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Follow Your Dreams . . .

Follow Your Dreams – and make them count.

What’s with the stained and faded photo below?

Follow Your Dreams . . .  Northern Resident Killer Whales: Tsitika (A30, 1949 - 2013) and her son Pointer (A39, 1975 - 2014. Photo taken in 1999. ©Jackie Hildering;

Follow Your Dreams . . .
Northern Resident Killer Whales: Tsitika (A30, 1949 – 2013) and her son Pointer (A39, 1975 – 2014. Photo taken in 1999. ©Jackie Hildering;

Introspection alert!

This photo has been on a beloved friend’s refrigerator for almost 16 years. I sent it to my nearest and dearest as a new year’s greeting at the end of 1999 after leaving my “career” as a teacher and school administrator in Rotterdam.

It references following my need to be learning from Nature, not speaking about it as if it were somewhere else, and to find a more effective way to enable understanding of connection and common solutions to socio-environmental problems.

It led me back to BC; to being a deckhand; and to Orca. Orca as extraordinarily powerful ambassadors of of how wrong we can be; how quickly we can change; and the repercussions of humanity gone mad with chemical use and consumerism. It led to diving and underwater photography as part of my love of this place. It led to Humpback research when the giants returned. All the while, teaching and finding those like yourself along the way, the like-minded helping to maybe make it count all the more.

Today, I found myself staring back at this old photo, thinking back and reflecting forward. The two whales have now passed – Tsitika (A30, 1949 – 2013) and her son Pointer (A39, 1975 – 2014). Stained, fuzzy, faded, and slightly torn, the photo brings me back through the years, reminding me of how much I’ve learned from them and this place.

I feel fortified. There are more decisions to be made to take the path less travelled. I need to trust that I will look back in another 16 years feeling that my internal compass allowed me to navigate sometimes stormy, lonely, scary, unknown waters to land again where following dreams that are motivated by good, will lead to greater good.

Today, The Marine Detective Facebook page tipped over 9,000 which is what catalyzed this introspection.

For all you here too on the blog, I want to thank you for the sense of community you provide and the fuel to keep at it through your comments, promotion, and support through calendars, canvases, etc.

From the depths . . . . thank you. 

This is going to be worth the 4 minutes of viewing believe me!

Humpback Whales have many complex feeding strategies. In areas where current and birds do not force the feed together, there are Humpbacks that work as a team to corral the fish. This strategy includes an intense feeding call and making a net of bubbles.

This video was taken while I was with Pacific Wild in Caamano Sound off British Columbia’s Central Coast.

This is exactly the area where there is the potential of increased tanker traffic.

Knowing how important this area is – not only for at-risk Humpback, Fin and Killer Whales; but for human health and so much more – is a huge motivator to do all I can do reduce the demand for fossil fuels.


If you can’t see the video above, please click here. 

TMD Memes.001

And they spread their giant wing-like fins . . . and returned from the brink.

The whales remind us of our great capacity for positive change . . . when our value systems change and knowledge, connection and humility replace fear and misunderstanding.

The simple solution? Care More. Consume Less.

There are still so many ways to indirectly kill a whale and damage the life-sustaining seas upon which we all depend.

Image is of “Jigger” the mature female Humpback Whale who breached for 18 minutes. More images below.

You simply can’t be the same after seeing something like this, nor would I want to be.

What triggered this behaviour may have been an encounter with another Humpback (“Slash” BCX0177″) but we cannot know for sure.

For the work of our Marine Education and Research Society, please see here and yes, you can support our work by sponsoring a Humpback Whale!

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From the depths . . . .

"The Marine Detective" art show at 546 Yates in Victoria. Includes a 15 min rotating slide show of images. Come in, sit down, and disappear into the depths for a little while?

“The Marine Detective” art show at 546 Yates in Victoria. Includes a 15 min rotating slide show of images. Come in, sit down, and disappear into the depths for a little while?

It is the morning after the opening of my first art show and I am awash with a sense of gratitude and community.

As I strived to express last night in my presentation, had anyone told me way-back-when that I would ever have an art show, it would have been the equivalent of being told that I would undertake interplanetary travel.

An art show?! It was very high threshold for me because, rather than just striving to capture the mystery, beauty and fragility of the Ocean to inspire and educate, the images are being put forward as ART.

Therefore, last night was very much for me another “How did I get here?” experience.

But I do know the answer. It is because, however the magic of life works, I have been allowed to fully, deeply understand the importance of the Ocean as the life-sustaining force on the planet.  And, as a teacher, enhancing the potential for our children to have healthy, happy futures will always be what gives my life direction.

