Local Marine Life in the News

Whale calf buoys hopes for pod - L118 Orca

A rambunctious youngster is causing waves among whale watchers around Juan de Fuca Strait.

The first new calf of the season for the endangered southern resident killer whales is racing around with other members of L Pod, said Ken Balcomb, executive director of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Washington.

"We’ve been having trouble getting a decent picture of it. It’s such a fast-moving little bugger all we get is spray," Balcomb said.

Mom is believed to be L55, also known as Nugget, which should bode well for its survival as 34-year-old Nugget already has three surviving calves, he said.

Calves are not officially counted until they are one year old because of a 50 per cent mortality rate, but the new arrival puts the unofficial population of the three pods at 86.

However, until all the resident whales start appearing regularly in local waters - something expected within the next month - it will not be known whether any animals have died over the winter.

Balcomb believes the calf, which has tentatively been given the number L118, was born about February, but the pod did not appear locally until recently.

"Winter births are not uncommon, but it is uncommon for us to know about them," said Balcomb, who, this year, followed L Pod to California and is fairly certain he caught a glimpse of the calf as a newborn as the whales fed on chinook salmon near the San Joaquin estuary.

If the calf is several months old it explains its speed, Balcomb said.

"It’s pretty fit and is no longer dependent on getting its mother’s slipstream," he said.

Mark Malleson, who volunteers for the Center for Whale Research and also skippers for Prince of Whales whale-watching, caught a picture of the new calf while out with Balcomb.

"It was moving really quickly, just flying along with the pod," he said.

"At Race Rocks they came roaring in with the flood current."

The birth is "definitely good news," he said.

The historical population of southern resident killer whales is believed to be about 120 animals. The low, after decades of hunting and captures, was 71 whales in 1973.

In addition to southern residents returning for the summer, large numbers of transient killer whales are also being seen in the water around southern Vancouver Island, Malleson said.

The transients, which eat marine mammals, are probably being attracted by a thriving seal population, he said.

Endangered western Pacific grey whale could be bound for Vancouver Island

Flex, an endangered western Pacific grey whale who has astounded researchers by leaving Russia and speeding across the Bering Sea, could be in northern Vancouver Island waters by the weekend.

In October, the whale was tagged in his home feeding grounds off Sakhalin Island in eastern Russia. On Jan. 3, he unexpectedly set off toward Alaska. The marathon swim has taken him halfway across the Gulf of Alaska.

The 13-year-old whale was tagged by Bruce Mate, director of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, and his progress is documented on the university’s online tracking map, which is updated every Monday.

The whale’s decision to stay in deep water is one of the many peculiarities fascinating scientists.

"Most [eastern] grey whales stay very close to the shore," Mate said.

Adding to the mystery, Flex, who is continuing to travel at a minimum of seven kilometres an hour, battled bad weather for the last week, meaning transmissions from his tag were limited.

"We don’t know how he came around [to the south side of the Alaskan Peninsula] – whether he came through Unimac Pass or False Pass or islands to the west," Mate said.

The whale is now heading almost due east.

"At this speed, he will probably hit the south end of Graham Island or the north end of Vancouver Island this Friday or Saturday," Mate said.

But it is uncharted science, so Flex could change direction or even turn around and go back to Russia.

"No one knows," Mate said. "But the speculation is that he will get into the eastern grey whale migration corridor."

While the population of western Pacific grey whales, the second-most-endangered species of large whales in the world, stands at a maximum of 130, their eastern cousins have successfully bounced back from near extinction. About 18,000 animals now swim marathon migrations between Baha California in Mexico and Alaska.

If Flex heads south, by February he could be mixing with a smattering of eastern greys on an early journey north as well as stragglers heading south.

For the latest on Flex’s journey, go to Oregon State’s website at http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/Sakhalin2010

whale route map

Mystery of whale's 2,200-km journey

Maybe it’s food, the prospect of sex or some deeply-rooted memory, but, whatever the motivation, an endangered whale is astounding researchers with a marathon swim which, so far, has taken him from Russia’s Sakhalin Island to the waters off Alaska.

