What a Fluke!

Written by Marissa Morison, MERS Research Assistant (thank you Canada Summer Jobs for making the position possible).

On a chilly Tuesday morning we prepare to depart from a quaint little dock in Telegraph Cove. I eagerly await a day on the ocean with Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) Humpback Whale researchers Jackie Hildering and Christie McMillan.

I am here as a summer Research Assistant for MERS, expecting mostly to be fulfilling small daily tasks and computing data into entry. But today, today is different . . . Today will be my first time out on the west coast ocean since being a young girl, a long anticipated moment. I’ve bundled myself in multiple layers of clothing (I’ll admit I came rather ill-prepared for the weather) and take a seat near the bow.

Yes this happened! Please read on for explanation. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Yes this happened! Please read on for explanation. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

I brace myself as we coast out of Telegraph Cove. Moving from the prairies the landscape seems foreign to me, but strangely familiar in the same breath. The view is amazing. Actually, the view is greater than amazing. It is awe-inspiring! There is a distinct calm that falls over everything, and my senses heighten to adapt to the overwhelming array of new sensations. The air is crisp, clean, and cool as it wisps through my hair and nibbles at my cheeks. A fine mist is spraying up from the water, settling on my face, and leaving a salty taste on my lips. This place is as close to perfect as perfect comes.

Today’s objectives include documenting a female Humpback and her new calf. In order to be able to identify the calf in the future, it is essential to get photos of the calf’s dorsal fin from both sides and a photo of the underside of the tail (the fluke) that clearly shows the trailing edge. I learn that the pigmentation of Humpback calves’ flukes can change quite a bit over time whereby it is so important to get a photo of the fluke’s trailing edge.

The mother Humpback (BCY0177) has been nicknamed “Slash”, and I know that she unfortunately earned this nickname as a result of being struck by a vessel prior to 2006. She now bears distinctive scarring from the boat’s propeller.

Slash breaching (while emptying water from her mouth). Note the vessel strike scars along her back? Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Slash breaching (while emptying water from her mouth). Note the vessel strike scars along her back? Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

With the help of a report from a Stubbs Island Whale Watching vessel, we are able to quickly locate the pair.

That moment, that moment the calf surfaces, it is remarkable! I feel an excitement so great I can’t speak. I sit, just trying to comprehend the immense flood of emotion rushing through my mind, body, and soul. A stinging sensation develops above my nose and between my eyes as I fight the tears trying to escape. It is just that beautiful. But, it doesn’t stop there. Slash suddenly emerges next to her calf, and my breath is taken away, once again. The sheer size of her is something incomprehensible until witnessed by oneself. She is massive! I see the scars she wears and feel deeply saddened that we can so negatively affect these beautiful beings through carelessness or lack of awareness.

But, this is only the beginning of the excitement. Now as we are idling along having photographed the calf’s dorsal fin but still hoping for the fluke to be fully lifted, something ignites a change in behaviour in the twosome and they catapult up, out of the water, and then smash back down. They are breaching!  Again and again! I must admit it was slightly terrifying to witness such enormous animals rising from the water, but my fear soon turns to admiration and awe.

Mother and calf breaching and pectoral fin slapping. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Mother and calf breaching and pectoral fin slapping. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

As I watch in fascination time seemingly stands still. I’m informed this is not something seen on every journey out on the water, that such acrobatic behaviour is largely unpredictable. Knowing this makes my appreciation of the experience grow even deeper.
And, during the repeated breaching and pectoral fin slapping, the calf lifts his/her tail. Bingo! The photograph of the fluke is obtained that will allow the calf to be identified in the future.

The calf's fluke which will allow re-identification in the future. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
The calf’s fluke which will allow re-identification in the future. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

What a fluke! All of it. To be present when these giants happened to erupt out of the water, to see the interaction between mother and calf, to be there when the ID photos were obtained . . . I am deeply grateful that I was there in those moments, to experience the wild. Since then, I have had the opportunity to experience and share in a growing number of equally remarkable moments. This place is full of surprises and I find enjoyment in simply being here for the ride.

More photos of the remarkable encounter: 

Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Mother - Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Mother – Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Mother - Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Mother – Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Mother - Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Mother – Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Meet Slash and her calf, Stitch

For the past two weeks, whenever the weather has allowed, I have been out by Bold Head (at the eastern end of Queen Charlotte Strait) collecting data on humpback whales. This area is transformed at this time of year… earlier in the season, it was not unusual to see 1 or 2 humpback whales around Bold Head; while on August 22nd, we counted 17 individuals in this one area. With the help of many volunteers, including Annika Putt, Caitlin Birdsall, Erica Forssman, Tyson Hopkins, and Nic Dedeluk, I have been filming bait balls underwater and measuring herring for my thesis research (see previous blog post for details). I have also been doing focal follows of humpback whales (I will explain more about this in a future post), and identifying which whales are spending time feeding in the area.

At this time of year, large numbers of humpback whales spend time feeding in eastern Queen Charlotte Strait.  This is "Ripple" (BCX1063), lunge-feeding on herring near Bold Head (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
At this time of year, large numbers of humpback whales spend time feeding in eastern Queen Charlotte Strait. This is “Ripple” (BCX1063), lunge-feeding on herring near Bold Head (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Two of the whales that we have seen almost every day around Bold Head are “Slash” (BCY0177) and her calf, “Stitch”. Slash’s nickname comes from the parallel scars across her back. In 2006, she was photographed by MERS director Jared Towers with deep, recent, unhealed injuries on her back. The injuries indicated that Slash was the victim of a vessel strike; these parallel cuts were caused by a boat propeller.  Vessel strikes are becoming a serious concern for humpback whales around Vancouver Island (see this blog post by the BC Cetacean Sightings Network for more details).

Slash (BCY0177) in 2006.  The injuries on her back were caused by a vessel strike (photo by Jared Towers, MERS)
Slash (BCY0177) in 2006. The injuries on her back were caused by a vessel strike (photo by Jared Towers, MERS)

Fortunately, Slash survived her injuries, and has returned to the northeastern Vancouver Island area every year since 2006.  In 2008, she brought her first documented calf to the area, a whale that we nick-named “Moonstar” based on the markings that look like a moon and a star on her tail.  Moonstar has also been seen in the area every year since she was born.

"Moonstar" (BCY0768), Slash's 2008 calf (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
“Moonstar” (BCY0768), Slash’s 2008 calf (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

This year, Slash returned to the area with a new calf, who was recently nicknamed “Stitch” by children from the  Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw summer day camp from nearby Port Hardy.  Humpback whale calves nurse for about a year, and therefore maintain very close bonds with their mothers during this time.  However, it is also very important that the mothers get enough food during the summer to provide them with the energy that they need to nurse their calves, and to migrate back to winter breeding grounds in Hawaii or Mexico.  During the past couple of weeks, we have seen Slash leave her calf’s side, in order to feed on the dense schools of herring that are found in the area.  Without her mother at her side, the calf often becomes very active at the surface… breaching, rolling around, and playing in kelp!

Slash's calf, Stitch, breaching while her mother feeds on herring (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Slash’s calf, Stitch, breaching while her mother feeds on herring (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Stitch, lifting up kelp with her flipper (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Stitch, lifting up kelp with her flipper (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Once BCY0177 has finished feeding, she communicates with her calf underwater, using grunting sounds that likely alert her calf to where she is… stay tuned, we’ll post these sounds soon!

~ Christie