"The Marine Detective" images at Art Atelier 546 in Victoria (on 546 Yates Street). Click to enlarge.

“The Marine Detective” images at Art Atelier 546 in Victoria (on 546 Yates Street). Click to enlarge.

How did I get here?  It has to do with geography, opportunity, difficult and daring decisions made, skills, experience and  . . . you.

Please hear me. It has to do with YOU.

Wherever this is going – wherever it has gone – it is because of a force of people who share the values and objectives of “The Marine Detective” and want it to move forward.

The sense of gratitude I am overcome with this morning, and that is so difficult to express, is that I feel I am being held up by an Ocean of people . . . . those who were at the opening last night; the whispers and shouts of support and encouragement on social media; the sharing to expand the reach of the content there; the applause expressed in so many ways; the enablement of diving, photography and whale research; the sharing of calendars and prints into the world so that they might further connect others; the assistance re. potential books, webisodes, whatever  . . . it’s you.

I know that The Marine Detective is a community working for greater understanding and positive action for socio-environmental good.

From the depths, thank you.

Because of you I speak louder; I dare more; I keep at it and, I stay afloat . . . gently propelled to who-knows-where.

Link to photos – here. 

Photo by Andrew Topham, made possible with Melanie Wood.

Photo by Andrew Topham, made possible with Melanie Wood.




Trust me, you are going to love the video below!

Giant Pacific Octopus passing over a mature male Wolf Eel in his den. See video below. ©Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus passing over a mature male Wolf Eel in his den. See video below. ©Jackie Hildering

It is one of the most remarkable encounters I have witnessed in all my dives.

It’s a fortunate enough thing to be able to watch a large Giant Pacific Octopus when it is hunting. In this encounter, the octopus passes directly over a mature male Wolf Eel’s in his den. THEN, a Decorated Warbonnet emerges as well.

It was an exciting day in this wonderful marine neighbourhood.

I hope this 3-minute clip allows you to share in the awe and excitement.

For me, this was the NE Pacific Ocean equivalent of seeing a giraffe, elephant and rhino in close proximity.

Video and photos contributed by dive buddies Katie Morgan and Diane Reid while on our trip with God’s Pocket Dive Resort.

  • For more information on Wolf Eels (including that they are not an eel at all), see my previous blog here.
  • For more information on Giant Pacific Octopuses, click here for previous blogs and here for a blog specifically on hunting in Giant Pacific Octopus.

Here we go again. 

It has just come to my attention that there are two applications for tenure for tidal turbines in killer whale critical habitat. This last arose in November in 2012 with my posting the blog “Tidal Turbines in Whale Epicentre? Hell No!”. The resulting media coverage, your action and the ethics of the applicant resulted in that application being withdrawn.

With these two new applications, your action is again very much needed.

The comment deadline is April 9th, 2015. 

Below, I have edited my November 2012 blog to be applicable to these applications and hopefully I have succeeded in making commenting very expeditious for you. 

Here goes . . . .

There are times when expletives like “Hell No!” are justified and I am sure you will agree this is one of those very unfortunate times and – your action is needed.

There are two applications for “OCEAN ENERGY / INVESTIGATIVE AND MONITORING PHASE” by Weyl Power Ltd. If accepted by the BC Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (MFLNRO), this would allow the instalment of technical and investigative monitoring equipment in killer whale critical habitat which could then lead to turbines also being located there.  I believe the applications are still referenced as licenses of occupation“.

See the map for the location of the proposed Weyl Power sites relative to resident killer whale critical habitat as per the Recovery Strategy for Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales in Canada.

Proposed sites relative to acknowledged northern resident killer whale critical habitat.

Proposed sites relative to acknowledged northern resident killer whale critical habitat. Source of base map: BC Cetacean Sightings Network. Click to enlarge. For more on the determination of this critical habitat see Ford, J.K.B. An Assessment of critical habitats of resident killer whales in waters off the Pacific Coast of Canada. Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat, Research Document 2006/072.

(1) Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove (File: #1414321)

(2)  Broughton Strait, western end of Malcolm Island  (File: #1414325)

While I of course support initiatives to reduce the use of climate-changing fossil fuels, to have turbines in critical whale habitat would be pure, simple, total, utter insanity. No matter how advanced the turbine technology, no amount of mitigation could compensate for the noise, prey reduction, and other disturbance to the whales.

