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

Posts from the ‘MARINE MEGAFAUNA’ category

Great White! Not what you think . . .

Great White!
Not quite what you were expecting?  

These are Great White Dorids. Yes, they are a species of nudibranch and the individuals featured here are mating, prowling for sponges AND succeeding in laying their astounding egg masses.

Mating Great White Dorids: Reproduction of nudibranch species is always right-side-to-right-side; attached by structures called “gonophores”. As reciprocal hermaphrodites, both parents become inseminated and lay eggs.

EACH dot you see in the egg masses (photos below) contains 8 to 12 fertilized eggs. They are laid by both parents because it makes a lot of sense to be a hermaphrodite when you are a sea slug and your eggs hatch into the sea. More fertilized eggs = more chances of some young surviving.

Even after so many years, I find the intricacy and diversity of sea slug egg masses something of jaw-dropping wonder. Not such a good thing when you are supposed to hold a regulator in your mouth while diving. đź™‚

Scientific name of this species is Doris odhneri. They can be up to 20 cm long and their egg masses can be at least that size too.

Body design is classic for the sub-classification of nudibranchs that is “the dorids”. Those tufts on their hind ends are the gills and the projections on their heads (which all nudibranchs have) are the sensory rhinophores (rhino = nose). It’s how they smell their way around to find mates, food and whatever else is important in their world.

Notice in the next photo how dorid species are able to retract their gills when disturbed by the likes of an annoying underwater photographer.

Gills retracted.

Amazing too to think of the importance of smell in the sea isn’t it? Why is the individual in the following photo reared up like that? I believe it allows a better position to smell / detect the chemicals of food and/or a mate. Maybe they are even releasing pheromones? Note that is me musing. There is no research I know of to support this.

Same individual as in the first photo in this blog. I asked super sea slug expert, Dave Behrens, about this behaviour years ago and his response was: “I will agree the “rearing” is unusual in this group of dorids. Rearing is common amoung phanerobranch dorids (those that cannot withdraw their gill) . . . Although we will never know for sure, the behavior is thought to be a way for the slug to elevate itself above the substrate in search of chemical clues for its favorite prey.”

In featuring this species, the Great White Dorid, you see that not all nudibranch species are super colourful. But they are all super GREAT.


Species is also referenced as the GIANT White Dorid or Snow White Dorid, or White Dorid or White-Knight Nudibranch . . . etc. Known range is from southern Alaska to California but it’s a species I don’t see often where I dive around northeastern Vancouver Island. 

Another perspective on a Great White Dorids astonishing egg mass.
Prowling for sponges, a mate, or both. 🙂
Poor photo (because my camera housing had moisture in it that condensed in front of the lens) BUT this image shows a Great White Dorid laying an egg masss. It’s one of the times I caught a Great White Dorid in the act whereby I could know what the egg masses look like for this species (albeit that there are some closely related species of nudibranch that lay very similar looking egg masses).

All photos taken in Kwakwaka’wakw Territory, NE Vancouver Island ©Jackie Hildering.


Mask Squeezed and Lessons Learned

This is a personal post.

The photo above is of me 21 years ago, about a week after I got “mask squeeze” on my 37th birthday. I came across the image while preparing for an Ocean Day talk last week. It was taken as a staff photo when I had the joy of teaching children with special needs.

I found myself staring at the photo, at younger me, and thinking of how much has been learned since then. I am sharing with you because . . . because why? Sure, there’s a lesson in physics here but that’s not it. There’s also maybe something of value in how the most important things in life sometimes don’t come easy. But more than that, it’s about sharing some of what I have learned in these years, what I strive to put into the world, and why. đź’™

It won’t surprise you to know that you can’t be the same after you’ve been punched in the face by the Ocean. So here goes . . .

Mask squeeze happened on my 20th dive when I did not know enough to realize how little I knew. It was my second birthday back in BC after my many years of teaching in the Netherlands.

I was on a dive trip to some of the most challenging conditions on our coast. The accident happened during one of my first dives in a dry suit. I now know it was madness to be doing my first dives in a dry suit in such challenging conditions. But it was the result of some human chaos and unreliability whereby the suit was not ready when it was supposed to be. Thereby, I could not sufficiently practice with the dry suit before the dive trip and get used to the change in buoyancy from my Dad’s old, thin wet suit.

