Summary: March 2024

March is always a beautiful month on Hanson Island. Despite being a predominantly evergreen
part of the coast, the early signs of spring are still palpable as winter storms quieten, the air
temperature climbs back into double figures, and pollinators emerge in our humble lab garden.
By mid-March, beautiful purple flowers were finally blossoming on our rhododendron – an
OrcaLab resident for over 30 years! This time of year also reminds us of Mali – the wayward
grizzly bear – who set foot at our camp four years ago in the spring of 2020, leaving a
permanent imprint on our hearts.


On 18 March, Holly’s family (A42s) and their cousins (A25s) were seen resting near the town of
Sointula on Malcolm Island, close to Alert Bay. They have spent a good portion of their winter
further south, around mid-Vancouver Island and the neighbouring archipelago, and they finally
came back north through the Johnstone Strait. They rested in the bay for a while before
continuing northwest and out of our study area overnight. It is interesting to us that Holly’s family
has spent more time in these southern reaches near Campbell River and Quadra Island than
any other family of Northern Residents in recent years. The area contains several salmon-
spawning rivers but few visits from other fish-eating orca families, so perhaps they have
discovered a relatively untapped food source all to themselves!


There was great excitement on 21 March, as Quin and Suzie heard several ‘pings’ on our
Flower Island hydrophone. These are characteristic G-clan calls and were the first Northern
Resident calls that we had heard in March so far. Local researcher Jared Towers was able to
locate the I12s and I13s along the north shore of Malcom Island shortly after. Alas, the short
bout of pings was all that the lab received, as the whales turned around in the late afternoon.
The two families were seen rubbing at Bere Point just before the daylight faded, before
continuing to the west once more. There were also several visits from families of Bigg’s orcas
over the month. They are typically much quieter and stealthier than the Resident orca families,
and we only had one or two good looks from the Lab as they crossed Blackney Pass.
On March 14th, we received word that 64 individual orcas were seen in the Comox area in one
day – a mixture of Southern Residents and Bigg’s orcas. This incredible gathering was attributed
to the herring spawn: an annual event in March whereby tens of thousands of herring come to
lay their eggs along certain shallow beaches. This phenomenon attracts myriad species to the
area. All manner of fish, birds and marine mammals gather to feast on the herring which, in turn,
attracts the orcas. The water turns a characteristic milky blue and the scene is alive with
frenzied feeding!

An unfortunately sad event occurred this month when a Bigg’s orca – T109A3 – was stranded in
a shallow lagoon on the west coast of Vancouver Island. She died shortly after, despite the
community’s efforts to save her. Strandings such as these are rare, but it is likely that she came
into the shallows to hunt for smaller marine mammals and was caught out by the falling tide.
She left behind her two-year-old baby, and all efforts are now focused on coaxing this little one
out of the lagoon and back to her closest family members. There are several well-documented cases of orphaned orcas being adopted by close or distant relations, such as A73 Springer, so
we remain hopeful that this young orca will have a second chance.

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