One would hope that government agencies would surely deny the applications, especially after the public outcry after the similar 2012 application in this same area.  However, we have many examples of this being tragically misplaced faith and cannot count on there being any legislation in place for sound environmental assessment that would confirm environmental impacts. Note that the federal government had to be taken to court TWICE to be ordered to acknowledge and protect killer whale critical habitat – first ruling December 7, 2010; appeal ruling February 9th, 2011.

Weyl Power Application -  Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove. File: #1414321

Weyl Power Application – Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove. File: #1414321. Click to enlarge.

The very ocean current that makes this area of interest for staking a claim for ocean energy is what makes this such a rich area for marine life. The importance of this area for killer whales can be supported by almost 4 decades of data collected by Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the OrcaLab.

To allow these applications to proceed would therefore be ludicrous and in direct conflict of Objective 4 of the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whale Action Plan for Species at Risk which is to “Protect critical habitat for Resident Killer Whales and identify additional areas for critical habitat designation and protection.”

Weyl Power Application -  Broughton Strait, western end of Malcolm Island. File: #1414321. Click to enlarge. Weyl Power Application -  Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove

Weyl Power Application – Broughton Strait, western end of Malcolm Island. File: #1414321. Click to enlarge.

Therefore, we collectively need (again) to make our “Hell No!” heard.

Please comment by the April 9th deadline by going to these two links and scrolling down till you see “To comment on this application please click here”.

  • Weyl Power application for Johnstone Strait between Hanson Island and Telegraph Cove (File: #1414321) – click here.
  • Weyl Power application for Broughton Strait, western end of Malcolm Island (File: #1414325) – click here.

Sample text: With regard to Land File Numbers 1414321 and 1414325, the applications for Weyl Power Ltd’s “OCEAN ENERGY / INVESTIGATIVE AND MONITORING PHASE” in the Broughton Strait to Johnstone Strait area, I write you to express that these applications for tenure must not be granted. The applications are in scientifically confirmed critical habitat for northern resident killer whales and it has been legally ruled that this must be protected as per Canada’s Species at Risk Act. In addition, the area is of great importance to humpback whales and many other marine species.  No matter how advanced the turbine technology, no amount of mitigation could compensate for the noise, prey reduction, and other disturbance to the whales and to approve these applications would be in direct conflict of Objective 4 of the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whale Action Plan for Species at Risk which is to “Protect critical habitat for Resident Killer Whales and identify additional areas for critical habitat designation and protection”. It is also unacceptable that the public is not provided with information on these applications other than the applicant name and the maps i.e. no information about design or environmental assessment process.”
You may even want to reference this blog and provide the link e.g. “For further details of the reasons for my great objection to this application see the rationale and resources provided at

Please also help spread the word?

So much insanity  . . . so little time.  


Media Coverage:

Take Part; March 22, 2015; “The Clean-Energy Project That Could Harm Endangered Killer Whales – A mystery firm wants to build underwater power turbines in critical orca habitat off Canada’s Pacific coast

Underwater Smoking Log and the Worm That is Not a Worm?

Submerging into the dark, you never know what you are going to see.

It is a large part of what is so intoxicating about diving in cold, dark waters – all the mystery; all the wonder; all the opportunity for learning and sharing.

So what was it today?

This – a smoking log at about 6 m depth!

Teredo navalis spawning. March 8, 2015 ©Jackie Hildering.

Northwest Shipworms spawning. March 8, 2015 ©Jackie Hildering.

The “smoke” was brief but intense and of course it was not smoke at all. It was the spawn of some animal. Many marine invertebrates are broadcast spawners where all individuals in an area release their sex cells at the same time to enhance the chances of fertilization.

I knew the source of the “smoke” had to be a shipworm species since it was coming from a rotting log with lots of tunnels bored into it. I then had to do a bit of reading to be sure of whether it was the invasive Naval Shipworm (Teredo navalis), or the indigenous Northwest Shipworm (Bankia setacea).

Either way, shipworms are not worms at all!

Northwest Shipworm Source: MARINE WOOD BORERS IN BRITISH COLUMBIA D. B. Quayle; 1992

Northwest Shipworm Source: MARINE WOOD BORERS IN BRITISH COLUMBIA; D. B. Quayle; 1992

Shipworms are saltwater clams. They look like a worm in a calcareous tube but have two small shells at the front of their bodies that are specialized to bore through wood, much to our dismay! The clams also have symbiotic bacteria that release an enzyme to help break down the cellulose in the wood.

I believe in this case it was the Northwest Shipworm that was spawning and the initial cue for the synchronous release of sex cells in this species is believed to be a sudden change in temperature or salinity. Once the spawn begins, it is believed that neighbouring Northwest Shipworms drawing water into their siphons detect the spawn and that this further triggers them to release their sex cells.

