It has been a very busy time at OrcaLab on many fronts.
Since we last wrote Fall has progressed, making us very aware that it is time to prepare for the upcoming winter. Besides bucking and splitting logs for winter wood supplies many of the systems have needed our attention as well. Technician Joel Mellish arrived to check the hydrophone network performance, make sure data logging was performing as it should and most important re-install the Critical Point hydrophone.
The latter required a couple of dives. Jenn Lily came up from Campbell River to assist Megan. As the eastern headland of Robson Bight, Critical is a tricky spot, high cliff, deep water, but the weather co-operated near perfectly. The first dive involved bringing up the old hydrophone (which has now been sent off for servicing and recalibration) and guiding the new hydrophone down in place. The current changed before this second phase was completed to everyone’s satisfaction so a third dive and an underwater drone check were required the next day. The installation was successful so after more than a year without this important hydrophone its signal was once again being monitored in the Lab.
Additionally there was the job of retrieving the three underwater cameras from the rubbing beach sites. The certainty of winter storms prohibits keeping these cameras at these locations long term, so each year they are taken out, serviced, readied and stored for next summer. Megan does a terrific job organising this work. This year we converted the dark room (not in use since the advent of digital cameras) into a proper store room for the cameras and Hervé’s complex hydrophone array. Emily, Sandra and Adrien transformed the very black darkroom space into a cheerful, bright, clean off white functional room. Adrien, who modified the bench, found an old negative strip and even a forgotten print from the 1990s which he and Sandra framed and put back in the room – a small history reminder.
All this while (the above happened the week of September 26 to October 3) Emily was hard at work dealing with the nighttime recordings, which usually involved annotating mostly humpback calls. Humpbacks really like to “open” up vocally during the night. What was astounding to everyone was the amount of bubble net feeding which was not only during the day but at night as well.
On Emily’s last day (her departure was actually delayed by thick fog) Emily was in the Lab by herself in the late afternoon when she heard the distinctive sounds of bubble net feeding in Blackfish Sound. Checking the remote camera, after quickly starting an audio recording, she saw two humpbacks fully engaged in bubble net feeding close to the Flower Island remote camera. Being close meant that the fog was not so much a factor. She had the presence of mind to start a video recording. She watched in amazement and when the event was over she ran to tell everyone. It was the highlight of her entire stay, so aware that the chances of capturing both sound and visual proof are hard to come by.
The fog played havoc with Orcalab’s presentation during the Marine Education and Research Society’s Webinar, “Ocean Voices”. We completely lost all Internet connection after several tries. Jackie was stoic, helping us stumble along but it was awkward and frustrating. The rest of the Webinar was really interesting with presentations of two animations designed to bring awareness to the problems of ocean noise to cetaceans, and informative presentations about whales and ocean noise by Harold Yurk, Ben Hendricks and Valaria Vergara.
The fog was still very bad the next day. Emily had to go as she had a plane to catch and connections to keep. Sandra and Adrien’s time at the Lab was also at an end as they had travel plans that were to take them over to the west side of Vancouver Island. We were going to miss all three but our immediate concern was how to get them out safely. We only had the small boat on hand which was not equipped with radar. Our good neighbours at Farewell Harbour came to the rescue and got everyone to their destinations on time.
Of course, the fog lifted soon afterwards, allowing for various Thanksgiving plans to get underway. Helena, Paul and Janie headed into town and Megan went off to pick up friends for the long weekend. But the October weather was beginning to show signs that it was edging toward more unsettled patterns. The weekend turned out to be quite windy. Thankfully, it dropped just in time for Megan to return her friends to Telegraph Cove and pick up Janie in Alert Bay.
Since then a series of Pacific born weather systems have swept in, causing delays in plans to further winterize the remote systems. But of course, none of this discourages the humpbacks and over the course of the next week humpback whales were singing nightly, usually starting around 8pm with a series of social calls that eventually evolved into song. There were moments when you could hear two or more humpbacks singing together. Often one in the lead, with the other accompanying. The humpback calls most often began to fade as the sun rose, followed by some social calls heard sporadically throughout the day.
During the day, well over fifty sea lions are usually hauled on the “sea lion rocks” just to the south of the Lab. They are extremely vocal. Often groups of two or three swim past the lab daily, looking towards the activity on the deck of the lab with outright curiosity.
Biggs Orca have also been in the area, and on consecutive days no less! On October 11, Alex Morton observed a small group of Bigg’s who had first caught her attention by being vocal off the very western end of Blackfish Sound. This group then went west into Queen Charlotte Strait a while later.
On October 12th, the T019s (with T018) travelled very slowly past the Lab, mostly mid channel, starting from the entrance to Blackney Pass towards the north. Then, when opposite the Lab they took a long dive and when they next surfaced they were closer to our side, allowing for a few good pictures before they disappeared to the north and out of our view.
On October 13th Bigg’s were suddenly loudly vocal on the Parson Island hydrophone at 4:22pm. We could see a few dorsal fins near the entrance to Blackney Pass, first a few females, then noticed a young baby and a juvenile. Their behaviour indicated foraging as they travelled back and forth, changing direction constantly in a small circle. We could also see a group of sea lions in the distance, all very close together, heads bobbing out of the water watching the scene not that far from their location. This went on for 30 minutes, then the Biggs made a move towards the north into Parson Bay at 5:30pm, then turned back south and cleared into Johnstone Strait at 5:55pm. They were quite vocal the entire time. We were not able to identify this group.
The night of October 14 – 15 was one of the more interesting nights, with humpback songs on Flower Island through most of the night involving at least two humpback whales singing together. At the same time there was another one or perhaps two humpback whales vocalising in Blackney Pass. There was quite a variety of social calls with a few moments of song. Listening to both hydrophones at the same time was extremely mesmerising while trying to understand this symphony of changing and evolving whale calls. It was also a night of very little boat noise, which might explain why it was such a busy night for song.
One last exciting note. The British Columbia Hydrophone Network (BCHN), of which OrcaLab is a partner, launched its new website, “Whale Sound” (www.whalesound.ca). This website showcases the work of the BCHN and features both an interactive map with the location of the project’s hydrophones and its Dashboard which graphically demonstrates both whale presence and levels of ocean noise. Check it out!