Monday, 28 October 2013

The Hunt

The RIB sped out of Victoria Harbour, skimming over the silky smooth water of the San Juan Straight. Mist, through which the sun was valiantly trying to break through, obscured the Olympic Mountains of the USA and gave a silvery quality to the ocean between. On board a small group of passengers are safely ensconced in large red survival suits. abruptly the boat does a u-turn, and speeds back towards the harbour. Ahead one or two larger boats filled with people are almost stationary, a sure sign of something being about. The RIB slows, approaching carefully. Out of the silvery grey water a tall, black fin rises, a grey saddle just behind this dorsal fin and the hint of white around the eye, as the unmistakable sleek, black body of a killer whale slices effortlessly through the water.

A Bigg's transient killer whale cruises the Victoria coastline

The boat slows almost to a stop, watching at a distance as the killer whales move steadily along the shoreline. There are five, including a large male and a small calf. But these are different to those seen from the kayak. They may be subtle differences but these whales may as well be a completely different species. They are Bigg’s transient killer whales, and rather than feeding on fish as the resident whales do, they feed on mammals. Seals, dolphins, porpoises, are all on their menu. Named after Michael Bigg, who first pioneered the photo-identification of killer whales here and led the way in establishing the different types of killer whales that live off the coast of British Columbia and Washington. Bigg’s killer whales do not vocalise or echolocate as much as resident’s and that is because marine mammals can hear very well underwater. Using stealth they follow the coastline in search of prey and that is exactly what this group was doing. At times they are in water so shallow the tip of the males dorsal fin is still clear above the water.

The group’s progress up the coast slows, they seem to be stalling and then the reason why becomes apparent. A harbour seal, sat on top of a bed of kelp, dinner. The group slowly circle, spy hopping, raising their whole head above the water and taking a good look around and at the seal. Tighter and tighter the five killer whales, including the young calf, circle closer. There is thought to this process. They don’t just go barging in, they work it, thinking, almost assessing the situation, working the best way to get the seal from the kelp. The approach needs to be right, move too soon and the seal could get away. 

Searching, establishing where the seal is

Suddenly there is a splash, the seal’s hind flippers flick up into the air and it is pulled down beneath the kelp. The killer whales surface once more altogether, almost turning in on one small point between them and then it is quiet.

Having pulled the seal under, the group surfaces tight together

Five minutes later the group surfaces again, once more in searching mode as they move off along the coast again…

The passengers sit, stunned. While it is sad to know that seal has been munched, it is the most fascinating piece of behaviour I have ever witnessed. I feel privileged to have observed this part of this killer whale family’s lives. This is nature, this is survival, this is the wild beautiful natural world we live in, and what we must protect.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Dash to the coast

Across the country the nation collectively groaned as the weather forecasts came in. Summer it seems was coming to a very abrupt end with gales and heavy rain predicted from midweek and over the weekend. Only one select group of people were eyeing up the predictions with relish. Northerly, and easterly winds, even some rain, birders on the east coast were rubbing their hands together at the thought of masses of migrant, common and rare, crossing from the continent. More than one booked last minute time off work as they themselves migrated to the coast.

Ringers also pricked their ears up at the forecast, constantly monitoring the changing weekend conditions with the hope of some sort of break, or brief pause in the storm that might bring suitable conditions to try and catch some of those birds that had made it to the coast.

Saturday was looking a total wash out with heavy rain and strong wind forecast all day. Sunday though, now Sunday was looking good. It seemed a respite in the wind and rain was coming.

Friday night and the forecast although improving on Saturday afternoon was still suggesting that Sunday would be the day. Of course the British weather being the British weather meant a certain pair of ringers woke up (thankfully reasonably early) on Saturday morning to find calm overcast conditions! Perfect for ringing but we were an hour from the coast! A frantic morning of throwing everything in the car (ringing kit, camping kit, food, blankets, dogs stuff, dog!….) and we made a dash for the coast.

All ready for a weekend ringing at the coast

It was not too bad all things considered… nets were up and birds were being caught by 10:30ish. Before the rain and wind then settled in, over 110 birds were caught and ringed. Most being robins and blackcaps, all recently arrived, but a few brambling and song thrush added to the mix and a special treat of a yellow-browed warbler one of those more rarer migrants….

Large numbers of robins recently arrived on the coast

Along the coast the conditions on Sunday were challenging for birders, with squally showers and strong winds, but the odd interesting birds were turning up, not least a spattering of yellow-browed warblers and for us, a wonderful view of a great grey shrike…

Not a bad blustery weekend after all….

The stunning yellow-browed warbler

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Dolphin Delight

Ahead the water of Johnstone Strait boiled. A long line of turbulent water stretching across the far side. Even from the low kayak you could see the disturbance in an otherwise calm sea. Through binoculars, on the bow of the nearby boats you could make out dark leaping shapes. Dolphins, lots of dolphins. Steaming up and down the Strait is a group of well over 300 Pacific white-sided dolphins. 

Just over two nautical miles away, across the other side of the smooth expanse of water, the small group of kayakers cautiously paddled out of Blackney Passage. They pause a short distance from shore, not willing to go too far into the middle of the Strait where motor boats and cruise ships travel. The dolphins remain distant, a mass of white frothing water, the occasional dark body leaping clear and creating an even bigger splash.

Watching from afar

Turning, the kayakers slowly head up the Strait reluctantly leaving the dolphins away to the left. Then something ahead catches the eye, the glint of sun reflecting against a dark back, a smooth sickle shaped dorsal fin slices through the water, followed by another. Part of the group has turned and in the blink of an eye, or the dip of a paddle, crossed the Strait. The small group crosses ahead of the kayakers and then turns. Hearts beat faster, paddles slow, and swoosh three or four dolphins surface within meters.

Pacific white-sided dolphins! 

Suddenly the whole group appears around us. Dolphins on all sides leaping clear, surfacing four, five or six abreast, in perfect synchrony. Exclamations of delight burst forth, an irrepressible, instinctive reaction to so many dolphins leaping almost jubilantly around us. It is impossible to know where to look, as we crane our necks one way and then another. Then someone yells ‘beneath!’ Looking down into the dark water and beneath the kayak are dolphins! Gracefully they twist and turn, seemingly looking back up at us as we gaze down at them.

Time seems to slow, the encounter feels like it lasts a lifetime, a slow motion play of events….then almost as quickly as they all appeared the dolphins are gone. We look up, time speeds back up to normal, and we see the group once again churning down the Strait.

Another fabulous adventure with Kingfisher Wilderness Adventures....