On that 20th dive, when I rolled into the water off the boat, my fin slipped off my suit. My mask flooded. I did not realize I was holding my breath as I tried to grab the fin. I continued to descend whereby the pressure in my mask did not equalize. BOOM – the pressure of Mother Ocean pushed against my mask and blew out every capillary in my eyes.

From my dive log back then: “ Whatever it took, it was SO worth it. Astounding, astounding life. So grateful to my dive buddies who helped me and who decided the dive site should now be named Shiner Rock.”

It was a powerful lesson in shaping me on this path . . . the vital importance of humility, respect and knowing one’s place in the natural world.

Since then, I have metaphorically faced equivalent injuries, usually inflicted as a result of human ego and disconnect from understanding how our actions impact future generations.

The resulting process has been the same: learn, heal, surface, and repeat.

I will admit too that this photo makes me reflect on the few who say to me “You’re so lucky” or who have had the need to try to blow out my fire. I am lucky in many, many ways but, as much as I do not know the journeys of others, very few know my path – some very difficult choices made and painful lessons learned. We’ve all had those and how very easy and privileged indeed my path has been compared to that of so many others.

I’ve written about having mask squeeze once before, after my 800th dive over 7 years ago. There I reflected: “The Ocean is the source. The battle force. She is my inspiration. She is the beginning and she is the end. She is where I hide and where I am fully exposed. She has taught me my most valuable lessons and . . . . I know it’s not over yet. Not by a long shot.”

I thank all who carry me forward – from my dive buddies to you, the readers, who signa shared values and understanding. . Please know how much direction you give.

Onward, fuelled by lessons learned and knowing what matters most.


See this link for my previous blog about mask squeeze and lessons learned:
“My 800th Dive. From Shiner to Shining?” from January 2014.

Marine Murmuration – Pacific Herring

Rapturous. That’s a word I do not use easily, but it captures my feelings about today.

I saw the shimmering in the distance . . . Pacific Herring near the surface, scales reflecting the sunlight, the school mercurial, its members seemingly moving with a collective consciousness.

I hung back and tried to drink in the beauty. I knew my bubbles would disturb them and that I could therefore never capture the beauty in a photo.

But then . . . suddenly a river of flashing silver was streaming in my direction. Something had startled them on the opposite side of where I was. I held up the camera and repeatedly depressed the shutter release button while I lived the seconds of hundreds of herring bolting past. Then, they were in the distance again; a marine murmuration; the life’s blood of this ecosystem.

Cropped image.
 The school in the distance again, such beauty with flowing Bull Kelp and the sun streaming down.

Survival against so many odds. These little fish have survived against so many odds and so vital to so much life on our coast; not just in the Ocean but also to predators from sky and land.

Shorebirds, bears and wolves feed on the fertilized eggs. Hungry Humpbacks target giant mouthfuls to gain back weight lost in the breeding grounds. Bald Eagles deftly snatch talons’ full and then feed in the air. The Pacific Herring also feed the Chinook Salmon that sustain endangered Orca.

They have also fed human cultures and commercial fisheries and debate and demonstration.

May the feed precaution and reflection on what will sustain future generations.

Long live herring.

This image is from a previous chance to see Pacific Herring in the distance while diving – January 31, 2021, Telegraph Cove.

On the Radio . . .

I am so grateful for having been interviewed by Sheryl Mackay for CBC Radio’s North by Northwest and for how she captured the messaging for conservation.

This has led to a significant spike to my website and to social media channels which means . . . more reach of this work.

Welcome to all who have found their way here through their interest in, and love and concern for, the life-sustaining Ocean. đź’™

 

Please click to hear the episode.


Social media links. 

World Whale Day 2021

Today is World Whale Day.

The following is what I wrote for our Marine Education and Research Society social media.

I am sharing it here too in the hopes that it is of value to you in thinking about our giant neighbours, how far we come in overcoming fear and disconnect but  . . . read on. 💙

[And welcome to all those landing here as a result of the recent CBC interview. It would be wonderful if you follow along on social media with The Marine Detective and the Marine Education and Research Society. Links are at the bottom of this post.] 

