Summary: October 26th-November 3rd 2023

Northern Residents: A34s, A5s

Bigg’s orcas: vocal, T049C

Humpbacks: singing!

During these nine days the A34s stayed and were a near daily presence in the area. They have completely made themselves at home once again by touring the area, foraging heavily and vocalising energetically day and night. It has been reassuring to see and hear them managing so well after their prolonged absence. Looking through theLab books, realising that last fall and winter (into the New Year) they had likewise established themselves. This Fall seemed more like old times when they were most often the predominant Northern Resident group at this time of year. It has taken a few years to get back to this and it is very welcomed.

Here is a quick run down of their recent activities (with one pleasant surprise) as well as a sketch of the doings of the constantly intriguing Humpback Whales.

October 25 – 26: The night recordings revealed that the A34s were in Johnstone Strait around 10:30pm. A first group came through Blackney Pass and headed into Blackfish Sound. The second part of the family followed to the entrance of Blackney Pass but seemingly elected to stay in the Strait and head west from there with their calls becoming very distant in the early hours of the morning. Presumably, they went through Weynton Passage and followed the others out into Queen Charlotte Strait. Then just before 9am a few calls were heard from that direction but it was not until the early afternoon that they actually became more committed to Blackfish Sound. At 2:26pm they were in view of the Lab. This time they were arranged in three groups. A34 and her daughter A67’s family were first but soon merged with A34’s other daughter A62’s family. A small group, including perhaps A96 and her new baby, followed. They all headed to Johnstone Strait where upon arriving crossed out and westward. This seemed to be the pattern of travel they willingly adopted. By 5:40pm Jim and Mary Borrowman saw them spread out off the entrance to Weynton Pass more or less opposite Telegraph Cove. As the impression was being formed that they would choose to go through the Pass they turned and headed back “down” (east) the Strait once more. Around 8pm they were once again approaching the area adjacent to the entrance of Blackney Pass.

All the while, humpbacks kept up their steady presence too by vocalising almost constantly through the night and into the day, always with such a variety of effort and expression.

October 27: The A34s once again showed up during the night recordings but only very faintly and distantly on the Flower Island hydrophone about a half hour after midnight. They had had plenty of time to get there as the last calls were around 8pm (the previous evening) in the Strait. As to how they got there they did not inform us. Their toggling back and forth between the different passages continued and by 5:20am they were heard back in Johnstone Strait. Whatever plans they had did not include going very far to the east in the Strait. Just before 8am they were again west of the entrance to Blackney and once again Jim was soon able to offer some additional info. At 9:33am he heard calls on the Telegraph Cove system and then saw a male near the Wastell Islets just east of Telegraph Cove where Jim is located. The A34ds then proceeded to head toward the Plumper Islands and Blackfish Sound beyond where we picked up their calls at 10:04am. They skirted the top end of Blackfish, foraging as they went and moved into Queen Charlotte Strait. Quite the merry-go-round.

We are still hearing bubble net feeding by the humpbacks so in addition to their incredible sounds this is pretty interesting especially when herring make sounds too cluing us into some of the features of this type of feeding. One very good episode happened just before 8am.

October 28: The A34s stayed out of range to the west for the entire day. The humpbacks had all of our attention therefore. They did not disappoint when some of their cries (shrieks really), grunts and moans morphed into actual songs. Their vocal bouts are tending in that direction of late. Very dramatic “bangs” and slaps spoke to their energy and sheer physical behaviours during the night. One beautiful session at 8:30pm) elicited many remarks from recent volunteers who make a habit of tuning into the Orcalab audio link. “These calls are so beautiful” (Barbara), “So clear” (Emily) and simply “Listening” (Tomoko).

October 29: The whereabouts of the A34s became clearer at 2:07pm when Kate Braur reported that a group of orcas had just passed Bere Point to the east. One female apparently came in for a brief rub before proceeding on her way. It was not long after (2:49pm) that their calls registered on the Flower Island hydrophone. The current was in flood with the daytime hightide reaching the 17.1 ft level – the highest of this cycle. Despite this the A34s did not come into Alex’s view for some time and it was only after 6pm when she reported seeing them. Calls had long before ceased. With enough light still in the evening sky Alex observed that they were coming “down” the east side of Blackfish Sound. Calls were now clear but only briefly. Then quiet, leaving the night to the humpbacks once more and no further anticipation that the A34s would use Blackney.

October 30: At 1:05am the A34s were back in Johnstone Strait but their distant calls disappeared before 2am and were not again obvious until 3:18am when the calls were stronger. The humpbacks were incredibly busy producing bout after bout of calls. Getting on toward 6am the A34 calls pierced through the humpback vocals before disappearing once more. By 8am the ever moving orcas had shifted back to Blackfish Sound, most likely choosing Weynton Pass to get there. Alex watched as they crossed the top end of Blackfish Sound where they stalled. Their calls over the next several hours were frequent and clear. A male Bigg’s orca garnered some attention by travelling near to the Pearse Island group during this time. Apparently a lone male had shown up near Fort Rupert where a funeral service was being held for Beatrice Wadhams. Jared wondered if this was one and the same.