Flex, a 13-year-old western Pacific grey, is a member of the second most endangered species of large whales in the world. Only between 113 and 130 animals remain.

Flex left Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula Jan. 3 and sped across the Bering Sea, covering about 2,200 kilometres in just over a week and swimming at about eight kilometres an hour.

"He was moving very fast. That’s day and night and day and night, so it was a pretty significant effort," said Bruce Mate, director of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, who tagged the whale last fall.

Now, the biggest question is whether Flex will continue south, past the Aleutian Islands and onto the migration route for about 18,000 eastern Pacific grey whales, which swim each year between Alaska, past Vancouver Island to Mexico. That would be an "a-ha moment," said Mate, adding that Flex has already provided a "gee-whiz factor."
Pacific Grey whale migration from Russia to Alaska

"If he gets into the eastern migratory corridor that would be exciting," he said.

"If it comes into that realm, some people will wonder, especially with his direct route across the Bering Sea, whether he learned that from his mom and if there might be more relation than thought between the eastern and western stocks."

The two populations are genetically distinct and whales usually inherit knowledge of the best feeding grounds from their mothers.

If Flex joins his eastern cousins with the aim of mating he would not necessarily have to travel all the way south, Mate said.

"We see mating during the northbound migration during March and April, so he could do that without going to Mexico," he said.

It is unlikely that the females would be concerned about a stranger in their midst as their relationships are promiscuous, Mate said.

Also, the two populations look similar, so an eastern whale could join the western migration without being noticed by researchers.

Western Pacific grey whales, which were previously thought to be extinct, spend their summers at the south end of the Sea of Okhotsk, where there is concern about oil and gas development. An oil company is planning a third drilling platform, which environmental groups fear will wipe out the whale population.

But nothing is known about their winter habits, so, last fall, Oregon researchers teamed up with their Russian counterparts to tag some of the animals.

Discovering more about their range is urgent for conservation as five females were killed in the past four years in shore-based nets off Japan, Mate said.

pacific grey whale

Tagging proved difficult because of typhoons and gales, and only Flex was successfully tagged, so it is possible he might not be alone, Mate said.

Previous guesses about winter breeding and calving grounds have centred around the South China Sea

"But this is the first information that has ever been gleaned about this population at this time of year," Mate said.

On Monday, Flex was about 100 km north of the Pribilof Islands, but bad weather is hampering location checks.

During tests, the average tag lasted 118 days and that limit has now been reached. However, the longest a tag has lasted is 385 days.

Mate hopes the tag will continue to transmit long enough to unlock Flex’s winter secrets.

For the latest on Flex’s journey, go to Oregon State’s website, which is updated every Monday, at: http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/Sakhalin2010

Orca group wearing down their teeth on abrasive shark diet

Marine scientists have discovered a mysterious population of killer whales off the B.C. coast that specialize in killing sharks – to the detriment of their teeth.

Scientists have long known that resident killer whales – which stick to specific hunting ranges – depend on a diet of fish, especially salmon, and that transient killer whales eat marine mammals such as seals and sea lions.

But the diet of offshore killer whales – first identified on the B.C. coast in 1989 – has remained largely a mystery due to their wide-ranging and distant movements.

This study, published in the journal Aquatic Biology, proves through DNA evidence that offshore killer whales prey on large Pacific sleeper sharks, whose skin is so abrasive that it is believed to be wearing the whales’ teeth flat.

"It’s exciting. It’s been a detective hunt for so long," said John Ford, lead author of the study and senior research scientist with the federal Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo.

Other potential prey of offshore killer whales includes salmon shark, blue shark and spiny dogfish, as well as related elasmobranch species such as skates and rays. They may also consume fish such as halibut, meaning their diet could overlap with resident killer whales.

The study documents how offshore orcas preyed on at least 16 Pacific sleeper sharks at B.C.’s Learmonth Bank, in western Dixon Entrance, in May 2008; and Montague Strait in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, in June 2009.

The study was co-authored by Graeme Ellis and Michael Wetklo of the Pacific Biological Station, Lance Barrett-Lennard of the Vancouver Aquarium, and Craig Matkin of the Alaska’s North Gulf Oceanic Society.