The Northwest Shipworm it is more common in BC than the Naval Shipworm; the tunnels in the wood looked like those caused by this species; but also relevant in my knowing it was this species is that I saw eggs being released as well as sperm.

With the oh-so-successful Naval Shipworm that originated in the Atlantic but is now boring through wood in all the world’s oceans, only the males release sex cells. Sperm are then drawn into females’ inhalant siphons; the eggs are fertilized and develop in the female’s gills in huge numbers to be released as free-swimming larvae.

Teredo navalis spawning. March 8, 2015 ©Jackie Hildering.

Northwest Shipworms spawning. The white material on the logs is known as “frass”- waste discharged through the clams’ excurrent siphons. March 8, 2015 ©Jackie Hildering.

The Northwest Shipworm does not have this reproductive strategy. With both genders broadcast spawning, you can imagine how many sex cells need to be released for successful reproduction.

After about 3 weeks (at 12 – 15°C), the Northwest Shipworm larvae appear to be able to detect wood. They attach themselves, soften the wood, bore into it, develop into adults and cause economic discontent in we humans. This is especially the case in the logging industry which depends on transporting and storing wood in the Ocean.

Apparently the Northwest Shipworm can burrow 10 cm per month at temperatures greater than 10°C. See here for examples of the damage to wood by this species. If you are a Northern Vancouver Islander, you can see how this wood has been used as a decorative wall covering in the Whale Interpretive Centre.

For me, there was no discontent today. It was a wonder to be swimming by at the exact time this species was spawning. Providing me with a further opportunity to . . .  smoke out facts about our marine life and share them with you!

Related blog post:



The Kraken?! Devilfish?!

Scary?! Dangerous?! Alien?

Suggest such things about a Giant Pacific Octopus to any scuba diver respectful of marine life who has had an encounter with one of these gentle giants, and there is going to be a very strong response shattering such mythology.

As it always goes, fear and mythology thrive where there is absence of knowledge.

Any negative encounters between divers and Giant Pacific Octopuses that I am aware of, result from divers manhandling them “insisting” on an encounter or involve individuals that are habituated to being fed by humans.

©2015 Jackie Hildering

Giant Pacific Octopus, Copper Rockfish and dive buddy Natasha Dickinson.
Read about this remarkable encounter below. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

We, as divers, are so fortunate to come across Giant Pacific Octopuses in their world where they are invertebrate royalty. We are able to meet them on their turf, and thereby know how inquisitive and intelligent they are. We know they are mighty, highly adaptable predators.

And, we know too, when we look into their eyes, that observation and assessment is being reciprocated.

That preamble was necessary before sharing what happened today.

This did . . . .

©2015 Jackie Hildering

1. Dive buddy Natasha Dickinson during the remarkable Giant Pacific Octopus encounter.
See the Copper Rockfish too? ©2015 Jackie Hildering

I had been taking photographs of Lingcod males guarding their egg masses and noted that my dive buddy Natasha Dickinson was signalling me with her light, indicating that she had found something of particular interest.

I took a few more shots and then swam towards her and found . . .  my dive buddy with a Giant Pacific Octopus completely covering her face. Sorry that I missed that shot. I was so in awe of what I saw.

Natasha is an incredibly skilled and experienced diver with a deep respect for marine life. She was clearly not afraid, nor was the octopus.

Natasha had taken the precaution of putting her hand over the regulator in her mouth in case the octopus took an interest in that but otherwise, allowed her to explore.

©2015 Jackie Hildering

2. Natasha is also a master of facial expressions that relay 1000 words. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

I would learn later that, while waiting for me she had been watching the Copper Rockfish that you will see in all but one of the photos in this blog. This rockfish stuck very near the octopus. A buddy?  That I don’t know but escorting a Giant Pacific Octopus on the hunt is a really good strategy. As the octopus flushes out animals from under rocks with his/her arms, the rockfish can grab the prey that do not end up under the octopus’ mantle.

While observing the rockfish, the Giant Pacific Octopus had slowly advanced toward Natasha and she remained where she was, intrigued at what would happened and having a contingency plan

©2015 Jackie Hildering

3. Octopus flashing white as it pulls on the clasp ©2015 Jackie Hildering

When I started to take photos the Giant Pacific Octopus gradually backed away but had taken a particular interest in a clasp at the end of a bungee cord on Natasha’s gear.

You can see how her arm was entwined around the cord and how there was some flashing of white in the skin. You can also see the Copper Rockfish!