 

Take but a few minutes to reflect on the giants; how they enrich life on earth and how endure human need?

They inspire awe, capture carbon, fertilize the ocean upon which our lives also depend, and remind us of our capacity for change.

So many were driven to the brink as a result of whaling, which only ended in British Columbia in 1967. They have survived the breadth of human impacts from harpoons and guns, to overfishing and ignorance of ecosystems, to capture and the selfie absorption of believing wild whales put on shows.

Some populations may topple still.

Now they swallow the consequences of our disconnect and consumer crazed lifestyles – climate change, plastics, toxins, continued overfishing, noise, collision, entanglement, etc.

The leviathans, may we truly understand how they are barometers of our value systems, indicators of environment health, ambassadors of the marine ecosystem that sustains life on earth, and reminders of how little we know and that we are but small . . . in the world of the whale. đź’™


Photo is of Cirque the Humpback with scarring testifying to being a survivor of collision. See the scarring from a boat propeller?

©Kate Holmes, Straitwatch 2019. Photo taken with a telephoto lens and has been cropped.


World Whale Day dates back to 1980 and originated from Maui’s Whale Fest to honour Humpback Whales.

Social media links. 
Thank you so much for your interest!

Beware of taxi-crabs and “Cling like hell to your rock”

Oh how did I get to be today-years-old without knowing of this Robert Service poem that is so timely and speaks for a limpet?

His poem “Security” includes:

So if of the limpet breed ye be,
Beware life’s brutal shock;
Don’t take the chance of the changing sea,
But – cling like hell to your rock.

Yes!

Full poem is below which includes life lessons about taxi-crabs 🦀

Keyhole Limpet which I photographed near Port Hardy. Diodora aspera builds a shell up to 7.6 cm across.


 

Security
Robert Service

There once was a limpet puffed with pride
Who said to the ribald sea:
“It isn’t I who cling to the rock,
It’s the rock that clings to me;
It’s the silly old rock who hugs me tight,
Because he loves me so;
And though I struggle with all my might,
He will not let me go.”

Then said the sea, who hates the rock
That defies him night and day:
“You want to be free – well, leave it to me,
I’ll help you get away.
I know such a beautiful silver beach,
Where blissfully you may bide;
Shove off to-night when the moon is bright,
And I’ll swig you thee on my tide.”

“I’d like to go,” said the limpet low,
“But what’s a silver beach?”
“It’s sand,” said the sea, “bright baby rock,
And you shall be lord of each.”
“Righto!” said the limpet; “Life allures,
And a rover I would be.”
So greatly bold she slacked her hold
And launched on the laughing sea.

But when she got to the gelid deep
Where the waters swish and swing,
She began to know with a sense of woe
That a limpet’s lot is to cling.
but she couldn’t cling to a jelly fish,
Or clutch at a wastrel weed,
So she raised a cry as the waves went by,
but the waves refused to heed.

Then when she came to the glaucous deep
Where the congers coil and leer,
The flesh in her shell began to creep,
And she shrank in utter fear.
It was good to reach that silver beach,
That gleamed in the morning light,
Where a shining band of the silver sand
Looked up with with a welcome bright.

Looked up with a smile that was full of guile,
Called up through the crystal blue:
“Each one of us is a baby rock,
And we want to cling to you.”
Then the heart of the limpet leaped with joy,
For she hated the waters wide;
So down she sank to the sandy bank
That clung to her under-side.

That clung so close she couldn’t breath,
So fierce she fought to be free;
But the silver sand couldn’t understand,
While above her laughed the sea.
Then to each wave that wimpled past
She cried in her woe and pain:
“Oh take me back, let me rivet fast
To my steadfast rock again.”

She cried till she roused a taxi-crab
Who gladly gave her a ride;
But I grieve to say in his crabby way
He insisted she sit inside. . . .
So if of the limpet breed ye be,
Beware life’s brutal shock;
Don’t take the chance of the changing sea,
But – cling like hell to your rock.

 


I ensured this is indeed Robert Service in all his glory by ensuring it was in the “The Complete Works of Robert Service” (1945) but could not find further detail on when he wrote it.