B.C. waters officially renamed Salish Sea

A large area of coastal waters off the south coast of British Columbia were officially named the Salish Sea by both First Nations and government leaders at a ceremony in Victoria on Thursday.
The Salish Sea now officially includes the Juan de Fuca Strait, the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound. The Salish Sea now officially includes the Juan de Fuca Strait, the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound. (Google Maps)

The new name doesn’t replace any of the existing official names for Puget Sound, the Juan de Fuca Strait or the Strait of Georgia near Vancouver.

Instead the original names will be retained, but the name Salish Sea will be used to indicate the entire area. The name refers to the language of the First Nations groups that originally occupied the area.

B.C. Lt.-Gov. Steven Point and Aboriginal Relations Minister George Abbott attended an official naming ceremony Thursday with members of the Songhees and other Coast Salish nations.

A canoe, hand-carved by Point andKwagiulth Hereditary Chief Tony Hunt, was christened "Salish Sea," then given to the navy to mark its centennial.

Salish Sea

Point, himself of aboriginal descent, said the name pays homage to First Nations history and reflects a growing understanding of native culture.

"Coast Salish peoples have traversed these waters for thousands of years, and this name pays homage to our collective history," he said. "Today’s celebration reflects the growing understanding and appreciation of our cultures. It is another step in the bridge of reconciliation."

The new name was originally proposed by Bert Webber, a retired Western Washington University professor of environmental and marine science who was at Thursday’s event in Victoria.

The name was later endorsed by the province along with the Geographical Names Board of Canada, the Washington State Geographical Names Board and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in March 2009.

Last December, B.C.’s Queen Charlotte Islands were officially renamed Haida Gwaii as part of a historic reconciliation agreement between the province and the Haida Nation.

B.C.'s largest predatory shark no threat to people, but can boost ecotourism

As the sun sets on Elliott Bay and the restaurants lining Alaskan Way start to close for the day, dinner is just being served on the ocean bottom, 15 metres beneath Pier 59.

A bucket of fish guts may not sound appetizing. But to bluntnose sixgill sharks, nothing could be tastier. But even here, there is no free lunch.

The price paid by the sharks is being captured on video by scuba divers with the Seattle Aquarium, being fitted with transmitters and having a bit of skin removed for DNA research.

sixgills shark BC

It’s all about learning the most basic information on an elusive shark whose numbers have dropped dramatically in areas such as B.C.’s Gulf Islands in the years following an experimental commercial fishery.

Like sharks around the worlds, sixgills have scientists worried. The species is rated "near threatened" globally and a species of "special concern" on Canada’s Pacific coast.

Perhaps a change in public attitudes toward sharks since the 1975 Hollywood blockbuster Jaws will help save them.

"Our guests love sharks," Tim Kuniholm, the aquarium’s marketing director, said over the din of excited children. "They want to see more of them."

The gift shop offers a host of shark-related items, including stickers, books, stuffed toys and masks that beg to be tried on. "I looked good in it and you will, too," quipped one woman with a grandchild in tow.

An exhibit called Life in the Deep: Wild Encounters allows visitors to watch video footage of the sixgill sharks being fed and to learn more about these otherwise unseen predators.

This sort of benign education/research program is a far cry from the Vancouver Aquarium’s public relations disaster of 1975, when it captured three sixgill sharks measuring 2.5 to three metres off Mayne Island.

One died shortly after capture, having been attacked by other sharks while still hooked on the line. Another died a few days later, and the last one succumbed after close to three weeks; the last two had been swimming upside down after ingesting air, reportedly during transport to the aquarium, and had to be walked around their tank.

The aquarium took public criticism for the loss of the three sharks — all perfectly healthy in their wild habitat — but argued that by seeing the animals on display, the public would be spurred to care about their conservation.

B.C.’s largest shark

Capable of exceeding four metres in length, sixgills are the largest predatory shark regularly found in B.C. waters, yet pose no threat to humans.

The species is widely distributed in temperate and tropical seas, its name referring to the presence of six gill slits as opposed to the five common in sharks.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature warns that sixgills have proven vulnerable to sustained sport or commercial fisheries, noting "attempts to develop directed fisheries … have rapidly collapsed in California waters, usually lasting less than three years."

