Find Birds Finding Fish = Find Cetaceans

Marine Research and Education Society Fundraising Trip

Recently I was surprised by a wonderful gift: the opportunity to attend the Marine Education & Research Society‘s Annual Fundraising Trip with a few members of my family. The Marine Education & Research Society (MERS) is a vital, charitable organization based out of Port McNeill on northern Vancouver Island. For the last few years, I have been following them on social media and have been continually impressed by their determination to bring whale/ocean research and education into the public sphere. Their integrity and passion shines through so clearly in everything they do. I consider it an honour to be able to support MERS by donating to their yearly fundraising auction (stay tuned this spring!) and to have my greeting cards carried in their Ocean Store. However, up until this point I had not yet had the pleasure of visiting Port McNeill or MERS in person. I was also thrilled to finally meet Jackie Hildering, AKA The Marine Detective. She is one of the founding members of MERS, and a passionate marine educator/researcher. Spots on these trips fill quickly, and due to the pandemic, this particular trip had been in the works for two years.

I am excited to share some of my photographs, personal reflections and information I learned during this amazing trip with you! I hope you will enjoy scrolling through this post.

Please note that I was using a telephoto lens and have cropped images so that you can see them better. Marine mammals need space to live and thrive. For information about Canadian Marine Mammal Regulations and tips on how to avoid collisions with cetaceans, check out the See A Blow Go Slow webpage. It is an excellent resource full of solid, practical information.


Otters

The first marine mammals we encountered were sea otters. This was the first time I’ve seen sea otters. Sea otters used to be plentiful along our coasts, however the last one was shot in 1929/30. In the late ’60’s and early ’70s there was a re-population effort made by the Canadian and US governments. They took otters from Alaska and introduced them to a location on the northwest coast of Vancouver Island. Thanks to this project, the sea otter population is establishing themselves and expanding their territory. It is because of that project that I was able to see sea otters for the first time. During the trip we were told that the individuals we observed were males (the females preferring other locations) and that you can tell who was the most “distinguished” in years. As they age, their face becomes whiter. With the reintroduction of sea otters (a previously native species), there are visible impacts on the marine environment. Sea otters love to eat sea urchin, which love to eat kelp. Now that the sea otters are back and happily munching away on these spiny treats, the kelp forests are changing and growing. This of course has many subsequent impacts on the marine environment, food chain and even humans that depend on the ocean for their livelihood. A complex story for sure, but also a hopeful one!

Birds

One of the most visually impactful sights I witnessed was not even seeing whales. It was seeing birds. Vaporous clouds of birds! Seemingly out of nowhere, all of a sudden, these active formations would appear hovering over the surface of the water. Then they would disintegrate and reform in another location. It was hard to take my eyes off of these winged swarms. And if you watched long enough…. *pfffffft* A spout! And another! It almost looked as though the whales were tracking these ethereal clouds (although I honestly don’t know how much they see of these birds from a distance underwater). But they share a common motivator to these birds. Swarms of birds = swarms of fish. I found these bird clouds fascinating because it was like they were giving us a picture of what was happening under the water, where I cannot see. Swarms of fish are called “baitballs”…. I think I am going to call these bird clouds birdballs.

Dolphins

There was a point along our trip when we were stopped and watching some humpbacks feeding, when the water started to practically boil with activity. Pacific white-sided dolphins! They were very active and, like the humpbacks and birds, ready for a hearty dinner of fish. They were doing something called “porpoising”, which means that they were leaping out of the water as they swam. As I stood there in awe, trailing them with my camera lens I caught a blur of brown. What? A brown dolphin? No. It couldn’t be. Could it…..? It flashed by again! A pair of huge sealions! And yes, they were swimming with the dolphins. Rolling around each other and….yup! They were porpoising too! According to estimates of the crew, there were possibly around 100 dolphins (and two rather outgoing sea lions).

