Hydrophone Scouting in the Great Bear

by Claire Hume, Pacific Wild intern

With herring season upon us, a small group of us here at Pacific Wild took advantage of a break in the weather and took a trip along the outside of the Great Bear.  Our mission was to identify new locations on the windswept and rugged outer coast for the next hydrophone and remote wildlife camera installations planned for Heiltsuk territory.

Little did I know that this one trip would introduce me to sea otters, humpback whales, signs of an outer coastal wolf pack, and the incredible sight of a group of transient whales surfing through breaking swells as they preyed on Stellar sea lions.

As we crossed miles of open ocean swells and entered a rocky outcropping of islets downwind, I was hit with the smell of 500 Stellar sea lions. They watched us curiously as we pulled the boat along shore. As we slowed to a stop, Ian and Tavish slipped into their diving gear, grabbed underwater cameras, and hopped into the water.  Finding a suitable underwater crack in the rock to lay the hydrophone cable is essential if we expect to keep the cable intact through the winter. The sea lions, comically sluggish and clumsy on land, clambered over their sleeping neighbours and grunted in each other’s faces. But the moment they hit the water, after dragging and wobbling their way to the rock’s edge, they moved easily with an incredible combination of power and grace. I wondered, as we bobbed around in the sunshine, what, exactly, our plan of action would be if the divers were met with a less than friendly response from the giant creatures swirling below. With no way of knowing how the underwater world was treating them, we just continued to bob and hope for the best.

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A short while later the divers resurfaced, all smiles. Swimming with the sea lions, they informed us, didn’t make them nervous at all. They compared it to visiting a gang of playful, albeit massive, dogs. It wasn’t until I saw their footage later that day that I really appreciated their analogy. The sea lions kept their distance as they calmly circled the divers, curious to see these strange new beings from all angles. Occasionally coming closer to blow bubbles at their masks or to look at their reflections in the camera, the sea lions came across as beautiful and inquisitive animals.

On our way back from diving, Max thought he spotted something up ahead. Eagerly scanning the horizon for a dorsal fin or spout, our concentration was interrupted by a killer whale breaching clear out of the water. A group of transient mammal-hunting whales was heading right for the sea lion rock.

We dropped the hydrophone overboard and listened as they called to one another and then fell silent, a sign that they were going into hunting mode. Turning the boat around, we raced back to the sea lion rock and waited, with a quiet engine and cameras ready, for the killer whales to come our way. Minutes later they arrived, six adults plus two calves, and began tearing back and forth through the surf as sea lions barked and bawled. The tension was incredible both on the island and on board as everyone scrambled to get ID photos and footage.

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Then, just as quickly as it had started, they were gone, moving south, most likely to the next sea lion haul out.

Back on solid ground we compared our whale pictures to DFO’s killer whale catalogue and identified the individuals we saw as members of the T55 Group. The largest male in the pod was born in 1972 and goes by the ID label of T54. Clearly the next location for a hydrophone station had been found – now it’s just a matter of waiting for the right weather window.

When the hydrophones and camera are installed this summer, Pacific Wild will transmit the audio and video streams live through their website, allowing people all over the world to monitor the behaviour of the animals in this incredible ecosystem and appreciate what a spectacular place this really is.

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