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Saturday, September 14, 2019

Northern Vancouver Island Part 2: A Whale Watch to Remember

On September 4th we headed out on a whale watch out of Telegraph Cove, and with lots of recent whale reports and flat-calm waters I was hopeful for a great trip. Now I have been on a lot of whale watch trips over the years, both while traveling, while working as a naturalist for 6 years, and while riding along with friends from here on San Juan Island. In terms of wildlife and whale encounters, there have been some pretty great trips, but this one definitely ranks among the top few that I have ever experienced. Over the course of just three hours we saw transients, Northern Residents, humpback whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall's porpoise, and Steller sea lions!

As we headed out of the harbor we were making our way down Johnstone Strait towards a report of Northern Residents when I spotted a small killer whales along the shoreline across the strait. (This would actually be one of three times on this trip I found killer whales with no reports or other indication that they were in the area! While I often go out looking for whales, it's usually following up on another sighting, and it has been years since I spotted whales totally unexpectedly. For it to happen three times on this single trip to Vancouver Island was crazy!)

This trio of orcas turned out to be the T69Ds, who are rare visitors to the Salish Sea but who I coincidentally met for the first time earlier this year when they were with the T90s in Haro Strait back in February. As would be the case for all the transients we encountered while up north, their behavior was quite different than we typically see today from Ts around the San Juan Islands, and more like what they used to be like 10-20 years ago: long dives with sporadic/unpredictable surfacings, making them hard to track and view. After one dive, however, they unexpectedly popped up close to the boat, giving us a nice look after a lot of patiently scanning the water.

By this time the Northern Residents were within sight to the south of us, and the T69Ds had likely heard them as well, because they did a 180 to head back in the direction they came and we continued on our way towards the Residents. We had heard the whales were spread out in ones and twos doing long foraging dives, but we got on scene, several of the small groups merged, and we were treated to an amazing sight of 15+ whales traveling in a tight group and surfacing all together.

I would later learn these were the I4s, I65s, and G27s - all new-to-me whales - and just a fraction of the whales who were "in" that day. Also around (and some of whom we got distant looks of) were at least the A42s, I16s, I27s, and I35s.

We used to the Southern Residents like this more often, though in recent years they tend to spread out a lot more. It was hard not to keep taking photos, as regardless of how much you see it, that many dorsal fins at the surface together is a breath-taking sight.

The whales split into two groups as we followed them around the eastern side of Hanson Island:

We had the light against us when viewing the whales from the left side, and my Northern Resident ID guide only shows left sides, so it was tough to piece together many individual IDs. The only adult male in the group was 22 year-old male I76, seen here with another sprouter - maybe I122?

I76 on the left
If you follow orcas in the region, you know about the iconic Orca Lab on Hanson Island - it was pretty cool to get to see Northern Residents go by there!

Northern Residents passing Orca Lab
We left the Northern Residents heading west through Blackfish Sound and went north through the narrow passage between Swanson and Crease Islands. No matter which way you turn up there, the scenery is awesome! There are so many little islands and channels to explore.

Next up we spent some time with some humpbacks, with easily half a dozen or more individuals spread out in the same area.

As we slowly started transiting back towards Telegraph Cove, it was a scene I will never forget. The Northern Residents were back in view, there were still humpbacks in every direction, and some Pacific white-sided dolphins came by as well. I felt like I was dreaming, with multiple species of cetacean surrounding us. 

It was an unforgettable whale watch, and we returned to the dock beaming, immediately making plans to go out on the water again before the end of our trip. I made a conscious effort to try and lock the scene and the emotion inside me - the joy, the excitement, the peace of being in such a place and having such an experience. You can't bottle it, but it's moments like those that rejuvenate the spirit and keep you going through things like whale politics, dreary winter days, and stressful times at work.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Northern Vancouver Island Part 1: Grizzlies and Waterfalls

The first week of September has been marked off all year as a reset, recharge, and rejuvenate week spent on northern Vancouver Island. With various stresses having built up over the preceding months, it couldn't have come at a better time. As our departure date approached I decided to unplug for the trip as well - no e-mail, phone, or social media. We didn't have much planned other than lodging, and we left open to whatever adventures awaited us.

On a whim we decided to splurge on a tour to Bute Inlet to look for grizzly bears. The day dawned in classic Pacific Northwest style: with steady rain. Luckily the fog lifted as we headed out, and the scenery on the two hour boat ride to Orford Bay was beautiful.

As we arrived for the land-based portion of our tour we were welcomed to traditional Homalco lands by our First Nations hosts. We didn't even have to leave the dock to see our first two grizzly bears meandering around the estuary at low tide. We headed over to an observation tour to get a better look.

Over the next couple of hours we got to see a total of six grizzlies, the highlight of which was this one that hopped up on a log in close proximity (seen from the safety of our vehicle).

Equally amazing to seeing the bears was not only being in such a remote area, but hearing stories from our Homalco guides who are working to reconnect their youth to their traditional lands and culture. The rain continued to fall as we viewed bears, but luckily the sun broke through shortly before we left.

The stunning view from land at Orford Bay as the sun broke through
The highlight of the trip may have actually been the boat ride back to Vancouver Island on glassy seas with stunning scenery around every corner, even more awesome than in the morning with the late afternoon light. We sat on the top dock of the boat the whole way and soaked it all in.

We even got to stop and take a look at a three year-old humpback named Linea, who is the 2016 calf of BCY0027 Maude.

One more photo of the Cape Mudge Lighthouse as we headed back to port at sunset:

The next day we headed inland to Strathcona Provincial Park to check out several waterfalls. As would be the theme for the trip, it was another scenic drive.

The highlight of the day was climbing on the rocks around Myra Falls:

Next up, it was time to head further north, with plenty more wildlife to come....