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) reports that the "present population size and abundance trends are not known," although encounter rates with immature sharks at a site in the Strait of Georgia decreased more than 90 per cent in a five-year period. Because females don’t mature until 18 to 35 years of age, the shark populations are "likely susceptible to overfishing even at low levels of mortality."

COSEWIC reports that sixgills have historically been the target of three fisheries.

The first occurred in the early 1920s around Mayne Island with a focus on skins used to make shark leathers.

The second took place between 1937 and 1946, with a focus on shark livers for vitamin A. In the five-year period ending with 1946, fishermen killed an estimated 3,810 sixgills, yielding 276 tonnes of liver.

The third commenced under an experimental basis in the 1980s and 1990s, but was "terminated due to conservation concerns." Catches topped 14 tonnes in 1985, but declined to about one tonne in 1995.

Today, neither commercial nor sport fishermen are permitted to retain sixgills.

Globally, ecotourism is showing the economic value of live sharks, with at least 40 countries — including Australia, the Philippines, Mexico and Belize — offering shark diving, a potentially important source of revenue in economically depressed regions.

B.C.’s Hornby Island Diving thrived as a premier destination for scuba divers to view sixgill sharks in the 1980s and ’90s, but all that has changed.

Divers reported only about three sightings last summer.

"Back in the day, you could pretty much see them on every dive," said Amanda Zielinski, who operates the company with her husband, Rob. "A lot of people still phone saying they want to see the sixgills. I wouldn’t sell someone a charter specifically for sixgills."

In mid-August, Rendezvous Dive Adventures in Barkley Sound sponsored its first Shark Week, coinciding with the time when most sixgill sightings occur. Divers spotted two, obtaining video footage of one.

Still, there are no guarantees.

"If we see sixgills, great, cherries on the cake," said the operation’s Dutch-born owner, Peter Mieras. "We have discussed [luring them with bait], but for safety reasons decided not to go with that. We don’t want the liability of people getting bit in murky situations."

Lack of information

University of B.C. marine biologist Chris Harvey-Clark, who served as a guest speaker during Shark Week, strongly believes the last Canadian commercial fishery damaged sixgill shark ecotourism.

"Bottom line is, nobody knew anything about the biology of the sharks, how old they were, how many were out there, age at sexual maturity … all the basic biological information needed to rationally manage a fished population of sharks," Harvey-Clark said.

Ironically, the one thing generally known about sharks — even then — is that they are vulnerable to overfishing because they are late to mature, produce few offspring and are relatively slow-growing.

"They had ecotourism value and people were coming from all over the place for a chance to see them while diving, which greatly exceeded any commodity value for their mushy, exudative and ammonia-smelling flesh," Harvey-Clark added.

His U.S. colleague Jeff Chris-tiansen, a marine biologist with the Seattle Aquarium, agrees.

"They most likely impacted the local population significantly. They may have inadvertently taken out the year classes that were growing in that region at the time. That may go a long ways towards explaining their sudden disappearance and the long time frame before people started seeing sixgill sharks again."

And while commercial fishermen today can no longer keep sixgills, they do capture them as incidental bycatch.

B.C.’s commercial hook-and-line groundfish fleet caught 1,341 sixgills in the three-year period ending in 2009, with no hard information on how many survive being tossed back.

"Those are extremely significant numbers when you’re talking about a population of no known size or [rate of reproduction]," Zielinski said.

A study at Flora Islet in the Strait of Georgia by Bob Dunbrack, a researcher from Memorial University in Newfoundland who operated an underwater video observation station, found evidence that 13 of 35 sixgills had become hooked or entangled in fishing gear. "We’d often see sixgills with longline gear in their mouths, hooks and stuff."

Family ties

At the Seattle Aquarium, meanwhile, researchers have made some interesting findings about sixgill sharks.

Genetic testing of the sharks attracted to the aquarium pier show the same sharks kept showing up and that they were closely related, suggesting siblings stay together after birth. That also suggests that where sixgill sharks congregate, it’s possible to fish them out, Christiansen said.