My additional posts featuring limpets:

 

It’s Their Ocean

It’s their Ocean.

Photo below was taken during a chance encounter with mature male Steller Sea Lion as he glided by Bull Kelp.

I can’t share this photo without providing the following information because sea lions and seals are caught at the interface of human love / hate in British Columbia. It’s volatile.

Photo: October 4th near Telegraph Cove.

Please know we don’t target seal or sea lion haul outs. We do not want to force an interaction and contribute to habituation.

But, sometimes, they find us. And that is a great gift.

It is in fact against federal law to conduct “swim with” operations where divers and/or swimmers are put in the water with the purpose of having interactions at haul outs. This has been the case since July 2018 when the amended Marine Mammal Regulations went into effect. They explicitly state: “No person shall approach a marine mammal to, or to attempt to .  . . swim with it or interact with it.” 

Habituated wild animals lose their wariness which will not work well for them, or us. Wild animals do not allow you to touch them nor to put your hand in their mouths. Human injury has resulted as a resulted of seals and sea lions becoming habituated to humans / divers. Of course it has.

Habituation is especially a concern in this time where seals and sea lions are being vilified for interactions with fisheries. Horrific hate language and imagery are being perpetuated on social media. It’s one thing to have an opinion. It’s another to perpetuate hate. 

In my work as a marine educator, I’ve asked for clarity regarding the Marine Mammal Regulations and their enforcement. It’s part of my job with the Marine Education and Research Society to educate about laws involving marine mammals. There is also a personal layer of concern because dear friends are involved with swim-with operations whereby there are implications for their businesses and welfare.

My understanding is that the lag in enforcement regarding “do not swim with” has been due to having to prioritize resources (e.g. enforcement of infractions around endangered whales) and wanting to provide an opportunity for education before enforcement.

This is also the case regarding it being against the law to feed seals and sea lions. This used to be a common practice at some fish processing plants and tourism facilities. Education was provided first. Enforcement of the law will now follow.

I am sharing this information in an effort to educate on the law and what best serves wild animals.

Pacific Harbour Sea emerging from the kelp forest. It’s something I will never forget. We were ending our dive and entering in the shallows for our safety stop. I noticed something moving in the Bull Kelp. Then I realized it was seal playing there, corkscrewing her/himself around the stipe of kelp and then spinning out of it and . . . repeat. I put down my camera. I tried to drink it in, to learn, and to realize I had formed a bias to perceive seals as I saw them on the surface. I had unconsciously undervalued their intelligence and playfulness. I did lift my camera as the seal moved out of the forest. Yep, a gift.


*Canada’s amended Marine Mammal Regulations include:
No person shall approach a marine mammal to, or to attempt to:
(a) feed it;
(b) swim with it or interact with it;
(c) move it or entice or cause it to move from the immediate vicinity in which it is found;
(d) separate it from members of its group or go between it and a calf;
(e) trap it or its group between a vessel and the shore or between a vessel and one or more other vessels; or
(f) tag or mark it.


Regarding the vilification of seals and sea lions, please see our Marine Education and Research Society backgrounder “To Kill Seals and Sea Lions?” at this link.

A Smack of Jellies

The last little while there have been hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of Moon Jellies = a “smack” of them. That truly is the collective noun for jellyfish.

It should also be the collective noun for the number of jellyfish photos I am delivering in this blog.

 

May these photos from my last dives north of Port Hardy offer you a bit of escape. I tried to capture trees in photos of jellies and the reflection of the jellies against the surface of the water. I hope the images communicate interconnectedness of land, sea and sky. May  they also contribute to understanding and connection to our neighbours in the sea.

Moon Jellies are easy to discern from other jelly species by having the clover shape which is 4 gonads / sex organs (Aurelia labiata to 40 cm across). 


Most jellies in the class to which Moon Jellies belong (the Scyphozoan) release eggs and sperm into the water column. But in Moon Jellies, when the male releases sperm, the pulsing action of the female Moon Jelly brings the sperm in contact with the eggs under her arms and the are brooded there. The following three photos show females with eggs. The eggs are the less translucent white structures. 

