September 2013 found me sitting in a kayak, the smooth silky water a fingertip away and a huge grey boulder of the rocky shoreline towering behind me. The rock was pot marked with yellowish, reddish and orangey brown lichen, with brown bull kelp tickling where it plunged into the crystal clear water, continuing to the darkening depths covered in urchins and anemones. Beyond it the deep green trees of the forest were shrouded by fog. Ahead the fog crowded in close, sea and sky merged. In the near distance a motor boat chugged. We waited. Patiently. Well mostly.
The handheld radio crackled, voices broke the anticipated silence, cutting across the foggy air. Orcas were coming our way. The motor boat got a little louder, it is a whale watch boat; the orcas must be close.
Then concealed by the mist we heard a ‘kawoof’ followed by another and another. The unmistakable sound of orcas breathing! Crossing in front of us the steady stream of breaths passed by, unseen, but distinct…
Minutes pass and all we heard was breathing orca and the motor boat slowly passing, my stomach tightens. Was the amazing encounter I had dreamed of since a kid passing me by unseen? Suddenly, to our right a tall, black dorsal fin loomed through the mist and out of the fog a small group of orcas passed closer to shore, and closer to us.
The main group disappeared, their blows getting fainter and with them the motor boat faded away. We were left alone. Four kayaks, five people and four orcas milling around… I was in heaven!
While we sat and watched, our guide dropped down a hydrophone, an underwater microphone, and replacing the sound of the engine and the crackle of the radio, the wonderful calls of orcas echoed through the still air.
The mist began to lift, bright beams of sunlight shone through the breaks, glistening off the orcas backs and creating sparkles in the droplets of their breath. The world of Johnstone Strait, Vancouver Island, Canada, revealed itself. A backdrop of forested mountains, rippling calm waters and orcas surfacing in the deep blue-green sea.
The orcas we encountered are part of the Northern Resident community, a population of about 309 individuals that ranges from the coastal waters of mid-Vancouver Island north to south eastern Alaska. They are most commonly seen in the summer months in Johnstone Strait and Queen Charlotte Strait off north eastern Vancouver Island.
The community is made up of three acoustic clans, A, G and R within which there are a total of 16 pods; extended families of close relatives. Each pod has its own collection of calls, known as dialects. Pods that share common calls belong to the same clan. Each pod then has a number of closely bonded family groups of mothers and their offspring. These are known as matrilines (a line of descent traced through the mothers side) and are named after the most senior living female, the matriarch, of the family.
There are 33 matrilines within the Northern Resident community. Variability within calls even within different pods and matrilines means that groups can identified by ear or looking at a spectrogram. This means researchers can track individual groups without even needing to see them.
Of course in addition to tracking pods acoustically, researchers have been using photo-identification to study orcas on the west coast of Canada since the 1970s. By taking photos of their dorsal fin and back researchers can identify individuals from their natural markings. Excitingly from the photos I took sitting in that kayak on that misty day researchers were able to identify the I27s. This matriline is made up of I27 an adult female born in 1974 and her two offspring, I77 her son born in 1997 and I107 born in 2004.
But the orcas we encountered that day are not the only type of orcas found within Canadian Pacific waters. There are in fact three ecotypes (populations adapted to local environmental conditions), with each having different prey preferences, vocal calls and social organisation. These are Bigg’s Transient orca which feed on marine mammals, Offshore orca which feed on sharks and other large fish, and the Resident orca which feed primarily on salmon. The Resident ecotype is then split into the Southern Resident and Northern Resident communities, which although their ranges overlap do not interact and do not interbreed.
After an hour or so simply sitting, watching and listening to these incredible mammals, the group moved on, heading away up Johnstone Strait. The fog had completely burned off leaving a beautiful, sunny day. A landscape that was shrouded in mist was now revealed in vibrant shades of blue, green, grey and brown. We followed slowly behind still buzzing from the wonderful encounter.
About the Entry
- Blogger name | Rachael Barber
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