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Whale watching in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest

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The next day in the boat with Janie, we watched two humpback whales playing with some sea lions close to the shore of Princess Royal Island (the island considered to be the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest). Watching the inquisitive sea lions play and copy the whales as they rolled over and around in the water was so fun – it’s amazing to see how learning through play is something that happens across species.

Next, we went out into Caamano Sound south of Gil Island to find the fin whales reported to be in the area so we could count them and catalogue them from photos. Fin whales are huge, fast and elusive. It can be really hard to get an idea of exactly how big they are, because unlike humpback whales, they don’t fluke their tails or breach so you can see them above the water – it’s all happening under the surface. You see their small dorsal fin (hence the name ‘fin whale’) as they roll through the water and not much else.

It wasn’t until the research boat was behind the fin whales that I could see the width of their bodies as they rolled through the water that I got an idea of how huge they are – they looked as wide as a bus, and they’re as long as two buses put together. So imagine the 99-B Line in the water and you’re getting close. Now imagine the 99-B Line doing 20km/h through water at a relaxed pace and you get an idea for how phenomenally efficient these whales are for their size (they’re the second largest animal on the planet).

Location of the hydrophones around Cetacealab  (photo: Amy Huva)  

On our last morning at Gil, we took the boat around the western side of the island in the hopes of seeing some humpback whales bubble net feeding. What they do is coordinate in groups of six or so and fish together.

It’s almost like setting up a football play – each whale plays their role as they all dive down under the water together, call to each other to coordinate blowing a perfect circle of bubbles around a school of fish and when they’ve got the fish surrounded, they come up from underneath with their mouths open and all get a big mouthful of herring. It’s the stuff of fish horror films, I’m sure, but watching the coordination from the boat was pretty spectacular.

We cut the engine and just floated a safe distance away and could hear the whales calling to each other (I imagine they’re saying things like ‘go left’ or ‘cover the point’) as we and the crowd of seagulls waited in anticipation. Then, suddenly, the water would boil and the humpbacks would appear, chomping their mouths closed as the current carried stray fish scales on the surface past our boat.

Bubble net feeding success (photo: Amy Huva)

The research being done at Whale Point is really important, not only because of what it teaches us about the movement of our mammalian cousins, but also because all of this is threatened by tanker proposals.

Gil Island is right on the tanker route for the much-maligned Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline and it will also be on the route for other tankers like LNG expansion as well. Having seen the complex archipelago of islands that is the central coast of BC for myself; putting tankers through there is madness.

Even if the tankers go through and never have an accident, they can wipe out the whale population because humpback whales can’t call to feed over the noise of tanker traffic. A tanker going through the water sounds to whales like standing at a level crossing as a long CN Rail train goes by.

In this truly unique part of the world, whales and sea lions play together, the salmon run and the Spirit Bear still live. It is a shame that it could all be lost for short term greed. Will there be no corner of this planet untrammelled by the human desperation for fossil fuels before we wake up?


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