Winter & Spring Wrap Up; 2010/2011

The winter of 2010/2011 proved to be a dark, cold and windy season with no shortage of precipitation. La Nina was forecast and she definitely took a strong hold. There was rain, snow, hail, sun and wind; storm warnings, hurricane force winds and even a Tsunami advisory! The lack of sun and cold temperatures made for a strenuous few months with the myriad of batteries that had to be continuously charged and cycled throughout the various remote hydrophone stations.  However, there wasn’t a moment of regret as we managed to keep the majority of the system going and therefore, were able to acoustically track the orcas’ movements.  Little did we know that there would be so many amazing encounters with orcas, from each and every ecotype known to travel in our local waters.  There were northern residents, transients, offshores, more transients and even southern residents!

Northern Residents: Dec. 31, 2010: The I15s and I31s came in for a quick visit.  14+ G-clan orcas headed south past the lab, whilst very vocal, at speeds over 6 kts.!  Simultaneously, another 6 G-clan members were spotted heading into Johnstone Strait through the Blow Hole in the Plumper’s.  They were also traveling very fast.  The next day the I15s and I31s were heard on the Critical Point hydrophone as they headed west in Johnstone Strait and north through Weynton Passage.  Jim Borrowman headed out to obtain photo IDs and counted 21+ orcas as they traveled, in a N/W direction, while all spread out.

Jan. 15, 2011;  A-pod, possibly A5s, were briefly heard, in the evening, on Parson Island and CP hydrophones and were never heard or seen afterwards.  Wonder who it was and where they went?

Jan. 26, 2011; The I11s came into the area for a quick winter visit.  They headed south spread out in groups, off the lab, with a very new baby close to Goletas’ (I13) side!  Later that evening they became vocal in Robson Bight before they went quiet as they rounded Critical Point heading to the east at around 20:00…did they go for a winter rub?  We will never know as the rubbing beaches hydrophone was buried deep in the gravel from the strong S/E winds.  The next morning Egeria (I11), Skuna (I42), Kokish (I64), Goletas (I13) with her little one and Tatnall (I108) headed north past the lab where they met up with the rest of the family in Queen Charlotte Strait and continued west together, out of the area.

Apr. 27, 2011; All the A5s, (A8s, A23s, A25s), headed west in Johnstone Strait while they chatted away mid morning.  There were reports of the A5s further south in Desolation Sound 4 days earlier, a rare winter place for them to hang out!  We were intrigued as to how they might have arrived in that location; maybe they snuck by quietly?

Southern Residents: May 28, 2011; L-pod was right on schedule as they quickly headed south in Blackney and then east in Johnstone in the wee hours of the morning.  They were super vocal as they speedily traveled towards their summer range.  In fact, they had made it down to the San Juan Islands around noon on the 29th of May! L-pod -May-28-2011 – click to listen.

Transients: There were far too many Transient encounters, either acoustically, visually or both, to list individually here – actually there were 34 in total!  Some of these encounters were the typical one or two quick call(s) before an impending silence, but significant by way of alerting us to their presence in the area.  These particular encounters proved to be challenging as we would race to the lab to investigate their whereabouts only to find that these guys can be quite evasive.   Here are a ‘few’ very memorable encounters that are worthy of a highlight:

Jan. 8, 2011; We had a unique encounter with Pender (T014).  Pender is a transient that is mostly documented traveling on his own, as he was on this day.  He traveled north & south in Blackney Pass many times throughout the day, quite close to the lab.  On one pass by to the north he exited out of our sight beneath a beautiful rainbow!  By nightfall we heard his lone vocals in Robson Bight, he hasn’t been spotted again since.

Jan. 23, 2011; A large group of transients came on the Flower Island hydrophone for a wake up call and they were super vocal. Before long it sounded as though they were having a party!  3 hours later they headed south past the lab, all spread out, with 2-3 orange babies in the mix!  They were later identified by Jared Towers as the T071s, T086As, T087, T088, T090s and the T124s for an approximate total of 20 orcas.

Feb. 18, 2011; Three orcas (possibly T170, T171 & T172, they were pretty far away to be 100% sure) headed south by Parson Light while calling back & forth with other orcas on the Flower Island hydrophone.   Then all of a sudden a lone juvenile, T117A, zoomed past the local left hydrophone as s/he called over and over while trying to catch up with the others.  It is a very rare occasion to get a recording of a lone individual, but on this day that was the case…how exciting!

Apr. 19-21, 2011;  In came the T023’s! On the 19th they spent 3 hours in Blackney pass, facing south, fighting the ebb whilst slowly being pushed back to the north by the strong tidal currents. The next day they came back and attacked a sea lion between 50-200m off the lab (see video below).  It’s amazing how such an encounter can stir up one’s adrenaline.  They were vocal throughout the attack before they suddenly left the sea lion alone.  On the 21st they traveled south through Blackney and east down Johnstone Strait. T023’s sea lion attack – click to watch video.

May 16, 2011; Transient Superpod Social in Johnstone Strait.  The final IDs (thanks to Jared Towers) were T018, T019s, T020, T021, T036s, T046s, T100s, T101s, T102, T122, T123s, T124s, T124As, T137s, for a total of 37+ orcas!!  This proved to be the largest number of transient orcas sighted in one encounter!!!  See previous blog for details.

Offshores: Spring brought an amazing and rare Offshore visit, both acoustically and visually, that occurred over several days.  The orcas didn’t venture into our view from the lab at any point, but due to the absence of the local orca ID researchers we were keen to head out to Johnstone Strait to document this very rare occurrence. The last time offshores were known to be in the area was in September 2007!

