MERS whale watch fundraiser

Yesterday’s whale watching fundraiser for the Marine Education and Research Society was a huge success, thanks to Jim and Mary Borrowman of Orcella Expeditions, and everyone who came out to support MERS… and of course, to the amazing wildlife of northern Vancouver Island!

Humpback whale "Guardian", lunge-feeding on herring (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Humpback whale “Guardian”, lunge-feeding on herring
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

The day dawned clear, calm, and fog-free – perfect conditions to head out and look for some wildlife.  Not long after leaving Telegraph Cove, we were able to catch a glimpse of humpback whale blows hovering over the calm water… a sign of things to come for the day.

Blackney Pass and Blackfish Sound were full of humpbacks, sea lions, and schools of herring.  As we approached a sea lion haul-out to have a look at the hundreds of Steller sea lions up on the rocks, we could see Slash the humpback whale’s calf, Stitch, doing full breaches in the distance, and had curious sea lions swimming all around the Gikumi.

A Steller sea lion (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
A Steller sea lion
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

Dense schools of herring, being fed on by gulls and murres, were forming throughout Blackfish Sound.  As we waited near one of them, humpback whale “Guardian” did a spectacular lunge, erupting out of the water with his or her mouth wide open.  As is clear from the photo below, Guardian missed a lot of the fish during the first lunge, so came back and lunged a few more times on the same school of herring.

Humpback whale "Guardian" lunge-feeding on herring  (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Humpback whale “Guardian” lunge-feeding on herring.  Note the fish all around Guardian’s lower jaw
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

Just as we finished an incredible lunch, we got a report that there were mammal-eating (transient) killer whales in the area… and that the killer whales were interacting with humpbacks!  Five killer whales from the T049s (including a brand-new calf!) were swimming very close to humpback whales Guardian and Freckles.

Mammal-eating killer whales (T049s) following "Guardian" the humpback whale  (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Mammal-eating killer whales (T049s) following “Guardian” the humpback whale
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

It was difficult to determine exactly what was happening between these two species… at times, it appeared that the killer whales were following the humpback whales, and that the humpbacks were quite distressed, making loud, trumpeting vocalizations, and slashing their tails through the air.  At other times, though, it appeared that the humpbacks were following the killer whales, perhaps to help the humpbacks keep track of these predators.  As we watched, two other humpback whales (Twister and Moonstar) joined the group as well.

Humpback whale "Twister" slashing its tail in response to the killer whales (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Humpback whale “Twister” slashing its tail in response to the killer whales
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
The T049s interacting with Twister and Freckles  (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
T049A1 interacting with Twister and Freckles
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

Mammal-eating killer whales are known to attack young humpback whales… some of the humpback whale fluke photos in the MERS humpback whale catalogue (available here) bear scars from killer whale teeth.  However, all of the humpback whales that were interacting with the killer whales yesterday were adults or older juveniles, and so were likely not at risk of being eaten.  Instead, the interaction may have been an effort by one species to intimidate or harass the other… but we do not know for sure.

Thanks again to everyone who came out to support the Marine Education and Research Society, and another huge thank you to Jim and Mary Borrowman!  All proceeds from this trip will go directly to MERS’ research and education efforts which include population monitoring of humpback and minke whales, and mitigating the threats to these species.  See our website for more information about our work.

~ Christie, Jared, Jackie, and the MERS team

MERS on the road: Whalefest 2011

Who doesn’t like a good road trip? We sure do, especially when it includes big surf, whales, sandy beaches and some of our most favourite people! We got to include all of these this March when MERS directors Caitlin and Leah (with amigas Stacey and Erin in tow) headed out to the Pacific Rim Whale Festival hosted by the communities of Tofino, Ucluelet, and Pacific Rim National Park. The annual week-long celebration of the migrating grey whales turned 25 this year, and the anniversary event was focused on looking at 25 years of change. What better topic to fit this theme than looking at the comeback of the humpback- a topic near and dear to our hearts!

Yay! So excited to be on the west coast!

We were thrilled when the Whale Festival organizers asked us to present and we were more than happy to make the trip to the west coast. Armed with some baleen, krill, whale barnacles and humpback songs, we spent the last Saturday morning of the festival at the Wickanninish Interpretive Centre in Pacific Rim National Park. We were a bit nervous the morning of the event, wondering if we’d have anyone show up! The festival had so many great events happening in the area, we weren’t sure we would get an audience. Turns out we were wrong! Over 60 people showed up to hear us tell the story of humpback whales, their amazing population comeback, and the issues that still threaten these incredible animals.

Presentation ready to go!

The audience became mini-humpback experts after going over the ‘What the heck is a humpback?’ identification features section, and giggled while listening to the serenading songs of the male whales on the calving grounds, and the less operatic recordings of some winter songs in BC. They asked questions about how we study these animals, and of course, received a thorough lesson in current conservation concerns. Several groups stuck around after the talk was done to learn more, have another feel of the baleen, and collect information on the different marine conservation and stewardship programs.

Leah and Caitlin outside the Interpretive Centre

The goal of our talk was not just to promote MERS and discuss our research and plans for the future, but also to get a broad audience excited and informed about humpback whale conservation. As the famous quote from Baba Dioum says “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught”. Judging by the great questions and enthusiastic response received from our audience, we think we were pretty successful in communicating our passion for these animals, and getting people engaged. Mission accomplished!

With the talk over, we settled in to enjoy the rest of the weekend on the west coast- monster oyster burgers, multiple beach walks, many, many laughs , and, of course, some whale spotting ensued….