Summary: November 4th-11th 2023

Northern Residents: A34s, A5s

Bigg’s orcas: T060s

Humpbacks: Claw, Ripple, Hunter and many others

This week the A34s continued to make wide circuits around Hanson Island and occasionally finding themselves joined by the A5s. Throughout the week the humpbacks kept the recordings going – almost non stop, challenging Erin and Janie to keep up with the notes. Days flowed from day to night and into day again without too many pauses. Who would have guessed that this time of year would become so intense. It has become increasingly so with the humpbacks acquiring so much of our attention. But we are learning lots too – the late season habits of orcas, the nuances of humpback vocalisations.

On November 4 the A34s were first heard in the distance in Johnstone Strait just before 8am. We gained a sense of their movements when their calls occurred on the “other side” at the western end of Blackfish Sound at 11am after taking Weynton Passage. Once there they stayed into late afternoon foraging. Alex observed them near Donegal Head on Malcolm Island around 5pm. They were still in the vicinity at 6:46pm but by 8pm, 12 hours after leaving Johnstone Strait, they were back after retracing their steps through Weynton Passage.

Their movements became fuzzy after this reentry and there would be no clues until 2:23am PST (we had changed from PDT to PST overnight on November 5 at 2am) when audible west of Cracroft Point. Three hours later they were westbound toward Weynton Passage and by 7:26am (PST) they were back in Blackfish Sound once again.

This merry-go-round activity took on a new twist when A5 calls were heard suddenly near the Cracroft Point area in Johnstone Strait at 11:11am. The A34s, who had been in Blackfish Sound until 9:47am (at 7:42am, Alex saw them off Bold Head heading northwest), now turned up in Johnstone Strait just after the A5s were first heard. They apparently had enough time (even with going through Weynton Passage) to join with the A5s off the entrance to Blackney Pass and Cracroft Point.

Then an interesting development. The A5 calls dropped out as the A34s made their way into Blackney Pass by around 1pm. At 1:12pm the first male orca came into view. The calls became very excited. Afterwards the A34s made their way through and into Blackfish Sound by using the Blackney Pass route. We could find no evidence of any of the A5s and this left much head scratching.

The A34s stayed in Blackfish until at least 3pm on and then at some point made their way into Weynton Pass and around and into Johnstone Strait by 6:50pm. Still no sign of the A5s. Over the next few hours (to just before midnight) their calls remained distant and only faintly heard in the Strait. There was a possible hint of A5s ever so briefly. At 3:18, on November 6 there were distant calls in Johnstone Strait. The A34s resumed calling there at 9:26am. The calls remained distant for the next two hours. At 11:22am the A5s chimed in and once again gave the impression of being in the Cracroft/Blackney Pass area with the A34s. Gradually by 1:43pm the calls became very faint as the groups shifted away. This time the A34s took the A5s with them into Blackfish Sound where orcas were heard from 2:28pm until 5:48pm. During that time the A5s had disappeared by 3pm, perhaps after heading to Queen Charlotte Strait. The A34s meanwhile positioned themselves to eventually move back into Weynton Pass and turn up in Johnstone Strait by 6:38pm.

We think the A34s, often in two groups, were still as one unit up to this point but the possibility exists that the two groups might have been functioning independently – this would naturally complicate this story.

With that in mind we pick up the narrative at 5am on November 7 when both A5 and A34 calls were heard in Blackfish Sound. Did part of the A34s stay with the A5s and were now accompanying them? Within an hour the calls had faded and disappeared as the whales entered Weynton Pass and moved on to Johnstone Strait. Three hours later both families were heard on the Parson Island hydrophone as the whales neared the entrance to Blackney Pass.

It was a drop off – the A34s, and only the A34s, came into Blackney Pass and travelled north toward Blackfish Sound. They were gone out of view of the Lab by 10:14am. They stayed in Blackfish for the rest of the morning and into the afternoon as well. Alex noted that these whales were spread out taking variable directions, most likely foraging once again. After clear calls at 5:23pm the A34s were readying to head back to the Strait and once more via Weynton Pass. They got there by 7:37pm.

But true to the past two weeks the A34s vacillated once more between Johnstone Strait and Blackfish Sound and at 6:39am on November 8 were heard again in Blackfish Sound. By 10:29am A34s were heard in Johnstone Strait. The A5s showed up too. After some serious pacing and foraging the orcas staged an entrance into Blackney Pass. By 11:41am they were in! But this time only the A67s and A34s came through, no A5s and no A62s (the other half of A34’s family). Had the A62s been the ones in Blackfish from 6:39am – 7:15am? Had they preceded the rest of their family into Queen Charlotte Strait? The family acoustic traditions run deep and it is very difficult to tell closely related intra matrilines apart.

The A5 calls simply disappeared as the A34/A67s travelled through. We never heard them again and by 2pm these A34s also disappeared. This time, sadly, they made no circle back. They carried on to the west. No Resident orcas were evident in the following days.

But on November 11 around 4:30pm Janie noticed that the Sea Lions had suddenly departed their rocks. The reason became clearer a short while later when the T060s were seen passing to the north. They made no calls.

Of course, during all this time humpbacks were very active. Finally, as in seasons past, Blackney Pass entertained as many as eight humpbacks daily. Lots of feeding and socialising. When we had the remote camera trained on the orcas while off Cracroft Point humpbacks, sometimes in groups of two or three, rolled over each other and foraged all the while, giving the impression of casual ease, with night time vocal activity often spilling over into daytime. When the orcas were off Cracroft Point on November 5 the humpbacks chimed in with incredible calls of their own. Each night brings out the rich tapestry of their calls. The descriptors include shrieking, grunting, whuping, chirping, knocking, raspberrying, buzzing. Honestly, it feels as if they enjoy hearing the different sounds they can make! Best of all is when the calls come together as song. Patterns emerge, melodies ensue, effort is sustained. Time will come for the humpbacks to move on but in the meantime it is great to have the opportunity to share their space.

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