"Because these pups stay together in such a close relationship," commercial fisheries in these areas of concentration "have a high probability of catching almost all of them."

Sport fishing for the species is strictly catch-and-release in the state, in part because mercury levels in the sharks have been found to be more than three times the maximum allowable limits for human consumption.

"Keep eating shark and you’re going to go a little bonkers," Christiansen said.

Researchers believe that shallow inland waters represent a nursery ground, especially in summer, for immature sixgill sharks. Females may arrive in January or March and can give birth to relatively large litters of up to about 100 free-swimming pups, each about two feet in length.

As they mature, growing beyond four metres, they migrate out to deeper waters.

A study of 34 sixgill sharks by Washington state’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center found the creatures resided in Puget Sound for up to at least four years before moving out of the estuary. Of the 34, 19 headed for the outer coast and only three returned to Puget Sound.

"We’re seeing more and more massive migration movements in shark species," Christiansen said. "I wouldn’t be surprised that sixgills have a phenomenal range as adults in the oceanic environment."

Distances that highlight the importance and difficulty of multiple nations working together to ensure shark conservation.

New calf spotted with southern resident killer whales

Pink splodges and fleeting glimpses of a small dorsal fin are signs of a new arrival among endangered southern resident killer whales.

A new L Pod calf, initially spotted in Juan de Fuca Strait last week, is the first recorded calf for 20-year-old L82 said Ken Balcomb, executive director of The Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wa.

It is the second L Pod calf of the season, but L47, the other mom, has not had any of her previous four calves survive, Balcomb said.

"This one is doing well so far, so we hope this will break the pattern," he said.

However, there have also been losses.

One calf born last February has died, as have two L Pod males.

The matriarch of K Pod, 77-year-old K11, is also believed to have died, said Mark Malleson, a Prince of Whales skipper and researcher for the Center for Whale Research.

"I saw her in July at the north end of Vancouver Island, but she hasn’t been seen since," he said.

Calves are not officially counted until they are one year old, because of a 50 per cent mortality rate, but, including the new arrivals, there are now 87 animals in the three pods.

"I think we are just going to see these break even numbers for a few years until we get more fish," Balcomb said.

"They can’t increase the population unless they get enough to eat."

Resident killer whales prefer to eat chinook salmon although they will eat other varieties of salmon.

The historical population is believed to be 120 animals and the lowest point, after decades of hunting and captures, was 71 whales in 1973.

One success story is B.C.’s rebounding humpback whale population — possibly because humpbacks are not picky eaters and will happily switch from krill to herring to sardines or crab larvae.

Humpbacks, which are listed as threatened under the federal Species at Risk Act, were almost wiped out by whaling by the 1960s. But Department of Fisheries and Oceans research, including photo identification, now shows more than 2,000 humpbacks in B.C. waters.

Humpbacks, which spend winter in Hawaii and Mexico, tend to return to the same areas, so it is good news that about a dozen, including calves, can be seen around Juan de Fuca and Haro straits, Malleson said.

John Ford, marine mammal specialist at DFO’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, said humpbacks started making a resurgence around Haida Gwaii in the 1990s and then spread to the mainland and Vancouver Island coast.

"They have a strong fidelity to feeding areas where they know they can effectively forage, so they can be slow to colonize new areas," Ford said.

As the population expands, they are being seen in places such as the water off Victoria and Race Rocks, he said.

"We are seeing them in offshore and inshore waters, up inlets, in Howe Sound and Barkley Sound," he said.

The population is growing at an annual rate of more than four per cent, Ford said.

It is estimated that in 1905, before the start of large scale whaling, there were about 4,000 humpbacks off the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Humpbacks, which tend to be expressive, often provide a show with breaches, fin slapping and tail waving.

"They are one of the most exciting and interesting whales for people to watch," Ford said.

The phenomenon of bubble feeding, in which humpbacks act as a team, circling a school of fish and forming a net of bubbles, appears to be a culturally transmitted behaviour and is seen around Haida Gwaii, but has not yet been seen in populations around southern Vancouver Island, he said.

No rest for saviour of Race Rocks

For a guy supposedly retired, Garry Fletcher can’t seem to sit still.