©2015 Jackie Hildering

4. Pulling a little harder! ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

5. One of the photos that suggests this was a female.  ©2015 Jackie Hildering

I believe this octopus was a female, thanks to feedback I received from self-admitted Cephalopod Geek supreme, Keely Langford of the Vancouver Aquarium. Octopus males have a “hectocotylus arm”. In Giant Pacific Octopuses, it is the third arm on their right. The hectocotylus stores the spermatophores – packets of sex cells, two of which are handed over to a receptive female who stores them until ready to fertilize her eggs.

Having the good fortune to get photos of the right side of this octopus, particularly #5 and #7, allowed me to see that the top of third arm on the right is not differentiated and that therefore, this was a female.

©2015 Jackie Hildering

6. Just after letting go. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

Back to recounting our adventure . . . .

After about a minute or two of gently tugging on the bungee cord, Ms. Giant Pacific Octopus let go.

Natasha swam a bit further off, allowing me a few minutes to marvel and photograph this beauty – the Giant Pacific Octopus AND the Copper Rockfish.

©2015 Jackie Hildering

7. Another photo that allowed me a good look at the 3rd arm on the right. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

8. Ms. Octopus with the Copper Rockfish particularly near. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

9. At one point, she also slowly advanced towards me but when I retreated a bit, so did she. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

10. Walking towards me.  ©2015 Jackie Hildering

When Natasha circled back, the octopus flashed a bit of white as you can see in the image below. Recognition?

We both found ourselves waving goodbye when we, regretfully, had to return to our terrestrial world.

©2015 Jackie Hildering

11. Giant Pacific Octopus, Copper Rockfish, Kelp Greenling and dive buddy. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

So what to do when you find a Giant Pacific Octopus on your dive buddy’s head? Observe, marvel, take some photos, share and maybe it can help dispel some of the mythology and vilification about these fabulous marine neighbours.

Eye-to-eye with a gentle giant. My peering into a Giant Pacific Octopus' den earlier this month (using a macro lens).  ©Jackie Hildering

12.. Eye-to-eye with a gentle giant. My peering into a Giant Pacific Octopus’ den earlier this month (using a macro lens). ©Jackie Hildering

Please note, I have shared our experience to reduce the misunderstanding and demonification of octopus NOT to stimulate diver attempts at interactions. It was an unsolicited gift experienced by those with a very high level of dive experience; knowledge of octopus (and dive buddy) behaviour; and solid safety protocols.

Giant Pacific Octopus Facts:

  • Enteroctopus dofleini is the world’s largest octopod species with the maximum records for size being 9.8 m from arm tip to arm tip and 198.2 kg.
  • Average life expectancy is only 3 to 4 years.
  • Like other octopuses:
    • They have a beak with venom, nine brains, three hearts, blue blood, and their skin is capable of detecting chemicals (as our nose does).
    • Their ink is no just a distraction for predators but contains the chemical tyrosinase which causes eye irritation and messes up the predators senses of smell and taste.
    • They are jet propelled and are capable of incredible camouflage where they can not only change the colour of their skin but also its texture to blend in with their surroundings.
    • They mate only once. From the Vic High Marine website regarding Giant Pacific Octopuses: “Females die directly after they have finished laying and guarding to their egg however males live a slightly longer time. Octopus reproduction starts when a male uses a specialized tentacle [sic, octopuses have arms not tentacles] to pass two spermatophores (sperm packages) to the female. Once given the sperm the female stores the package until she is ready to fertilize the eggs.  Before a female is ready to fertilize the eggs she has to find a suitable den. This search can take the future mother up to one month! Once the perfect place is found the female shuts herself in using rocks. From there she fertilizes each egg and gathers them in bundle of approximately 200. She hangs each group of eggs from the ceiling of the cave. This is a long process because on average a female octopus can lay up to 50,000 eggs.  The incubation time for octopus eggs are six and a half months.  During this time the female stays in the cave, not even leaving to eat, attending to the eggs by constantly blowing oxygenated water on to them. When the baby octopuses hatch they are referred to as paralave. These tiny juveniles swim up to the surface joining other zoo plankton and spending weeks feeding on tiny phytoplankton. Once they have developed enough mass they descend to the benthic zone.  As for the mother, she waits until all the eggs have hatched then emerges from the cave and dies shortly afterwards due to the starvation she endured during the months she spent devoted to tending her eggs.
  • Excellent on-line resources on octopuses.
  • Best book on Giant Pacific Octopuses –  The Giant Pacific Octopus and Other Cephalopods of the Pacific Coast by James A. Cosgrove and Neil McDaniel.
  • And the plural really is “octopuses” not “octopi”! See #3 at this link if you are doubtful.

