Saturday, April 25, 2009

A whale of a time

With the ongoing uncertainty in my current job I'm leafing through my options and one of them is whale watching.

I worked as an onboard biologist for one season out of Victoria and, like any job, it had its low points but looking back I remember spending my day roaming around a gorgeous bit of the world looking at orcas and other marine life.

That sounds all right.

I always seem to find an ethical problem in my paid pursuits. With whale watching I had trouble feeling good about being part of a fleet of high-powered motor boats following a pod of endangered whales around day in and day out.

There are two kinds of orcas seen in the Pacific northwest – residents and transients.

Residents are large family groups of killer whales that eat salmon exclusively. There are three resident pods that stick around the Coast Salish Sea between Seattle in the south and the Georgia Strait up to about Vancouver in the north, with lots of roaming beyond that home area.

I've been keeping an eye on the industry and noted a few births in the resident pods this year. That's good news as this group is listed as endangered with just under 90 whales divided between three pods. The two biggest threats to the animals are pollution and dwindling salmon stocks.

The baby above was born the year I was on the water, 2006.

This spring there have been a lot of transient killer whale sightings. The transients travel far and wide in smaller groups (often a single female with one or two of her offspring, or lone males) and hunt marine mammals.

The most interesting website I came across is the Cascadia Research project that's following the movements of the transients here.

The other whales commonly seen in this region are the minke, grey and humpback whales, baleen feeders that strain small sea life through what amounts to sieves in their mouths.

This is the nose of a mature female humpback whale. She hung out between Victoria Harbour and Race Rocks with her calf for several weeks in October 2006.

There was a grey whale sighting in the Alberni Inlet just a few weeks ago. Highly unusual but indicates the health of the formerly industrial waterfront is improving.

The paper mill used to dump wood fibre into the Inlet and it formed a thick mat on the ocean floor, choking out life. A few years back people looked into whether it could be removed as a restoration project but found that now a new layer has settled over top and marine life has colonized this sub-sea floor again. Disturbing the new habitat would be too damaging, they decided.

Grey whales scoop mud from the bottom and strain the edible bits out of it. I wonder if that whale was able to do that or if it left the Inlet hungry.

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