At Race Rocks off Metchosin, Fletcher is spearheading projects in alternative energy sources and undersea scientific research — not much different from when he was a teacher at Lester Pearson College of the Pacific.

Now 63, Fletcher was the driving force in the 1980s behind having Race Rocks islands established as a provincial ecological reserve and then a federal marine protected area.

For his passion in marine ecology stewardship, the Capital Regional District bestowed Fletcher an EcoStar Community Environmental Lifetime Achievement award in April. With humility, he points out it was an effort of many teachers and students at Pearson, not just one man.

“We realized what a unique area it was, but with no level of protection,” Fletcher said at his Metchosin farm. “It has high biodiversity, but is fragile. We were quite concerned the hydrocoral would disappear and the bottom creatures would be harmed by (divers) taking souvenirs.”

Fletcher joined Pearson as a biology and environmental systems teacher in 1976. He led the diving program, taking students to the nutrient-rich environment at the crossroad between the Pacific Ocean and the Strait of Georgia.

Metchosin resident Gerry Fletcher, seen here with his dog Ginger, continues to work on alternative energy at Race Rocks. The CRD bestowed Fletcher a lifetime environmental achievement award.They bore witness to the lives of sea lions, elephant seals and sea birds occupying the smattering of rocky outcrops above, and octopi, whales, sponges and corals below.

B.C. Parks establish the area as an ecological reserve in 1988, and Fletcher said the last piece of the puzzle was halting recreational and commercial fishing. The federal government soon agreed and eventually suggested Race Rocks become a marine protected area.

“To have the ecosystem protected, you need all the components,” Fletcher said. “It’s no good if its fished out. It doesn’t represent the ecosystem anymore.”

Fletcher was also part of the group that saw Race Rocks as an opportunity to test alternative energy sources and to get the lighthouse and buildings off old diesel generators. The island now has 38 solar panels and is fed power from North America’s first fully submersed tidal turbine, originally installed in 2006. He’s now trying to get smaller rooftop-model wind turbines installed to “plug the gap” in electricity need.

“We’re ready for wind energy. It’s always a little breezy out there,” he said. “It will be a great demonstration project.”

He’s working on installing a system of underwater fibre optic cabling for instruments and cameras to allow remote marine studies. Since retiring in 2004, it’s all volunteer time. “One of the cables broke, but we hope to get a live feed this year,” he said.

On land, he’s working with Metchosin to understand how much local beach front remains undamaged by seawalls and docks.

“Five of 50 kilometres is already under human influence,” he said. “Coastal areas are taken for granted. There isn’t a lot of coastline left in urban areas.”

See www.racerocks.com for more information on Race Rocks and live video feeds. Fletcher also maintains the website.

First elephant seal born at Race Rocks

A baby elephant seal born at Race Rocks a few nights ago is the ecological reserve’s first, and might be the most northerly birth of the mammal recorded, say the area’s guardians.

The pup, born a few nights ago, is already as big as a harbour sealPhoto Credit: Ryan J. Murphy Pearson College

“This area has long been a place where elephant seals come, but we’ve never seen anything like this,” said Garry Fletcher, a volunteer warden who manages racerocks.com. “Babies are usually born in Baja California, not this far north.”

Fletcher has been involved with the provincial reserve since the mid-1970s as an instructor with Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific, which uses the park — south of William Head near East Sooke — as a teaching site.

He said the elephant seals started showing up on the rocks in the ’80s for a month or two. “Now there are seals here almost year-round,” he said, adding animal populations often fluctuate for no clear reason.

Larry Paike, conservation protection supervisor for Fisheries and Oceans Canada, said he’s never heard of an elephant seal being born here before. He said the elephant seal population has expanded “tremendously” over the last 20 years and moved north. Prior to that, they had almost been hunted to extinction and were living in small groups in Mexico, he said.

The past year has seen at least four elephant seal sightings on the Island, an unprecedented number, Paike said. While they were infrequent visitors before, “Now it’s like they’ve taken up residence.”

Ryan Murphy, the resident marine biologist at Race Rocks, was the first to spot the baby seal Friday morning near the Race Rocks helicopter pad.