Great thanks to Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Marine Services for making this dive possible.

Media coverage so thankfully resulting from this blog includes:


Otherworldly Drifter. Mind Blown.

Today was the first time ever that, while diving, I made a gesture to my dive buddy indicating that my brain had exploded.

We weren’t deep; the remarkable find that had me awestruck was at 3 to 5 metre depth. It’s a known species and individuals are found throughout the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans but  . . . . it’s certainly extremely rare here around NE Vancouver Island and it is SO otherworldly.

Let me take you on a short journey of discovery.

I was already pretty excited when I found the organism in the photo below. I knew it to be a salp “aggregate” and was delighted that there was an amphipod hitchhiker. See it?

Cyclosalpa bakeri with amphipod hitchhiker ©Jackie Hildering;

Cyclosalpa bakeri with amphipod hitchhiker.
©Jackie Hildering;

Salps are such unique gelatinous animals! They belong to the group of highly evolved invertebrates known as tunicates. Most tunicate species live attached to the bottom when they are adults but salps remain Ocean drifters for their whole lives. Because of their gelatinous “tunic” they have even been referred to as Ocean Gummy Bears.

Their reproduction is totally otherworldly! They alternate between two forms. The image above is of the “aggregate” form or “salp chain” that, dependent on species, can be made up of millions of individuals. The aggregate form reproduces sexually to form a barrel-shaped solitary form. The solitary form buds off (asexually) to produce the individuals that make up the aggregate form and so on! Salps apparently grow faster than any other multicellular organism! (Source: JelliesZone).

Back to the dive  . . . so I was already pretty thrilled to have seen the salp chain of this unique species and was taking the photo below of an Alabaster Nudibranch (because you can NEVER have enough photos of Alabaster Nudibranchs)  . . . .

Alabaster nudibranch. Dirona albolineata to 18 cm aka “white-lined dirona” or “frosted nudibranch”. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

Alabaster nudibranch. Dirona albolineata to 18 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

. . . . and then I saw something hovering above me, zeppelin like.

Brain exploded. WHAT was this?!

Pelagic tunicate. Salp species - Thetys, solitary phase. To 33 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

It was about 25 cm long.

It had openings on both ends.

It clearly had internal organs.

And it had unique projections on what I assumed was its back end.

The look on my dive buddy Natasha Dickinson’s face in the image below says it all!

Dive buddy with Thetys. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

Dive buddy Natasha Dickinson with Thetys salp. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

I was pretty sure that it was the solitary form of some species of salp but  . . . so big?

Pelagic tunicate. Salp species - Thetys, solitary phase. To 33 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

Good view of gut. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

As soon as I got home I grabbed my copy of Wrobel and Mills’ “Pelagic Coast Pelagic Invertebrates” and emailed a few photos of this unique find to Andy Lamb, co-author of Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest.

Ahh – it’s wonderful to have friends in deep places. Andy came back very quickly with the ID. It was a salp indeed, in fact, the world’s biggest. Thetys* in the solitary form can grow to 33 cm!

From Dave Wrobel’s The JelliesZone webpage: “Thetys is truly an impressive member of the zooplankton.  It is the largest species of salp along the West Coast and is relatively easy to distinguish from all others.  Unlike most gelatinous animals, the body is relatively firm due to the thick spiny test (the test, or tunic, is the hard outer covering typical of many tunicates, hence the name for the group).  It retains its shape even when removed from the water.  Solitary individuals have 20 partial muscle bands . . . that are used for constricting the body while pumping water for feeding and locomotion.  A pair of pigmented posterior projections are very distinctive, as is the darkly colored, compact gut . . . Like other salps, Thetys continuous pumps water through a mucous net to extract phytoplankton and other small particles.   Although relatively uncommon in Monterey Bay [and therefore very uncommon so much further north where I sighted this individual], this widespread species can be found in temperate and tropical waters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, to depths of about 150 meters.”

Pelagic tunicate. Salp species - Thetys, solitary phase. To 33 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

I was intrigued how an animal that lives in the open Ocean and depends on plankton could be so big?

How could it filter enough plankton out of the water?

Pelagic tunicate. Salp species - Thetys, solitary phase. To 33 cm. ©2015 Jackie Hildering

©2015 Jackie Hildering

I came upon research from MIT (2010) that revealed how salps could get enough nutrients to be so big and fast growing.  Their mucus nets are astounding in how they are able to trap incredibly small-sized plankton. With this find, the researchers referenced salps as “the vacuum cleaners of the ocean” and confirmed how important they are because of what they do to huge volumes of climate-changing carbon.

