Summary: November 12th-December 7th 2023

Northern Residents: A34s, A79s, A23s, A25s [A94 seen Georgia Strait]

Bigg’s orcas: T002C1, T049A2, T120, T124, T117s, T167s, T060s

Humpbacks: Ripple, SpongeBob, Moonstar, Bumpy, Clover, Drogon?, Kailash?

Photos: Camille Nemond

It has been almost a month since our last summary and so much has happened in the meantime. This time of year is usually when everything begins to wind and settle down as the winter months approach. Nearly each day seemed to bring new, sometimes amazing events.

For this review we need to start with one expected transition. Janie and Erin’s time on the island was drawing to a close mid November. Right up until their departure they were kept busy with noting the humpback sounds through each day and night. The number of humpbacks increased daily in Blackney Pass as the whales converged in its narrow waters to feed and socialise before starting on their long migrations to the warmer waters of Mexico and Hawaii (their choice) during which they would not eat again until returning to these waters in the Spring. Their calls, a mix of feeding and social calls often evolved into song, always surprising us with their vocal range and complexity.

Janie and Erin had witnessed the return of the Northern Resident families, the A34s and the A5s for the start of their late season visit. And before they handed the reins over to our winter caretakers, Camille and Mathieu, they also had more encounters with Bigg’s orcas between November 19 and 20. These orcas were vocal throughout those two days, even when humpbacks continued to vocalise, in this instance in the same locale.

The following day, November 21, Northern Residents were present again. This day started with a sighting of an unidentified male orca (unclear if Bigg’s or Resident) near White Beach Pass in Blackney Pass. Very soon after, at 11:54am, the A34s began to call in Johnstone Strait as they headed eastward. Vocal until 2:20pm, there was a short intermission until they approached Robson Bight and came into range of the Critical Point hydrophone. The orcas seemed to be spread out and progress was slow. Just before 9pm they were still heard on Critical Point. A humpback whale chimed in just after 9pm and an hour later Bigg’s orcas were heard in Blackfish Sound. This mix of different cetaceans occurring together, sometimes in the same space, would be repeated on several other occasions over the next month.

At 11am on November 22, a small group of Bigg’s orcas was once again in Blackney Pass. The male T120 was identified. Cam and Mat followed their progress to Johnstone Strait. Later that night at 10:43pm they heard both A34 and A5 calls in Johnstone Strait. The calls continued into the next early morning as these whales travelled west. By 2am, they were approaching the entrance to Blackney Pass. By 4am, they were further west in the Strait but they had not yet left. Bigg’s orcas were heard in Blackfish Sound.just before 5:30am. Resident orcas, perhaps a second group, were heard off the entrance to Blackney Pass just before 6am as the Bigg’s orcas continued calling in Blackfish Sound. By mid morning it was possible to use the remote “CP” cam and orcas were located at 10:43am. They looked like they were approaching the entrance of Blackney Pass. A congestion of Bigg’s and Residents played out here. As the Residents continued to move west toward Weynton Pass, Bigg’s orcas moved into Blackney Pass, first seen as blows opposite the Bell Rocks, and then passing thoughtfully close to the Sea Lion rocks along Hanson Island. The Sea Lions who were hauled out took notice but there were no consequences. The Bigg’s were later identified as T167s, T117s, T124C and T043A2, by Jared Towers who picked up their trail after they had exited Blackney Pass. Jared was particularly excited about this encounter and posted the following on Facebook:

After T049A2 and T051 were stuck in Barnes lake for 6 weeks I promised a lot of people I’d let them know if they show up again. Looks as though they’ve split up since we got them out of there but T049A2 was swimming with T124C in Blackfish Sound today. Also found the T117s and T167s nearby…

Jared originally posted on October 5 his description of the rescue of T049A2 and T051.

Once in a while whales get into situations they can’t get out of and it can eventually kill them. In 2021 some colleagues and I published a paper about these “natural entrapments” in killer whales and then in mid August this year T049A2 and T051 swam into Barnes Lake, Alaska, and became entrapped. While inside they had no company and very limited access to food but working last week with colleagues at NOAA, the Orca Conservancy, more than half the population of Coffman Cove and with support from Cetacean Research Program at DFO we managed to coax them out. Each of the methods available to move wild orcas has associated risks including decline in efficacy with increased exposure. Such is undoubtedly the case with playback experiments, but hearing a series of brief vocalizations from a few females these two guys like to spend time with motivated them into and through the narrow and shallow south exit channel at high slack. This approach, although mentally invasive and potentially socially disruptive, gave these whales their freedom and their lives back. It was authorized under NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program permit #24359.”

Back to November 23. As the Bigg’s orca distraction was happening, the A34s went through Weynton Passage from Johnstone Strait where their calls were heard at 2:55pm. A few minutes later T049A and T124C swam back through Blackney Pass from Blackfish Sound. The A34s stayed in Blackfish Sound until 10pm when they returned to Johnstone Strait via Weynton Pass once again. They headed east and by 11:38pm they were off Cracroft Point. After midnight on November 24, A5 calls were noted along with those of the A34s. The evening had also been marked by humpback calls in Blackfish Sound. Bigg’s orcas were not to be outdone and as the A34s and A5s excitedly congregated, Bigg’s orcas “opened” up vocally in Blackfish Sound very close to the Flower Island hydrophone. All this activity was enough to make one’s head spin but Cam and Mat managed very well to keep track of all the comings and goings.

