Summary: January 17th – February 13th 2024

Northern Residents: I33s, I35s, [A23s, A42s in Salish Sea], possible A23s

Bigg’s orcas: T109As + Unidentified

Humpbacks: seen and heard

January recap:

January had a little bit of everything. The weather was wet, dry, cold, icy, windy, calm, and warm.

Scattered through the days were encounters with humpbacks, orcas (both of the Resident and Bigg’s kind), sea lions, seals and myriad birds. Humpbacks and orcas enriched the calendar when either seen or heard.

Winter caretakers, Cam and Mat navigated their way through the various weather events while managing to record the comings and goings of the various critters. On some days the sea lions hauled out on the local nearby rocks numbered anywhere from a few to over a hundred, averaging around 70. The mother sea lions were kept busy nursing their young, slipping into the water to cool off and find a bite to eat for themselves, and then secure a comfortable spot back on the rocks.

The sea lions’ presence was certainly a draw for the marine mammal hunting Bigg’s orcas. On five occasions through January these stealth hunters made their presence known. If travelling in silence they probably went undetected on some occasions.. There is quite a good local network of individuals, including those connected to Orcalab, who endeavour to co-ordinate sightings of the elusive Bigg’s. These reports contribute to the understanding of their presence and movements and so, when he is notified, colleague Jared Towers (Bay Cetology) often undertakes the task of further investigating when weather permits. The weather in January is not always conducive to boat trips, and the Bigg’s orcas can easily disappear in both favourable and unfavourable conditions because of their less predictable behaviours. Over the years however, impressive information about Bigg’s orcas has been accumulated from sightings and occurrences along the entire coast. Listed as Threatened under Canada’s Species At Risk Act (SARA) in 2003 their population is actually on the increase, most likely due to healthy prey abundance. Sightings help illuminate the preference many groups have for chosen areas. In the Blackfish Sound/Johnstone Strait area, for instance, it is often the case that the same groups show up year after year.

This January, Resident orcas were present as well. On 19 and 20 January the G clan families of the I33s and I35s made an area tour. Meanwhile, we continued to receive various reports about Holly and Fife’s groups who had slipped into Georgia Strait (the Salish Sea) earlier. On 6 January both groups were seen off of Powell River, but later the sightings further south on 23 and 24 January did not include Fife’s family. There has been circulating a lot of speculation regarding the young male, Mystery (A94) who for the past two years had joined Holly’s family in their travels. Mystery is from another pod so there has been keen interest in his choice to wander away from his own immediate A4 family. While Holy’s family was busy with Current’s new baby and continuing to explore favourite Salish Sea haunts like Fiddler Bay, where locals have documented their return to rub over the last four years near or on the same date each year, Mystery was not seen.

Extreme weather in mid January knocked out power in nearby Alert Bay. The long outage played havoc with OrcaLab’s remote radio wireless system. Bad weather, bad luck, and bad timing made it impossible for technical help to fix the problem. We hope to resolve the issue(s) in February. Meanwhile Cam and Mat remain vigilant listening to the surviving hydrophone signals they are still able to receive.

February recap:

On February 6 they heard faint humpback calls in Blackfish Sound and on February 8 five unidentified orcas were in Blackney Pass. Then on February 9 came a nice surprise of A5 calls followed by a group passing through Blackney headed south who we guessed were the A23s. Are they headed back to the Salish Sea to find the A42s? There were no follow-up reports as of yet. On February 13 another large group was spotted near Vancouver Island but they disappeared before they could be identified.

The days are getting longer and we are now into winter’s last stretch. Holly will soon realise this and once again bring her family (and maybe the A23s too) back sometime in the next month or so. We hope she will let us know!

Photos by Camille Nemond and Mathieu Quintard

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