Field Notes 2012
Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada
April 11: So often when people ask about our whale watch season, we find ourselves saying "The whales are doing just what they should be." And sure enough, on Saturday of the Easter Holiday weekend we encountered our first Gray Whale mother & calf pair off Tofino! (See our March 28th Field Notes, below.)
Remote Passages marine guide Tyson Cross reported our first Gray Whale mother/calf pair sighting off Tofino on Saturday, April 7th. The sighting occurred approx. 2 miles south of Cleland Island. The mother/calf pair were travelling with a third whale — another adult-sized Gray Whale. Coincidentally, another of our guides reported the first Humpback Whale mother/calf pair of the season on the same day, only a few miles north & west of the Tyson's Gray Whale pair.
And veteran whale watch guide Jay was excited to see a rare breaching Gray Whale one bright, sunny, calm-sea day last weekend.
Currently, we are enjoying good sea conditions, with low swell and light winds, and typically encountering several groups of 2 to 5 Gray Whales on each of our open-coast whale watching trips out of Tofino. We look forward to seeing more mother/calf pairs, but there may be a gap of some days before we do, based on the pair sightings at ACS/LA Observation Post #6.
And we continue to track Varvara's amazing journey as she makes her way towards the Russian coast.
March 27: The satellite tagged 9-year-old western gray whale named 'Varvara' swam by Tofino in the early-morning hours of March 17th—which was the opening day of the 26th annual Pacific Rim Whale Festival! Varvara was traveling very quickly as she passed along the British Columbia coast, moving at about I00 miles per day.
"This (past) week Varvara traveled from Vancouver Island up to Baranof Island and was offshore from Sitka. This is north of (but close to) her arrival point where she came near shore when she crossed the Gulf of Alaska and then headed south," wrote Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, in a recent e-mail. She is expected to continue until she returns to the Gray Whale feeding grounds off Russia's Sakhalin Island. We will continue to check regularly for her updated location (click here for map) for as long as Varvara's radio tag keeps on transmitting.
On the whole, communities on the west coast Vancouver Island are experiencing another cold, wet spring, with many episodes of sleet, snow and hail in the second half of March, and with storm winds and sea conditions to match. We have especially noticed unusually frequent and intense SW winds this late winter.
We've seen more whales closer to shore this year as compared to previous migrations. Walking Chesterman Beach, just south of Tofino village, we have seen one or two Gray Whales between the beach and a near-shore island on several occasions.
On days with good sea conditions and visibility, our guides for Remote Passages have consistently observed several whales on each trip, and generally with additional notes such as 'lots of spouts' and 'whales everywhere' in the sightings reports. Our highest count was 10 individual Gray Whales observed during one 3-hour whale watch excursion, with many more spouting in the distance.
We have also recorded our first trip of the season to encounter all three species of whales typically seen in our area. On Friday, March 23rd, Remote Passages guide Jay Feaver and his crew found migrating Gray Whales along the open coast, a Humpback Whale (our first of the season!) feeding on herring in the protected waters of Sydney Inlet, and a pod of seven or eight Killer Whales in the same inlet (likely Transient Killer Whales, in to feed on the seals and sea lions which, in turn, had come in to feed on the herring…).
Guide Jay had six Gray Whales on today's early afternoon tour. Amongst these were three whales who were 'getting frisky' (i.e. exhibiting mock mating behavior). Seeing this type of activity tells us we are likely into the second wave of the migration. The newly pregnant females tend to travel by early and quickly to get to the Alaskan feeding grounds, while the juveniles arrive later, and the young males especially tend to demonstrate a great deal of social behavior.
We are now keeping eyes open for the first cow + calf pairs. With Observation Post #6 (ACS/LA volunteer observers on Palos Verde Peninsula, just north of LA) having reported several calves March 20/21, we will expect to see some moms & babies off Tofino about three weeks later, perhaps in time for Easter weekend!
March 17: We are waiting for Vavara to arrive off Vancouver Island on her northbound return journey!
February 29: First northbound gray whale sighting!