In the Oceanus Magazine article Salps Catch the Ocean’s Tiniest Organisms, the researchers explain “As they eat, they [the salps] consume a very broad range of carbon-containing particles and efficiently pack the carbon into large, dense fecal pellets that sink rapidly to the ocean depths, Madin said. “This removes carbon from the surface waters,” Sutherland said, “and brings it to a depth where you won’t see it again for years to centuries.” And more carbon sinking to the bottom reduces the amount and concentration of carbon in the upper ocean, letting more carbon dioxide enter the ocean from the atmosphere, explained Stocker” [thereby reducing the amount in the atmosphere where it impacts climate.]

I of course also hoped to find a good photo or video of the salp chain of this species (the aggregate form) and came upon this 1-minute clip by Patrick Anders Webster (taken off the coast of central California).

Wow!!! Mind-blown again.

[*You may have noticed that the full scientific name for this tunicate species is Thetys vagina as assigned by the German naturalist Wilhelm Gottlieb Tilesius von Tilenau in 1802. Likely at that time, “vagina” did not yet have its anatomical meaning and the species name was chosen for the Latin origin of the word meaning “wrapper” / “sheath”.]

Likely you’ve seen it – Chris Wilton’s video of Killer Whales* / Orca rubbing on a beach in the Discovery Islands on January 29th, the whales only within ~1.5 metres of the incredibly fortunate humans’ feet?

[Video used with permission. For licensing / permission to use: Contact – licensing(at)jukinmediadotcom]

I became a resource to the news for interpreting the whales’ behaviour in this video as a result of my posting their IDs and commenting on the behaviour on social media. However, it proved difficult to extinguish some misinterpretation and misinformation, for example, the notion that the behaviour captured in the video was rare e.g. “B.C. orcas’ rare beach-rubbing behaviour caught on video” (CBC News. January 31, 2015).

It’s not rare behaviour at all. It is rare that people get to see it.

Big difference!

That’s what has motivated me to write this blog but before I proceed let me qualify that while I have spent a lot of time staring at Killer Whales through binoculars, I am a Humpback Whale researcher and marine educator. Everything that is known about Killer Whales is due to the long-term population study by DFO’s Cetacean Research Program. It began in 1973 with the late, great Dr. Michael Bigg and as a result, the Killer Whales of British Columbia have been studied as individuals longer than any other marine mammals in the world.

Thanks to the Cetacean Research Program’s work, identifying the whales in Chris’ video was easy. I recognized that they were beach-rubbing and, therefore, they had to be members of the threatened Northern Resident population. “Resident” Killer Whales are inshore, fish-eaters who can best be described as “Chinook-aholics”. The Northern Residents are the only Killer Whales of BC’s four distinct populations that rub on smooth pebble beaches.

When the video was brought to my attention, I was with two fellow Humpback Whale researcher friends, and we laughed aloud at about 1:56 in the video because there was mature male A66 (“Surf”), almost stationary on the beach. His left side was facing Chris’ camera, making it so easy to see his distinct saddle patch and the nick in his dorsal fin. It simply could not have been easier to identify him.

Screen grab from Chris Wilton's video showing why it was so easy to identify A66 / Surf. Used with permission. For licensing / permission to use: Contact -licensing(at)jukinmediadotcom

Screen grab from Chris Wilton’s video showing why it was so easy to identify A66 / Surf. Used with permission. For licensing / permission to use Chris Whilton’s video: Contact -licensing(at)jukinmediadotcom

Ah ha! If Surf was there, his mother and three siblings had to be there too for such is the way of “Resident” Killer Whales; they stay with their mothers for their entire lives, seldom separated by more than a short distance. If the mother dies, the remaining family members stay together. Northern Resident families are in fact named for the eldest female who is believed to be the leader, A42 in this case, and the families are known as “matrilines”. This term loosely translates into “follow your mother”.

Upon viewing the rest of the video, we could confirm that all five member of the A42 matriline were indeed there. Surf was with his mother, Sonora, and her three other offspring.

Markings in blue are mine. Source: Northern Resident Killer Whales of British Columbia: 
Photo-identification Catalogue and Population Status to 2010; G.M. Ellis, J.R. Towers, and J.K.B. Ford 

Markings in blue are mine. Source: Northern Resident Killer Whales of British Columbia: 
Photo-identification Catalogue and Population Status to 2010; G.M. Ellis, J.R. Towers, and J.K.B. Ford. Nicknames determined via the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Programme. 

So what’s with the beach-rubbing?