Mar. 25, 2011;  The Offshores made themselves known by singing for 8 glorious hours in Robson Bight throughout the evening and into the morning! Offshores – Clip#1 – click to listen Offshores -Clip#2 – click to listen.

Mar. 27, 2011; They became vocal again in Johnstone Strait and whilst recording we headed out for photo IDs. During this encounter there were two distinct groups spread out from one another, as they foraged on deep dives, mid strait and towards the Vancouver Island shoreline.  There were a total of 12-13 orcas, including 2 little ones!  Their behaviour was very different from anything we had experienced with residents or transients. The offshores’ movements were very erratic, and they would take long dives before surfacing in virtually the same place.  We also didn’t observe them sticking close to shore like many of the residents do, perhaps because they needed the ocean depths to catch their prey, which has recently been documented by Ford et al. to include sharks.

Mar. 29, 2011; They vocalized in Johnstone Strait from 2300-2320.

Mar. 30, 2011; They were vocal in Johnstone Strait from 0730-1620 as they slowly headed west towards Port McNeill.  Once in Pt. McNeill they rested and spyhopped right inside the harbour where local residents could watch them from the shoreline!   After a good rest they turned back to the east, but were never heard or seen again.

Grey Whales: Jan. 12, 2011; 3 Grey Whales were documented heading west in Johnstone Strait, up Weynton Passage and out through Cormorant Channel. This spring Dusty the rare, ‘local’ grey returned to the area and has been spotted at her/his regular haunt on the backside of Alert Bay.  S/he has since been spotted traveling between Alert Bay and Campbell River.  Time will tell whether or not s/he will become a ‘true local’.

Humpback Whales: Feb. 5, 2011; A juvenile unknown to our local HB researchers was spotted heading west near Telegraph Cove and then out of the area past Alert Bay.  This is the first February humpback to be documented in this area by our local researchers. (Please visit and click blog for more info on this HB encounter and Dusty the grey whale). This spring has brought the return of Pultney, Twister, Arial, Chunky, Stripe, KC and Horizon to the area.  A new HB also arrived in May and was recently named Canuck, after our beloved hockey team, the Vancouver Canucks, who won Game 5 in the third series becoming the Western Conference Champions!


Dolphins: The Pacific white–sided dolphins were absent for the majority of the winter.  They stuck around until mid December when their calls became less frequent. Hundreds of them came back into the area in late May, after spending some time up Knight Inlet during the eulachon run in April. They have been spread throughout the entire hydrophone network and have been very chatty.  There have been a few large groups go by the lab in a bit of a hurry.  On one occasion they turned and disappeared so fast to the north and we weren’t sure what had happened…two hours later the T18s headed past the lab in the same direction!

Other Wildlife: That sums up a good portion of the intense cetacean scene over the winter/spring, but it only paints half of the picture.  There was an incredible amount of other wildlife activity as well. There were times when 70+ Steller sea lions would haul out on one of the local rocks.  The sound of their growling became something that was sorely missed when they ceased to haul out at the end of April.  We had also observed them eating countless octopi this winter, as well as a dogfish or two!

The Sea Lion & The Octopus – click to watch video

A Northern elephant seal sporadically graced us with his presence over a period of a month.  He too was observed with a dogfish in his mouth.  During one encounter we lost sight of him during a deep dive, only to be alerted to his presence by the sound of his growl, which actually sounded more like a purr than a growl!

The avian scene has been incredible.  Sounds of songbirds filled the air from dawn to dusk and they could be spotted on every tree surrounding the lab.

Spotted Towhee
Male Red Crossbill

A gaggle of  approx 10 harlequin ducks, spent most of their winter fishing and preening between the two bays on either side of the lab.  Their constant chatter was a delight to hear.   They tended to fly in in pairs during the early morning and then fly out at dusk to their evening abode, until they left our locale around the beginning of May.

There was a plethora of bald eagles of all ages.  We’d watch them fish and either fly or sometimes swim with their catch to shore.  They would soar in the thermals, and partake in their courting rituals as well as chasing each other through the forest. Presently, there is a pair tending to their egg(s) in their nest on Little Hanson.

Thousands of salmon fry, chum, pink and even some chinook, have been holding up in the bay for months now, fattening up for their long journey to the open ocean.

The bumble bees have been busy pollenating the flowers all around the place.

Wolves could be heard howling on Hanson Island as well as the neighbouring islands throughout the span of winter and spring.  The sound of their calls were a treat to hear! A healthy black bear showed up at the beginning of June and was observed turning over rocks and logs on the beach at dinner time.

Photo credit: Christie McMillan

Last but not least there were many spectacular sun and moon rises.  It was incredible to observe the sun’s movements as it made its way to the north as the seasons progressed.


There were 6 full moons, including a total lunar eclipse on the winter solstice and a Perigee Moon in March.  See previous blogs for the Lunar Eclipse and the Perigee Moon.

Lunar Eclipse

We feel blessed to have experienced and observed so many phenomena over the past 6 months.  The word from many of our sources, from First Nations to some of our colleagues in the marine biology field, is that the ocean and forests appear to be very rich this year.  We also get the same feeling through our observations on and around Hanson Island.  It will be intriguing to see what the summer will bring!

"Hope you all have a relaxing summer!"; Solomon the Hanson hound.

Contributed by Marie Fournier and Leah Robinson. Please note that all photos were taken with a 400mm lens, zoomed and cropped.  When viewing wildlife please follow the Be Whale Wise Guidelines.


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