The A34s and A5s were still vocal in Johnstone Strait at 6am (they had moved east to the Cracroft Point area) and continued to be so until 10:22am when their calls were close to Critical Point in Robson Bight. Jared went out once again and this time he found the A79s without the rest of their A42 family travelling with the A34s who were without the A62s part of their family. Most importantly, Jared noticed that Current, A79, is now a mother for the second time! It was unusual for Current to be without the rest of her family but less so for the A62s to be travelling independently of the rest of the A34s as they have hinted at independence recently. So where was everyone?

By 6pm the A34/A79 group was well past the Ecological Reserve and still moving eastward. The next morning, November 25 at 8:22am, the orcas moved back “up” the Strait. By 11:17am they were past Izumi Rock (west of the Reserve) moving along Vancouver Island. Cam and Mat found them on the remote CP camera at 1:19pm as they approached the Cracroft Point area and moved toward the entrance of Blackney Pass. They were spread out and very active, tail slapping etc. They passed the entrance to Blackney Pass and kept going west but did not leave the Strait. By 10:30pm they had turned around. Before midnight their calls were back on the Cracroft Point system as they edged eastward.

A humpback became vocal as well in Johnstone Strait before 1am on November 26.

Throughout the 26th the Resident orcas maintained their presence in the Strait. Sometimes they became excited but did not seem to progress far in either direction off the Cracroft Point area and never really made it back to the Ecological Reserve. Successful foraging may have been reason enough for the excited exchanges and the limited range of movement. This remained the situation until before 8pm when the whales finally decided to shift east.

Again a humpback, this time in Blackfish Sound, made social calls around this time.

November 27 was pretty much the same as the day before with the orcas remaining in the Strait throughout the day and into the night and early morning of the 28th. Then the mood changed. As the A34s and A5s moved east past Kaizumi Rubbing beach they (at least some) went in for a rub which lasted 9 minutes (from 9:35am until 9:44am). From the beach they headed to the Ecological Reserve. They were near Critical Point by 11:18am from where they kept going. By 12:19pm only distant calls were heard as they slipped eastward past the range of the hydrophones.

November 29 had begun with the T060s travelling south at 8:44am through Blackney Pass. As they moved toward the entrance to Baronet Passage on the north side of Cracroft island, we received a report that the A23s and A25s were southbound off of Lund in Georgia Strait. Pieces of the puzzle were starting to come together. We had wondered about the rest of the A5 pod, suspecting we had heard all of its three matrilines, but so far only A79 and her young ones had been visually accounted for. At some point the A23s/A25s must have passed through. We don’t know by which route. We suspected that the rest of A79’s group, the A42s, had probably done so as well but that is still to be determined.

Starting at 10:09am Resident orcas were heard on Flower Island throughout most of the day. We think this is when the A34s probably departed. We were still noting A5 calls up to 6:25pm. There were no Resident type calls on November 30 but a humpback obliged in Johnstone Strait.

On December 1, A5 calls in Blackfish Sound resumed at 9:09am. It was one of those “crowded” days again with Resident calls in the morning, humpbacks producing very good “song” in Blackfish Sound and Bigg’s orcas vocal just before midnight in Johnstone Strait.

December 2 was no less busy. Humpbacks at 12:40am, Bigg’s orcas at 2:53am, possible echo location at 5:07am and later more humpbacks vocal in Johnstone Strait and then the most beautiful vocal session of westbound Bigg’s in Johnstone Strait from 4:07pm until 5:22pm on our hydrophones! Further west, the hydrophone at Telegraph Cove picked up their calls soon after. They were still intense, excited and constant. Jared, who did not go out this time as it was too late in the day, remarked that he thought it must be quite a large group. Bigg’s orcas are not often as vocal so this was a recording to treasure.

The number of Sea Lions hauled out had increased steadily over this time period.. Each day the count was in the 70s and by the 5th the count was over 100!

Bigg’s were sighted in Blackney Pass on the 3rd (a small group consisting of a male and smaller fin) and 5th (T002C1). And on the 5th, Cam and Mat watched in amazement as the humpback Ripple plus another foraged in Blackney Pass while making incredible sounds. Later they passed close by the Lab in the dark. Cam and Mat saw this passing.

In silence at 12:10pm on December 7, the A23s and A25s passed in front of the Lab. They carried on to Blackfish Sound and later, Jared watched as they entered Fife Sound. On December 6, the A23s and A25s had been seen off Grief Point near Powell River. They were reported to be accompanied by A94. This was another surprise as Mystery (A94) has been travelling with the A42s in recent years. A94 was not with them by the time they passed the Lab just a day later.

At some point we hope there will be more information about the A42s. It has been strange to hear reports of only parts of this group who normally have travelled together. Their habit is to stay a good length of time in Georgia Strait over the winter so we will just have to wait and see.

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