Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

When Pilchard Return

Ms. Henderson’s students in Port Alice, B.C. put me onto a case yesterday.

They had me check what was happening in the beautiful inlet in front of their community on north-western Vancouver Island and – what a fabulously noisy case it was!

Pilchard (aka “Pacific sardines”; Sardinops sagax; up to about 40 cm) have brought in a whole food chain of activity:  fishing boats, hundreds of gulls, many Steller and California sea lions and, that’s just what we could see on the surface!  Pilchard were absent from the Pacific Northwest for about 50 years, having been very intensely fished into the early 1940s. With their return, our Coast has become much more vibrant with these fish fuelling a food web that includes humpback whales and both the Steller and California sea lions.

Steller sea lions - male on right. Image: Uko Gorter Natural History Illustration.


Having male Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) in our area is common. These giants (mature males up to 1,100 kg and 3.3 m) are the lighter coloured of the area’s two sea lion species.

In the last 7 years or so, we have also had some male California sea lion males (Zalophus californianus) around Northern Vancouver Island from the Fall into the Spring but they are far more common to the South.

California sea lions - male on right. Image: Uko Gorter Natural History Illustration.


The California sea lions are the darker and much smaller sea lion species (mature males to 390 kg and 2.4 m). The mature males have distinct light colouration on parts of their head and a very unique shape to their foreheads. However, beyond these very apparent physical differences, you could be blind and still tell California sea lions and Steller sea lions apart! California sea lions bark. Steller sea lions growl.

The sea lion activity I witnessed yesterday is really unique and all thanks to the return of the pilchard. I have never seen this many California sea lions anywhere around northern Vancouver Island and it is not often that I have seen mixed groups of both species hunting together. I checked with the locals in Port Alice and no one can recall ever seeing this many California sea lions in Neroutsos Inlet.

This phenomena has fortunately been captured on video for you to enjoy (video from the Village of Port Alice).  See below and look very carefully for the lighter coloured Steller sea lions among the barking Californians!  All these sea lions are likely to all be male. The smaller ones are the immature males.

Great thanks to the students of Seaview Elementary for caring and knowing as much as they do.  Psst, I would be watching the water very carefully because this pilchard driven food chain has transient killer whales at its top!


For locals: Added January 3rd, 2011

Update on the sea lion that crossed the road and entered the Port Alice trailer park on Dec 16th. Because he appeared to be underweight and lethargic, he was taken to the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre on Dec 18th (I think). It is a male Steller sea lion and was confirmed to be malnourished and dehydrated with no indication of what may have caused his condition. He has been named “Kaouk” after a mountain near Fair Harbour.

My great respect to the people of Port Alice for knowing to call DFO’s marine mammal response line (1-800-465-4336) and have the RCMP conduct crowd control. Ms. Henderson’s class even had made up info brochures on how to best behave around the sea lions.

4 Responses to “When Pilchard Return”

  1. Terina

    Wish I could see the event! It is good to hear that they have returned after 50 years, Hopefully they will come again!

    • jackiehildering

      Hello Terina,
      Hope you are great? I believe that the return of the pilchard is of great significance to the return of the humpbacks in our area as well. Without the little fish (hate calling them “forage fish” or “bait fish”) . . . . .

  2. Whalebones PG

    WOW! Isn’t that soo cool. Absolutely amazing I can just imagine what the activity would have looked like underwater, what a frenzy I bet! Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Peter

    Very cool Jackie! Nice to see the return of these animals. Hurray for the pilchards!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s