Summary: October 16th-25th 2023

Northern Residents: A34s

Humpbacks galore and glorious!

It has been a very busy time at OrcaLab on many fronts.

The humpbacks just don’t disappoint. Every night, usually every day they make their presence known. Large exhalations, bangs and slaps, bubbles and water movements and above all calls. The night is when they usually really let go and fill their ocean spaces with their voices. Throughout the night we record and during the morning we review the recordings delighting when social calls morph into song, pleaded when we hear the distinctive sounds of bubble net feeding.

Of course they are not the only ones out there. On October 20th Bigg’s orcas crossed the entrance of Blackney Pass at 9:43am. They carried on west and through Weynton Pass. By 12:34 they were in Blackfish Sound and for the next half hour we listened and watched the group on the remote Flower Island camera. This event proved to be just a brief interruption in what has become daily humpback routines.

Skipping to October 23. We had just said our good-byes to Suzie and Quin who had come to help with some of the final winter preparations. Suzie did a dive to retrieve the special hydrophone arrays in front of the Lab. Thanks to Megan’s careful planning the work went off without a hitch. Previously, while Jeff Chamberland tidied and secured the Strider Beach installation Megan, Suzie and Rachel took care of the surface cameras at each rubbing beach location. It really began to feel like the summer season was over. Quin meanwhile busied himself with the network systems with plans to radically change how we will connect and deliver our video and audio signals to the Internet in the near future.

Of course, not everything went to plan although the weather cooperated. Quin found it necessary to head back to Alert Bay to fix a problem and we decided to save the lasagna until he got back!

Quin managed to get the systems in good enough order but he realised that a return trip was going to be necessary. He and Suzie left. The wind had dropped and the sun was out. They had a stop to make on their way into town at Double Bay to say hi to Nicolette and return the borrowed Double Bay boat. While there they heard A1 calls on the Double Bay hydrophone, then saw fins heading east. They reported immediately back to the Lab and soon after we heard the calls too. Unmistakably the A34s!

Despite their past prominent role in the Johnstone Strait orca social scene the A34s for the last several years have dialled back their involvement in this area to the point that they now usually return well after the regular season has wound down and the other orca groups have long gone. This has caused no end of discussion. Speculation as to the cause for this seemingly deliberate delay of presence includes the idea that A34 and her family have elected to give the busy part of the season a miss.

Early one Fall when the season had almost ended the A34s arrived in Blackfish Sound only to encounter three whale watching charter boats who immediately gave them all their attention. As we watched on the remote camera we saw the family reverse their course of travel and leave the area. They returned later only after whale watching and cruise ship activity had stopped.

Is this coincidence or compelling evidence of a change in behaviour?

Their actions may be having an affect on the other families. This year the orca season did not begin until mid August – a full month later than what has come to be expected. And it lasted only one short month. For a number of years now the resident orca season has become shorter and with fewer families participating. Historically this has been an important area to the Northern Residents and earned the designation of Critical Habitat in recognition of their predictable use of the area for foraging and socialising. The A1 pod, of which the A34s are a part of, had always maintained the most constant steady presence. But another member group of the A1s, the A50s, did not show up at all in 2023. The other part of their family, the A54s, showed up very late on September 1.

This had never happened before and it is worrisome. Change happens slowly in this orca community. Afterall they have honed their habits and preferences over thousands of years and strong traditions and site fidelity are passed from generation to generation through the orca mother who usually has a long life expectancy and a further role to play as a grandmother.

There have been changes to the A1s. The A36s, previously the A1’s third matriline is no longer as all its members have died. The older females of the other two former matrilines have also died. Has this been enough to so radically change such embedded habits?

Back to October 23. The A34s made their way into Blackney Pass by 1:42pm after making their way very slowly through the once again choppy waters of Blackfish Sound. The humpbacks in the Sound were very vocal and called out in tandem with the orcas.

The first to venture into Blackney Pass was Echo, A55, Simoom’s oldest. Simoom (A34) followed soon after. Her second oldest daughter, Eclipse (A67) with her own, A102, A112, A125. Simoom’s youngest son, A80 was not far away. Rainy, Simoom’s youngest daughter, was there with her new baby. They made their way through Blackney and on into Johnstone Strait. Before arriving into the Strait they made some very clear uninterrupted calls starting at 2:17pm. While on their way we heard additional calls in Blackfish Sound and knew that the A62s would soon appear. Sure enough they arrived closer to the Hanson Island shore. Researcher Jared Towers followed at a respectful distance. As the A62s cleared into Johnstone Strait Jared reported that they headed away on their own to the west.

We were hampered following the whales into Johnstone Strait as we were experiencing a Network issue. Cameras and hydrophones were unavailable. Jared filled us in. As said, the A62s went west and the others did not go for a rub and would eventually follow the A62s to the west.

Briefly around 5:48pm we heard calls once again but were not able to locate them. We were not entirely sure that a group had not made it to Blackfish Sound. Around 7:49pm Jim Borrowman reported that there were calls on the Telegraph Cove system.

After reviewing the nighttime recordings the next day we noticed lengthy echo location in Blackfish around 8pm. No calls however.

The rest of the night and the beginning of the next day belonged to the socialising/feeding humpbacks.

On the 24th, Telegraph Cove reported hearing very faint A1 like calls then at 1:26pm Nicolette heard calls on the Double Bay hydrophone and saw one male fin mid Blackfish Sound. Had they been circulating through the night back and forth to and from the Strait or had the group maintained the earlier split with groups in either location?

The afternoon was dedicated to looking for and eventually finding very small fins on the Flower Island camera that were framed by the Malcolm Island shore to the north of Stubbs Island and west of Donegal Head. They were going back and forth. Alex thought at one point (around 5pm) they were making a try for Weynton but then their direction changed for one last time and she saw them headed toward Lizard Point just before 5:30pm. Amazingly we could hear their distant calls during all this time.

As the sun was beginning to set our attention was diverted to the humpbacks off of Flower Island. They and the birds were busy feeding. Two humbacks joined closely together for several surfacings. Then everything seemed to go off to the west and the sun set, bringing a close to a long and busy day.

The night brought more vocal humpbacks but no orcas. Had then stayed off to the west?

About the same time as the day before A1 (A34) calls were heard in Blackfish Sound in the afternoon of the 25th. It was just a single call and impossible to source. Two hours later there were more calls. This time the calls were more frequent and definitely in Blackfish Sound. They sounded far closer than the day before and their echolocation seemed to indicate that they might be approaching. However, their arrival coincided with our scheduled shut down of the Flower Island remote camera so no peeking this time. The calls continued for almost the next two hours. No one seemed to be advancing. Interspersed with their calls were those of a close humpback or two. The increasing boat noise did not seem to deter the humpbacks but the orcas became quiet around 5pm.. The tide in ebb, wouldn’t turn until 8:30pm – not encouraging for travel into and through Blackney Pass. At 6:26pm the A34’s plans came together as they eventually made way into Weynton Pass. By 9:07pm their calls were further east in johnstone Strait as they approached the entrance to Blackney Pass. The calls were distant so perhaps they were closer to Vancouver Island. By 10pm, it felt as if one part of the A34s entered Blackney and headed north into Blackfish Sound. A second group elected to continue west and out via Weynton Pass. By now the clock had begun to turn to the 26th. The 26th would hold more encounters origination from Blackfish Sound.

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