The A34s were generally spread out foraging so the recording rolled on and on. They made some beautiful calls, unfortunately spoiled by a persistent boat trying to get pictures. This is just what we had hoped would not happen in regard to this family. The annoying, constantly manoeuvring boat stayed on them for about forty minutes. Thankfully, the A34s were intensely foraging and maintained their focus. A few made appearances on the far shores near West Pass but it was not until after 1pm that any serious attempts were made to go through.

It was a really busy and ambitious day at the Lab. Paul went to get Quin and Simon to work on modifying some of the trees near the Lab to enable a better WiFi connection. Difficult work but they got right to it on arrival as did Don, Herb and Cecil from Alert Bay, here to work on securing a much needed tarp for the ailing Bath-house roof, a challenging job.

It was an incredibly beautiful day. The orcas finally filed through. They were still very scattered. A55 was the last to come through at 4:22pm.

Soon after, Paul ferried Quin and Simon back to Alder Bay and the others hurried to complete the difficult tarp job. By late afternoon they had finished, loaded their boat and departed. Paul was not back yet but on his way he had noticed the A34s up near Weynton Passage. They had done their usual circuit yet once again. And sure enough just after 6pm they were back in Blackfish Sound. Calls ended there around 8:30pm. Presumably the A34s carried on to the west.

The humpbacks now signalled a change too. Throughout the night their calls were quite distant, almost eerie – a coincidental but fitting precursor to Halloween!

October 31: At 5:47am the faintest of faint A34 calls on Flower Island were detected in the night recordings. They must have been quite some distance still to the west. Finally in the early afternoon, just after 1pm, they called again, this time louder. Jared, who had been watching T049C interacting with humpbacks near the “top” end of Blackfish, located the A34s one mile west of Swanson Island’s Bold Head. It was 1:24pm and by 2:17pm the advancing orcas turned around.

Just as well as Paul and Helena had to leave for town in order for Janie to come back and take over. There was some urgency to go as the wind was freshening and the day was getting on. When Janie arrived the A34s were still in Blackfish Sound but by 7:14pm they were back again in the Strait heading east having retraced their travels through Weynton Pass. Just before 10pm they were near the entrance to Blackney Pass.

The humpbacks were busy breaking into song and kept it going through the night. The wind was now blowing with that promise of an advancing gale.

November 1: The A34s probably stayed in the Strait overnight. Just before 3pm they were not far from the entrance to Blackney Pass. By 4pm after a long pause they resumed calling in approximately the same location. After yet another pause they picked it up again just before 6pm, this time closer. Within a very short time they were back in Blackfish Sound after passing through Blackney Pass very quickly. Before 7pm they and their calls were distant.

November 2: 4:30am and the A34s were back in Johnstone Strait. They were still there before 8am but not for long. By 12:12pm they had found their way once again to Blackfish Sound. A short while later they sounded very excited. With good cause, the A5s had arrived! (this was our hint at surprise). It is not unusual for the A5s to come back at this time of year. Good for the A34s to have company too. The ever watchful Alex reported at 1:39pm that some of the whales were east of Flower Island. This seemed promising but the A5s had other plans. Just after 3pm they were heard in the Strait after taking Weynton and not Blackney as hoped. The A34s remained in Blackfish Sound for a while longer then followed their A clan companions to the Strait by 5pm using the same route. Just as the orcas were passing the entrance of Blackney Pass and Cracroft Point area humpbacks in Blackfish Sound and in Johnstone Strait created very beautiful, perhaps the best ever, songs.

Janie had brought Erin, who is studying humpback vocalisations, to OrcaLab so for the humpbacks to trip into this new level of effort was very good timing indeed. And it was still evening and many people far and wide were listening too. Pretty amazing to have these Northern Resident orcas and humpbacks joined together acoustically. At least the A5s continued to the east. The A34s let them carry on while they made their typical circle back to Blackfish Sound by 9:30pm. We last heard themat 10:04pm.

November 3: Bigg’s orcas turned up in Johnstone Strait at 6:12am and overnight the A34s returned there as well. By the time the A34s continued at 9:43am, with calls on both Parson Island and Cracroft Point, humpbacks had already found voice in Blackfish Sound. The A34s then made their way into Blackney with A55 first to make an appearance. By 10:40am they were entering Blackfish Sound. A long pause in orca calls ensued until 5:20pm when a few more calls were heard in the distance. The humpbacks, true to form, kept their presence known well into the night.

The next days and nights were just as full and will be featured in our next report. In the meantime, perhaps join us by finding time to listen to the live audio broadcast.

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