Absolutely essential to understanding this behaviour is to know that the Killer Whales of the world have culture. Like humans, they have specialized to make use of certain prey and the geography of their area e.g. specializing in eating salmon vs. marine mammals.

In BC, the four Killer Whale populations (Northern Resident; Southern Resident; Offshore; and Bigg’s / Transients), overlap in their ranges but the populations have different languages and do NOT mate with one another. Thereby, they preserve the culture and traditions of their populations. To emphasize just how long-lived these cultural differences and specializations are, know that the mammal-hunting Bigg’s / Transients diverged from the other kinds of Killer Whales 700,000 years ago!   (For more information on the BC’s Killer Whale populations see this previous blog  or Dr. John Ford’s excellent new book at only $17.52).

As mentioned, the Northern Resident population are the only Killer Whales that have the tradition of skidding their bodies over sloping beaches of smooth pebbles. As you can see in Chris’ video, in order to get down low and in contact with the rocks, they often super-deflate their lungs to reduce buoyancy, releasing a gush of bubbles. They rub all parts of their bodies. Sometimes they do this for a few minutes, and sometimes for more than an hour.

In Feodor Pitcairn’s 2001 video “Realm of the Killer Whales” below, you can see underwater footage of the behaviour as of timestamp 48:15. This footage was obtained as a result of a special DFO permit.

The behaviour can’t be about rubbing off parasites! The skin of Killer Whales sloughs off like ours does and therefore there’s no “fouling” of barnacles like there is on Humpbacks and Grey Whales. And hey, if it was due to ectoparasites, the other Killer Whales in BC would have them and be beach-rubbing too!

Beach-rubbing by the Northern Residents must be a social and recreational behaviour. A whale massage? Certainly it must feel good. Maybe, as an additional benefit, doing something you enjoy together also further solidifies family bonds? Reportedly, the vocals sometimes made by the Northern Residents while beach-rubbing support that this is a social behaviour since they are the same “looney tunes” made when Northern Resident families reunite.

Again, it is not rare for the Northern Residents to beach-rub at all. It is a regular social behaviour. What’s quite rare is that there were humans present on a beach when the behaviour was happening since where the whales most often are known to rub is a no-go zone.

These best known rubbing beaches are on NE Vancouver Island, in the Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve at Robson Bight in Johnstone Strait. The Northern Resident matrilines that most often feed in this area use these beaches to rub with incredible regularity, including the A42s – the whales that Chris videoed beach-rubbing much further to the south, around central Vancouver Island. These Robson Bight beaches are within recognized critical habitat for this population and are fully protected. The waters around these beaches are a restricted area as well.

But Northern Resident rubbing beaches are found all along our Coast and I believe that individual families have preferences, places they have been rubbing generation after generation after generation. There are Northern Resident families that rarely come into Johnstone Strait and they must have their equivalent of a Robson Bight somewhere else on our coast.

As confirmed by Dr. John Ford, head of DFO’s Cetacean Research Program, the Strait of Georgia where Chris got the video has been known to be part of the range of the closely related families to which the A42s belong (the A5s) since the 1960s and likely for many, many years further back. However, at that time, we would not have been collecting the data.

In 1960, near to where the video was taken, a 50-calibre machine gun was positioned for the purposes of executing Killer Whales and, as of 1964, it became common to attempt to capture them for captivity.

Just 55 years later, in February 2015, Chris and others stood on a beach in the Discovery Islands marvelling at what they were witnessing, recognizing their good luck to see this wild behaviour, and being able to record it in the video that has now gone viral.

Thank goodness that we have this capacity for positive change and that it’s now NOT rare that people feel a strong concern for and connection to Killer Whales.  I believe that the wide reach of Chris’ video has led to raised awareness about how cultured and social Killer Whales are and how lucky we are to have them as our marine neighbours. Maybe that awareness will be reflected in further changes that benefit the whales and the marine ecosystem for which they are ambassadors?

Then we’d be rubbing the right way and have more reasons to bubble with happiness.

Northern Residents using a rubbing beach on Malcolm Island off NE Vancouver Island. For more information on these beaches see Friends of the Wild Side.

Northern Residents using a rubbing beach on Malcolm Island off NE Vancouver Island. For more information on these beaches see Friends of the Wild Side.


*Note: Scientific convention is to reference Orcinus orca as Killer Whales. Many prefer “Orca” but please know that Orcinus orca loosely translates into “demon of the underworld”. The whales did not name themselves, we did and locked within the names is our misunderstanding and complex history with these remarkable, social, intelligent, big dolphins.


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