 

 


And as if this was not all amazing enough there was also a ” blizzard* of babies . . . just LOOK at how many juvenile Widow Rockfish there are!

It was so extraordinary to see them nipping at the bells of the Moon Jellies, darting about everywhere. There was another phenomenal explosion of young like this in 2016 and, with site fidelity being so strong, those fish may well be the bigger ones we saw at these sites too.

 

 

The following facts about Widow Rockfish are from Dr. Milton Love’s brilliant “The Rockfish of the NE Pacific”: The mothers produce one brood of about 95,000 to 1,113,000 eggs/year which hatch as larva from their mothers (rockfish are viviparous). They stay in the plankton for about 5 months feeding on copepods and krill and can grow up to 0.61 mm/day. Then they settle out to be in nearshore areas like you see here and feed on salps and jellies, small fishes, crabs, amphipods and krill.

Why are they named “Widow” Rockfish ? “. From Dr. Love’s book too: Julius Phillips, a great observer of the rockfish fisheries of California during the mid-twentieth century, believed the term widow can about because the “black peritoneum an small effeminate mouth give the impression of lonesomeness to occasional specimens that appear amount the more common bocaccios, chilipepper and yellowtail rock cods” (Phillips, 1939).

Maximum  life expectancy for Widow Rockfish (Sebastes entomelas) is 69 years. Maximum length 60 cm. Females typically bigger than males.

The bounty of babies has been reported by myself and others to those monitoring rockfish health. To my knowledge, nobody knows why there have been these two explosions of young of this species (2016 and 2020).

 


And to conclude, I had hoped that I might also photograph a Lions Mane Jelly with land in the background. On the last dive of nine, the light and life lined up to allow me to take this photograph.

 

The Lion’s Many Jelly is one of two of the biggest jelly species commonly found off our coast = Cyanea capillata (the other is the Egg Yolk Jelly). Maximum size of Lion’s Mane Jellies is to 2.5 m across with 8 clusters of 70 to 150 tentacles which can be . . . 36 m long! This is the largest jelly species in the world. Know that the larger ones tend to be further offshore and that they can retract their tentacles. These two species are also the only two common jelly species in our waters that can create a sting that irritates human skin, even when the jellies are dead or you get a severed tentacle drifting by your face.

A Lion’s Mane Jelly is the murderer in a Sherlock Holmes short story entitled “Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” (I kid you not), BUT the “victim” had a preexisting heart condition. The solution to the irritation is vinegar (acid), meat tenderizer (enzyme) and I know that many fishers swear by Pacific canned milk. Research at this link puts forward that vinegar is the only real solution. Clearly I’ve never been stung badly enough to deter trying to photograph them.


Photo below is of planktonic me after a full dive trying to capture jellies and trees in the same image. Photo by dive buddy Janice Crook.

Breath-Taking Beauty . . . Orca Resting Lines

Of all the Orca behaviours I have been privileged to see, it is when they are in “resting lines” that I most transported into awe. It makes so clear how socially bonded the whales are and how coordinated their behaviours can be.

Northern Residents the A12s in a resting line in 2007.

Science has determined that toothed whales like Orca do not sleep but only “rest”, shutting off one half of their brains at a time (scientifically known as “unihemispheric sleep”). They have to maintain this level of brain activity since they are voluntary breathers and must therefore consciously come to the surface to inhale and exhale.

Occasionally, Orca rest alone. They then float on the surface, motionless, blowhole exposed, “logging” for only a few minutes.

Far more often the Orca rest together, uniting in these very tight groups, fin to fin. This can happen at any time of day and I have witnessed resting line behaviour for up to 8 hours.

Northern Residents the A34s (A12s daughter and offspring) resting in 2017.


Once in resting line formation, the whales are usually silent (although there are a couple of matrilines that do occasionally vocalize) and move slowly forward, undertaking a remarkably synchronous and regular dive pattern. They often take short, shallow dives for around 2 minutes and then they all take a longer dive. When they resurface, their breaths are incredibly coordinated and their dorsal fins often line up perfectly.They are of course particularly susceptible to disturbance by boats when they are resting – both due to sound and proximity. 

