In the middle of June 2010, a small grey whale was reported to have been spending time in the waters between Alert Bay and Mitchell Bay. As it is not totally uncommon to see the odd grey whale in this area we took note and didn’t think much more of it. By the beginning of July we were still receiving sporadic reports so we headed out in search of this animal. No more than a mile from home we found this grey whale working its way along the shoreline in very shallow water. It did not show any sign of fear as we approached closely for some identification photographs of its right and left flanks and fluke. Immediately noticeable were the healed killer whale teeth rake marks on the right fluke tip of this whale indicating an unsuccessful attack by “Bigg’s” (transient) killer whales likely to have taken place somewhere along the outer coast the previous year. This close approach also allowed us to get an idea of the size of this animal in comparison to our boat. The boat is 18 feet long and the whale was noticeably longer but not by much. We estimated it to be 23 feet long which would indicate it was probably 18 months old or so. On one of the high arches the whale made before diving, our photographs showed that the outline of the rib cage was visible. It is not uncommon to see a lack of blubber on the highly migratory baleen whale species (grey, humpback, minke) in this area when they first return in the late spring after a winter of not feeding. We just hoped that this little grey whale would find enough food during its travels over the summer to fatten up a bit before the fall. To our surprise “Dusty” as s/he had begun to be called by local residents hardly traveled at all until the first week of October when we had our last confirmed sighting of her/him. On almost a daily basis between when we first photographed it and last saw it this grey could be found within a 5 mile radius. To our knowledge this is the first case in which a grey whale has been a summer resident in this area. We hoped it would make it through the migration to Mexico over winter and, like the individual humpbacks and minkes that show fidelity to this area, return in 2011.
We couldn’t have been more thrilled when that’s exactly what we documented on May 31st, 2011. A low blow was seen on a flat calm day as we cruised northwest in Johnstone Strait. We altered course to check it out and determined upon closer inspection that this blow belonged to a grey whale. As we made a close approach for identification photographs (in typical Dusty fashion), this whale took notice of our presence but made no objection. It cruised along slowly beside us and took it upon itself to angle closer until right next to the boat. It surfaced and that’s when we recognized it as Dusty by the large white blotch on it’s right flank. It seems as though Dusty may have recognized the underside of our hull as well because s/he angled back in for a closer look after surfacing and then swam a semi-circle right around our stern before altering course 30 degrees to head directly for it’s preferred feeding spot of the previous year. With about 7 miles to go we hoped Dusty would stop once there, find lots of food and decide to stick around again for the summer. As for appearances, aside from the obvious key natural markings we used to identify Dusty, s/he looks to be have grown since last year (though does look a bit skinny again). After this initial sighting we have documented 4 other reports of Dusty in the area, the last of which was yesterday. It seems that s/he may be settling in for another year. We hope that this is the case and that if the area is indeed suitable summer habitat for grey whales that more will arrive in time to help keep young Dusty company. Please note that all approaches closer than 100 metres were for the purposes of obtaining identification photographs and were done so under the permit of a marine mammal research license issued by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Jared & Christie