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Where Have All the Whales Gone?

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Since I opened the B&B 8 years ago we have been delighted almost every summer evening with whales blowing by. Sometimes all we would see is the spout of water as they came up for a breath but sometimes we would see the humpback whales jumping and using their pectoral fins or their tail to create huge splashes on the horizon. At times we have been blessed with a show of whales jumping clear out of the water. I remember one day calling to all my guests that there were whales on the horizon. We gathered on the upper deck excited with the show. After 30 minutes, guests started to head out to their supper reservations, I went back to the kitchen, and other disbursed off to play pool or jump into the hot tub. The whales continued to jump long after we lost interest in watching them. Brian, the owner of Subtital Adventures told me these sightings have been quite common for the past 14 year. This year has been a very different story.

The season started with 20,000 gray whales passing by on their way to Alaska and, as usual, a number of gray whales stopped in Barkley sound. However, unlike most years, these whales moved off very shortly after. A few humpbacks showed up and then they too left. I have heard that there has been only one humpback left in Barkley Sound. The whale, named Pinky, for its pink ventral pleats, seems to be the sole summer resident and even she cannot always be found.
Some of my guests have spotted orcas along the Wild Pacific Trail. I spoke to Jen from Jamie’s Whaling and she told me that Orcas have been spotted quite a lot in the area but, as these are transient whales, they roam up and down the west coast and are not a guaranteed sighting.

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The result is that whale watching tours have had to go further than ever to see whales. Jamie’s Whaling large boat, the Lady Selkirk, now extends the time of their trip from a 3 hour trip to a 5 hour trips so they have time to travel all the way to Pachena where a pod of grey whales have been hanging about. The zodiacs from the other companies travel faster and so their tour times have not changed though they do need to travel quite a distance.

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Brian Congdon, from Subtidal Adventures tells me that of the 27 trips in his zodiac, whales were seen on 23 of those trips, 11 with Gray, 3 with a Humpback and 8 with Orcas. Those this does sound like excellent odds, it is not what it has been like in past years, Tofino has had it much worse since they are too far away to travel to Pachena. One operator confided that he hadn’t seen a whale in 3 weeks. What a change from the myriad of whales we have been blessed with in the past both in Ucluet’s Barkley Sound and Tofino’s Clayoquot Sound.

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My guests went out whale watching today and though they didn’t see whales they were delighted with sea lions, seals, porpoises, bears, a sea otter, and of course a myriad of sea birds and bald eagles.

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So there is still plenty to see, and it is always amazing to be out on the water. It is summed up in the guarantee that is part of Subtital Adventure: “We can guarantee that if you do not go on a “whale watching” or “bear” tour, you definitely will not see a whale or a bear. Unfortunately you will also miss all the other amazing things our tours have to offer.” OK Brian. I’m still thrilled to go out into the pristine wilderness and the awe-inspiring ocean. Still, where did they all the whales go?

A fisherman, coming in from a trip, said he saw hordes of humpback whales 35 miles off shore, far too long a ride for whale watching boats. Though it is good to know these magnificent mammals are still about, what has driven them so far out? A bit of the answer came to me today when I was down at Jamies, talking to Jen. She mentioned that one of Jamie’s drivers from Tofino noticed that there have not been many strong winds coming from the West as in most summers.

 I mentioned this to my husband, Gary. Gary, who works for Majestic Kayaks, ferrying the kayaks out to the Broken Group, said that he too had noticed a lack of strong Westerly winds. Many times during past summers he had had to alter course because of the big waves on his way back home while this year he can’t remember having had to do that once. So what? Did the whales just blow away?

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The answer might have something to do with the Ekman spiral which is a consequence of the Coriolis effect. Basically, when the wind blows strong from the west the current travels offshore because of the Coriolis effect (in essence moving objects move to the right of their direction of motion in the northern hemisphere though to the left in the South).

