groups to inhabit this area. The next day (January 12) the A5s were back and once again interested in rubbing at  Strider Beach between 3:19pm and 4:33pm. On January 13th Bigg’s were back but this time were only heard. We received a report of two groups (8 or 9 individuals in total) were sighted off Campbell River. Patrick Donnelly relayed this report. Interestingly, because winter sightings are rare, a known Humpback Whale, Kappa and her young baby, also passed Alert Bay and then Sointula. On January 14, you guessed it, Northern Residents were once again in Johnstone Strait. This time it was members of D01 pod. Having the Ds present in winter has happened before. In fact they appeared in January last year. Their visits to the Johnstone Strait area are infrequent at best. Summer visits are now rare where once before they were considered regulars. Their mission on January 14 was to connect with the A23s and A25s. After their Strider rubs at 8:03pm and  9:14pm they continued east. 

January 14 was also notable because of the occurrence of a Humpback Whale found to be entangled in gear off Wells Pass in Queen Charlotte Strait. Sadly this is an all too often occurrence. Freeing a whale requires expert interference. Jackie Hildering of MERS (Marine Education and Research Society) was on scene and helped to attach a satellite tag to ensure the whale would be relocated the next day when the DFO rescue team could take over.

On January 15 the whale was successfully freed. As this effort was underway, the Ds travelled back west with the A23s and A25s in Johnstone Strait. They were seen by Alex around 8am in Queen Charlotte Strait and by the Humpback rescue people around 1pm further to the west closer to Numas Island.

On January 15, on the very evening the whale was freed, Cam and Mat heard a very vocal Humpback in Johnstone Strait. This was another unusual event and very late in the “season” for singing. We all noted how different this whale sounded from the other vocal humpbacks from last season. What an amazing day!

With the A23s and A25s gone it was time for the A42s on January 18 to step in and take their place. They too, still travelling with the young A4 male Mystery (A94), headed east in the morning. They were seen off Campbell River on January 20. 

The T101s, late in the afternoon of January 21, appeared in Blackney Pass. Once again Ely helped confirm the identifications. 

We heard A5s again in the afternoon of January 23. Our impression this time was that these were at least the A25s making another run through the Strait. They too had a rub between 2:22pm and 2:35pm at Kaizumi rubbing beach. Not sure how far they went but they were back heading west the next evening. 

Cam and Mat noticed a lone Humpback moving back and forth in Blackney Pass on January 24. They took lots of pictures of the dorsal fin. The whale did not fluke so they had a lovely time going through the MERS Humpback ID catalogue. On the very last page they found Stingray and made a perfect match. Stingray is well known to us. She is classified as a BCZ meaning that the underside of her tail is basically entirely white. Stingray was re-sited on January 30, off Alert Bay and between Sointula and Port McNeill. She was travelling with a younger whale, Maite.

All this time the A42s were making their winter tour of the Sunshine Coast. On January 26 John Ford heard their calls in the evening off of Nanaimo and heard reports that they had been over on the “other side” (of Georgia Strait) for several days before.

Whew! It was time for Cam and Mat to take a break and restock their diminishing supplies. Encouraged by the continuing nice weather they made a town run. Paul and Helena were glad to see them looking well and very excited about their time at the Lab.. After baths, laundry, lunch, picking up their mail and shopping they headed home. None too soon as bad weather settled in.

Over the next few days they noted the regular sightings of sea otters. Once hunted to near extinction along the coast sea otters were reintroduced and now their numbers have increased and sightings frequent. Must say, they are pretty cute!

On January 28 Darryl Luscombe reported seeing  a group of orcas in Cormorant Channel. These were most likely Bigg’s orcas. They went west and were later seen between Cormorant Island and Haddington Island at 10:15am. They carried on past Port Mcneill in the direction of Port Hardy.

On January 29 another Humpback Whale became vocal after dark This was notable because of the heavy boat noise that did not seem to interfere with the humpback’s vocal efforts. We often have the impression that humpbacks are loath to continue vocalising when in the presence of an approaching boat. Perhaps it was because the source of the noise was a very slow moving tug – most likely a tug with a heavy log tow. These boats are notoriously slow and loud. We could see on the AIS that the Pacific Fury was barely moving, doing just .9km/hr. It took nine hours for it to finally move out of range. Meanwhile the humpback vocalised from 6:27pm until 8:20pm, took a break, and resumed at 10:46 until 11:08pm. Perhaps the break signified the period when the tug had pulled closer to the whale.

All through their stay at OrcaLab Cam and Mat have been keeping track of the sea lion haulout close by. The number fluctuate but they have noted the number of nursing mums and babies. The se otters seem to like hanging out in the waters off the favoured sea lion rocks. Lots there to feed on.

This concludes the second winter summary. A long one with so much going on, unusual Humpback, Gray Whale, sea otter encounters all in the background of Northern Residents and Bigg’s orcas.

What is truly amazing is the number of people who enthusiastically contribute observations and relay reports. Thanks to this network, understanding what is happening along this area of the coast is made possible. Thank you!

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