The sounds and the silence

We walk out of our kitchen door at dawn and are greeted by the whooshing blow of a humpback whale that ends in a whistle… whew!  So great.  The sounds of humpbacks blowing have become such a routine part of our acoustic scene that we are no longer surprised; we are however, always charmed.   And then there are the songs, which over the last few years we have begun to look forward to with great anticipation.

A short while ago, the night of October 23rd, we were awed by the high highs and  low lows of a humpback song in Blackfish Sound that lasted a full hour; it was followed a few hours later by another that lasted nearly 2 hours.  The humpbacks are becoming ever more numerous and comfortable in this territory which was once their northern home, so their annual return is almost routine.  It’s likely the songs reflect their increasing sense of security as they settle in and their numbers grow.

Here is a brief sound clip from that marvelous October 23rd song (OrcaLab 100 members can hear a larger section):

HB_HI_2011_DAT_229 (part)

Every now and then we become aware of the chatter of Pacific White sided dolphins, who rush through Blackney Pass and into the Strait or Blackfish Sound, sometimes hundreds at a time, half of them airborne, disappearing as fast as they come, their purpose obscure.

A few moments of their chatter:

PWD HI_2011_DAT_223 part

And constantly, day and night, we are aware of the growls of sea lions hauled out on rocks along the way and across from us:

sealions 11.6.11 part

It’s as though we’re in a surround sound theatre.   On Halloween, as entertainment for ourselves and the Orca-live audience, we hung a microphone outside the lab for a couple of hours in the dead of night, to catch the growly sea lion chorus… definitely spooky!

The presence of the sea lions may account for the large number of visits by transient orcas lately.  Sometimes, they’ve just cruised through, perhaps looking, and other times they’ve shown a definite interest in a potential feast. Though the sea lions may, and sometimes do get out of the water, they’re just as likely to stay in it or even jump in when the transients approach.  It looks like safety in numbers, as sometimes when approached by transients, the sea lions, who have clustered together in a patch of kelp, craning their heads as high as they can, suddenly start thrashing their bodies about, churning the water white, possibly making a target difficult and the consequences of an attack potentially dire – after all, they are huge, with fearsome teeth and jaws.  It seems to be an effective strategy, as we’ve seen transients move on several times after being hounded by a flailing mob of scores of sea lions.  The ultimate outcome, however, includes the possibility of the transients returning when the scene has quieted down, and a sea lion is isolated enough for an attack to succeed.

We think the transients must have had quite a few successes over the past few weeks, as we’ve heard them calling numerous times, even for hours on end.  If the belief that transients are only vocal after a kill reflects reality (it does make sense, as they are stealth hunters) they must have succeeded on several occasions.

Transient HI_2011_DAT_224 part

We seldom witness an attack in Blackney Pass, though we have seen some over the years, and sometimes we think it happens during the night, when it’s too dark to see.  This year, it seems there have been more transient sightings than ever in our area, and quite a few attacks have been reported.

On October 16th, in broad daylight, we witnessed a spectacle in Parson Bay, directly across Blackney Pass from OrcaLab that held us transfixed for hours.  We’d been listening to vocal humpbacks in Blackfish Sound during the dark early hours, and watching as many of 6 of them in Blackney Pass after it got light.   Then, about an hour before noon, we suddenly became aware of the presence of a group of transient orcas in the middle of Parson Bay.  They were going back and forth in the usual manner transients put together an attack.  Very close by, there was a humpback whale.  The sight was unsettling – we have never witnessed an attack on a humpback, and don’t want to.   Concerned, we strained our eyes through spotting scopes, trying to figure out what was happening, and finally concluded that it was unlikely the transients were targeting the humpback, but rather a sea lion we couldn’t see.  Then lo and behold, 2 more humpbacks went into Parson Bay, stopping right in the middle of the scene.  It was a jaw dropping sight.   We speculated that the new arrivals may have joined the original humpback as added security, in case of an attack, but as time went on, with the humpbacks cruising back and forth in a feeding mode, without an obvious care in the world, and the transients moving back & forth doing whatever they were doing, we concluded that we were most likely seeing normal behaviour on the part of both species – grabbing a bite to eat.   It just happened they were in the same place at the same time.  Eventually, the transients moved on, and not long after, the humpbacks left too.  Whew.

Uncomfortably surrounding all the excitement and buzz of the humpback, transient, dolphin, sea lion scene, has been a profound silence on the part of the resident orcas we’ve come to expect as a highlight of our Fall.  October, in our memory, is chum fishing month, when the orcas come to feast on the big fatty chum salmon as they head south, spending hour after hour at the entrance of Blackney Pass and Johnstone Strait, picking off the chums as they flood through.  It used to be a given that much of G clan would be here, along with others, and it is true that their presence has become less reliable in recent years.  But there’ve been no blanks in our October history, till now.  The last summer residents left on September 24th, sooner than usual, but for ages we expected to hear them again, anytime.  Now we go to bed at night without expectation.  Whatever the explanation may be, the sudden change is disquieting.  It’s not as if there were no fish.  To the contrary, the chums returned on time, and in numbers sufficient to make fishers smile and feed 2000 people who crowded into Alert Bay’s Big House for a fabulous recent potlatch.

The orcas’ absence is a mystery, and a worry.

By Paul & Helena November 5, 2011

postcript November 10th:

Wouldn’t you know it?  Just after we finished writing the above, which had been a work in progress for a couple of weeks, we heard from our colleagues at CetaceaLab on Gil Island that they were hearing G-Clan calls, and that they had received a report of 30+ orcas heading south in nearby Squally Channel.  Two days later, in the early afternoon on November 8th, we heard “G” clan calls in Blackfish Sound, and shortly afterwards saw the G17s (all 9 of them) making their way through Blackney Pass towards Johnstone Strait.  After such a long silence, it was a moment of great excitement, but oddly, apart from a few calls after the orcas entered Johnstone Strait, we’ve heard nothing since.  We don’t know if the orcas continued to the east, or whether they made a quick turnaround and a fast exit.  Once again, we are waiting.


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