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The water on the surface is affected more (because of the Ekman spiral) than the deeper water. As the surface water moves off shore (faster than the water under it) water from offshore comes in to replace it forming a circular motion. The result is an upwelling of the deeper water.

A drop of water in the Pacific Ocean only rotates to the surface once every 2,000 years (in the Atlantic only 1,000 years) and so there is a vast amount of nutrients coming from years of organisms falling to the bottom of the ocean - think fertilizer. The upwelling of nutrients is the reason why diving around here is better for visibility in the winter than in the summer. In the summer the ocean is literally like diving in soup. This soup forms the base of a vast food chain that supports a myriad of organisms in the ocean from the smallest plankton to the largest whale. Though I have not been out diving this summer because of work, I have noticed that the bay has been pretty clear this year. Could it be that the lack of this upwelling has caused a poor year for fishermen and a lack of the whales that we so love to watch? Is there just no soup this year?

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Support for this theory might come from the beautiful blue colour that could be seen that was seen around Barkley Sound around July. This colour comes from the bloom of the Coccolithophore. Coccolithophore exist in nutrient-poor conditions and will often kill off much of the larger phytoplankton. Whereas most phytoplankton need both sunlight and nutrients from the deep in the ocean, Coccolithophores likes a nutrient-poor water where the surface is still. At least one whale watching operator has noticed that when the water turns blue with Cocolithophores, it is harder to find whales. Is this evidence of a lack of the usual upwelling?

I passed on all my speculations to someone who’s master’s degree is in Biology rather than Psychology and here is what Wendy Szaniszlo had to say about my idle ramblings:
“Judy - great questions! Funny, seems like people think of me in association with sea lions but I've been actually monitoring and doing whale research longer (until they left Grice Bay in 2000 when I wanted to do my grad work on them. Ah, those feelings of grey whale abandonment have returned this year)!

It's all about the food. The water has been very warm this year (16 degrees C in the BGI in early summer, and 17.7 degrees C offshore when I was doing a whale survey offshore for DFO in August). There is no food and it is likely influenced by the temperature. The whale survey I did for DFO was in conjunction with a Vancouver Island wide sardine survey and surprise surprise, not one sardine caught for the week I was on board. And not surprisingly, very few humpbacks seen. Grey whales feed primarily on mysids, amphipods, ghost shrimp and porcelain crab larvae. A lot of work has been done on grey whale foraging (Dave Duffus at Uvic and his students, and Jim Darling). Oceanography and fresh water influx plays a big role in influencing food production and density. Even fine scale oceanographic phenomenon (local tides and currents) affect foraging grey whale behaviour over the span of a day (dispersing or concentrating prey which affects how long the whales are diving to maximize their foraging success).

I was in Clayoquot this summer and did some grey whale prey sampling with the Wildlands Studies Program students (I was lucky to tag along as a guest lecturer) and we sampled a few amphipods but they were too small to stick in GW baleen. The Uvic Whale Lab interns found little to no mysids. So truly, no food.

And so, back to Pachena I go tomorrow, where the only foraging grey whales are!”

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So it is confirmed. No soup. Whether the water temperature has risen because of the lack of upwellings, due to the absence of Westerly winds, is still the question. Even if it is the lack of Westerly winds, what is causing the lack of Westerly’s this year? It all seems interwoven. No Westerly-no upwelling -no food-no whales –no happy whale operators- no pictures of whales jumping as souvenirs for our many visitors from around the world.

So is this a function of climate change? Should we all feel environmental guilt for discovering our carbon footprint?

Brian from Subtital Adventures, who has been in the business of whale watching the longest, says no. Apparently 14 years ago he again had to run far to find whales. The humpbacks were all way off shore and the grey whales were hard to find. So perhaps this is just a cycle. Perhaps next year we will be able to wave back the humpbacks splashing with their pectoral fins on the horizon and blow kisses to the grey whales blowing by. Who knows? Maybe the wind? Maybe the sun? And they’re just not talking!


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