“We are one” the behaviour seems to display and I certainly believe that this resting is also of great social and cultural importance to Orca.

At its most simple level though, a resting line of Orca is truly  . . . breath-taking beauty.


Photos below = resting line of members of the D, C, A5 and I15 matrilines in August 2020. All photos taken with a telephoto lens. 

 

 

The A23s – the Story of One Whale Family

[This blog was originally published on January 15th, 2016. Republishing now as a result of having seen this family yesterday.]

A43 "Ripple" of the A23 matriline. @2015 Jackie Hildering.

A43 “Ripple” of the A23s, August 22, 2015. @Jackie Hildering.

The A23 matriline of Northern Resident Killer Whales / Orca has been seen by thousands and thousands of people.

They are one of the families that most often chase salmon in the Johnstone Strait area (NE Vancouver Island) and therefore, have been observed and photographed by so many whale watchers and have been studied by researchers since the early 1970s.

They are also featured in the documentary “Realm of the Killer Whales” for which the PBS film crew, under special permit in 1997, was able to get remarkable footage of the A23s beach-rubbing in the Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve (see this link for underwater footage of beach-rubbing – as of timestamp 48:15).

A23 Matriline Quick Facts
Members of the N. Resident population; ~302 whales (end 2018); threatened population.
– “Residents” do not stay in one area; they are inshore fish-eating Killer Whales / Orca. Prefer salmon, especially Chinook. They often share their catches. 
– They stay with mother, siblings and offspring their whole lives.
– Mating can happen when different N. Resident matrilines come together but, ultimately, males leave with their family and females leave with theirs.
– Each matriline sounds different; aiding in determining degree of relatedness and avoiding inbreeding.
– Only the N. Residents (and a few families of resident type Orca in Alaska) have the culture of rubbing on smooth, stone beaches. Click here for more.
– In BC there are also S. Resident Killer Whales (endangered); and mammal-eating and offshore fish-eating populations (both threatened).
– Only the N. Residents have the culture of rubbing on smooth, stone beaches. Click here for more.
– See this link for more on the kinds of Killer Whale populations in BC.

So many human eyes have been cast upon them, but so few of us are aware of what this family has endured. This is the story of the A23s, and what one Killer Whale family’s history reveals about us.

Knowledge about the A23 matriline goes back to at least 1969 when we did not even know that there are different populations of Killer Whales with distinct culture. We also sure didn’t have knowledge of their intelligence, long-lived family bonds, and limited numbers (all Killer Whale populations in BC are at risk).

Here’s some sample text from around 1969 that gives a sense of who we were at the time:

  • From “Killer Whale!“, the 1963 book by Joseph J. Cook and William J. Wisner:
    • “ . . . the fiercest, most terrifying animal in all the world  . . . capable of attacking anything that swims, no matter how large. They are afraid of nothing, not even boats or ships.”
    • “The killer whale is well designed for a career of destruction and mayhem”.
    • “How different the orca, which seems to be filled with a burning hatred. Nothing that lives or moves in the water is safe from its assaults. It’s size, power, speed, agility and disposition have made this black monster feared wherever it is known.”
  • And from 1973 US Navy diving manuals:
    • Killer Whales are “extremely ferocious” 
and will “attack human beings at every opportunity”.

Extremely ferocious? Terrifying? Monster? Designed for a career of destruction and mayhem?

Please see below for my summary of what the A23s are known to have endured since 1969 (based largely on the longterm population study by DFO’s Cetacean Research Program).

A23s story of one family www.TheMarineDetective.com

Summary of the known history of the A23 matriline. Click to enlarge.

Note that at least three family members were hunted down and captured; one is still in captivity (poor Corky’s been there since December 1969!); and two or three have been hit by boats. Further, it is very likely that family members were shot at and possibly killed but that this has not been documented because the late Dr. Michael Bigg only began his revolutionary work to study Killer Whales as individuals in 1973. It is not known how A27, A29 or A63 died.