Porpoises

And speaking of porpoises…. this leads me to the next cetacean species that we encountered. Years ago I was reading about a specific species of porpoise that is a blocky, funny-looking creature. Apparently, when they surface, they look like a rotating square. Ever since I read this description, Dall’s porpoises have been on the very top of my Cetaceans I Want To See List. I could not believe my eyes! These little speed devils zipped around so fast. Splashing, rotating square porpoises! I am not sure how many there were…. maybe about 5 or 6. They were closely escorting a humpback by the name of Ridge (BCX1249)…. much, it seemed, to his aggravation. I am not sure why they were hanging out to closely to him, but he seemed to not particularly enjoy the attention. At one point he surfaced and gave an auditable exasperated sound when he exhaled. This behavior is called trumpeting. I have read about this, so it was amazing to actually hear it. We saw Ridge a few more times a little later on… still surrounded by his edgy entourage.

Whales

You were probably wondering if I was ever going to show you pictures of whales. Well, here they are. And not just any whales, humpback whales! As adults, these giants can grow up to 14-17 meters in length and weigh up to 40 tonnes. I have already mentioned a few things about humpbacks above, because it is hard to talk about one species without mentioning the ones around it. Humpbacks, like many other large whale species, were heavily whaled along BC’s coasts. This came to an end in 1964. The humpback population has taken a long, slow path to recovery. When MERS started cataloging humpbacks along the north coast of Vancouver Island in 2004 they were not spotted regularly but the numbers have been greatly increasing since then. Here is an interesting article by CTV News interviewing Jackie about the “humpback comeback”. Like the sea otters, it is encouraging to hear about these populations that were pushed to the brink of extinction and have somehow managed to bounce back. Many of the humpback whales we observed were feeding on large groups of small fish with the changing tide. We watched two different types of feeding strategies be employed by humpback whales: lunge-feeding and trap-feeding.

Lunge-Feeding: The first humpbacks that we encountered was a mother, Black Pearl (BCX1460), teaching her calf, Kraken (2022 calf), how to lunge-feed (see my photos for reference). When there is a large concentration of fish, humpback whales can employ this technique by diving and traveling under water to be under the baitball. Then they swim vertically to the surface while opening their gigantic mouth, which expands their throat pleats like a parachute and allows them to capture many fish inside. When they close their mouths at the surface, they use their tongue to push the water out of their mouth between their baleen plates, which act like a sieve, straining out the water and keeping the tasty fish inside. It was so special to be able to observe a mother passing along this knowledge to her little one.

Trap-Feeding: This feeding strategy uses less energy from the whale than lunge-feeding. Humpbacks seem to employ this technique in situations where there are less dense concentrations of pray–when they want a “snack” but don’t want to work too hard for it. In this case, whales seek out birdballs (my term for concentrations of birds feeding on fish) and stealthily sidle up with their huge mouth open at the surface. The fish are frantically trying to get away from the birds and think, “Oh look! A cave to hide inside where we can get away…..”. And they hop/jump and swim into the shelter of the waiting humpback’s mouth. It’s almost cheeky on the whale’s part and incredibly cleaver!

For more information, diagrams and videos on these feeding strategies, check out this post by MERS.

This past weekend was Thanksgiving. I have so much to be grateful for in life, including YOU! Thank you for your support in reading my blog posts and for staying connected. This community is a huge encouragement to me. Art is often considered a private activity. However, I believe that when you view and engage with artworks, they become active and alive. Your participation fulfills the purposes of art. As an artist, I could not do what I do without you. Thank you for joining me in this journey. ❤

This photo shows a whale’s flukeprint (like a footprint left behind on the waters’ surface)

I am also very grateful for the gift of being able to participate on this trip, to get to know MERS and the MERS team better. Thank you Mackay Whale Watching for hosting us your beautiful vessel.

One thought on “Find Birds Finding Fish = Find Cetaceans

  1. Thank you for sharing this great summary Natasha! I am reliving that day while reading your descriptions and looking at the awesome photos you took. Anne and I both enjoyed our time with you and Heather so much! We hope you acquired some new inspiration. 💕Aunty ro

    dum spiro spero

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