Oh Corky! The longest surviving Killer Whale in captivity.
–  On December 11th, 1969 A23 “Stripe” and her calves, A21 and A16 “Corky”, were among 12 whales captured at Pender Harbour, BC. Six were released including A23 and A21 and six were retained to be sold to aquariums – this included “Corky”, desirable as a young female who might give birth in captivity.
– In 1977, she indeed was the first to conceive and give birth in captivity. She has been pregnant 7 times but none of her calves survived beyond 46 days.
– Corky is still in captivity today in San Diego.
– Read more about Corky from OrcaLab at this link (click “Corky Campaign” and then “Corky’s Story”).

There is a firsthand account of the 1973 ferry accident, which most likely involved A21, that provides insight into the bonds between Killer Whales. It is from Killer Whales  – The Natural History & Genealogy of Orcinus orca in British Columbia & Washington State by Dr. John Ford, Graeme Ellis and Kenneth Balcomb (1997): “The following is an account of a collision between a ship and a killer whale that demonstrates the persistence of the whales in helping one of their pod mates. It is drawn from a letter written by Captain D. Manuel of the M/V Comox Queen . . . the ship was en route from Comox to Powell River on 26 December 1973:   . . . .  It was a very sad scene to see. The cow and the bull cradled the injured calf between them to prevent it from turning upside-down. Occasionally the bull would lose its position and the calf would roll over on its side. When this occurred the slashes caused by our propellor were quite visible. The bull, when this happened, would make a tight circle, submerge, and rise slowly beside the calf, righting it . . . While this was going on the other calf stayed right behind the injured one . . . It appears the young whale did live for at least fifteen days. We later received a report from a resident of Powell River, who, on 10 January 1974, observed “two whales supporting a third one, preventing it from turning over.”

In having the great privilege of often seeing Killer Whales in the wild, it is so powerful to recognize a family like the A23s and be aware of what they have endured. Granted, some tragedy was accidental, but so much was the result of our ignorance and vilification.

Click here for the new (2020) Northern Resident Catalogue.

But the story of the A23s also provides insight into how we have changed, now that knowledge has replaced fear and the fallacy of the “educational value” of Killer Whales being in captivity has been exposed as desire for commercial gain.

We’ve come a long way. As an indicator of this, on December 11th, 1969, members of the A23 matriline were being pursued and captured for captivity. Forty-six years later (January 14th, 2016), in the wilds of Johnstone Strait, the A23s (and A25s) were being studied by Jared Towers of the DFO Cetacean Research Program. Continuing the work pioneered by Dr. Bigg, he photo-documented them, took note of how the vessel-strike scars were healing (see photos below), and collected prey samples so that winter diet may be better understood.

A23s on November 9th, 2015. Photo: Jackie Hildering.

A23s on November 9th, 2015. Photo: Jackie Hildering.

The Killer Whales of British Columbia have been studied as individuals in this way longer than any other marine mammal. The knowledge gained has led to where we are now. For the most part, there is no social license/tolerance for Killer Whales being in captivity. There is federal legislation aimed at the protection of BC’s Killer Whale populations and their habitat. They are not to be disturbed as per the Marine Mammal Regulations and further measures, and there is global interest in them with evidence of this including the contribution whale watching makes to BC’s economy.

Now, the dominant perceptions are that Killer Whales are iconic; powerful symbols of all that is wild and free; and that it is remarkable, considering our complicated history with them, that there has never been a documented attack by a Killer Whale on a human in the wild. Many of us would agree that the descriptors “ferocious”, “terrifying”, “monster” and “designed for a career of destruction and mayhem” are better applied to humans than Killer Whales when we act with ignorance, greed, and disconnect from nature.

What story will the next 46 years tell – about us, about them?

I am so hopeful that we will better understand how our use of contaminants and fossil fuels impacts them, and the rest the marine ecosystem upon which human health also depends.

Thereby, there will be more positive stories for our future generations – and future generations of the A23 matriline.

 

A23 and A25 matrilines in Johnstone Strait, January 14, 2016. ©Jared Towers, DFO Cetacean Research Program.

A23 and A25 matrilines were in Johnstone Strait, January 13 and 14, 2016. Photo from August 26, 2015. From front to back: A60, A69, A109, A43, A61. Photo: Jared Towers, DFO Cetacean Research Program; taken with telephoto lens under research permit.

 

A60 vessel strike scarring

 

A95 vessel strike scars