Murphy said he was going to investigate the scarring on an adult female when he saw another adult female with a young male that had been following her around. “Beside them was this tiny pup that must’ve been born sometime the night before,” said Murphy, 26, who started his work at the site eight weeks ago. He’s kept a close watch on the newborn seal since. “This morning it had milk around its mouth, which is a good sign that he’s feeding … The pup was the size of a small dog when he was born and now he’s as big as a harbour seal.”

The unusual birth is the latest indication of increased elephant seal activity on the Island.

“We are definitely getting more seals spotted around here moulting,” said Fletcher, referring to the process in which elephant seals shed their skin and hair and grow a new layer. “But it’s usually around June.”

Earlier this month, a young elephant seal caused a commotion in upscale Ten Mile Point when it settled in a roadside ditch to moult, returning to the ocean a few days later.

In November of last year, the body of an enormous male elephant seal washed up on a Nanaimo beach. Biologists were doubly mystified by what killed the seal — weighing 2,700 kilograms and 4.1 metres long — and why it was there. The species had never been spotted in the Strait of Georgia before. Blunt force was ruled the likely cause of the animal’s death, possibly due to a run-in with a boat or whale.

Copyright 2009 Times Colonist / Sarah Petrescu

Resident orcas arrive early this year, new baby in tow

At least some groups appreciate Victoria’s cold, wet weather.

Two pods of endangered resident killer whales, which do not usually return to waters around southern Vancouver Island until late June, were spotted off San Juan Island this week and, as a bonus, they have a bouncing, brand-new baby.

The baby orca, the first of the season, is a member of K Pod and is believed to be between four and six weeks old.

Her mother K14, a 31-yearold whale known as Lea, is experienced, which increases the calf’s chances of survival.

Lea’s first two calves died, but she has since successfully reared 15-year-old Lobo (K26) and five-year-old Yoda (K36).

The sight of the pinkpatched baby playing with its siblings is thrilling researchers at the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash.

“It’s a really good start,” said Kelley Balcomb-Bartok.

Last year, two calves were born in J Pod and two in L Pod.

But even with the mini-baby boom, the total number of southern residents was only 88, not counting Lolita, an L Pod whale who has been in Miami’s Seaquarium since her capture in 1972.

The question now is whether K Pod, which last year had 19 members, lost any whales over the winter.

“It’s easy to spot the new ones, but it’s not so easy to spot the holes,” Balcomb-Bartok said.

Research can spin out for weeks as whales do not stick around to be counted.

“They came in and spent a couple of days, but they may have headed out again now,” Balcomb-Bartok said.

Calves are easily seen because their patches are pink.

“Their skin is very thin and what you see is a kind of blushing,” said Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research director. “As they build up their blubber layer they become white.”

J Pod tends to stay around Juan de Fuca Strait for some of the winter, but it is a mystery where L and K Pods spend the winter.

They were seen near Monterey, Calif., in January and off the Washington coast in February.

Last year, there were worries that the orcas were staying off the California coast instead of heading north, but they turned up July 4.

No one knows why they decided to turn up early this year.

“Maybe they enjoy our lousy weather here,” said Balcomb-Bartok.

Humpys, Orcas, Stellars and California Sea Lions all in one afternoon

Every day is a unique adventure out on the Salish Sea but today’s trip stood out. We launched at Pedder Bay Marina in Metchosin to place us close to Race Rocks. As the California and Stellar Sea Lion bulls were entertaining us from their perches on the rock formations we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by a dozen or so of these mamoths swimming, diving and porpoising. Then the incredible happened. One of the stellars suddenly sprang out of the water not 40 feet from us with a huge salmon which it had just caught as it breached the surface. The salmon was squirming it the sea lion’s mouth. Just as quickly as the stellar had surfaced he dove again and repeated this motion 2 more times. All the while a dozen or so of his very excited mates were porpoising almost in unison as a group. In 12 years being out here on the ocean that was a first for me. This was just the begginning of our adventure. We had heard reports of 4 to 6 humpbacks in the general vicinity over the past week. As we networked with our colleagues we heard 6 transient orcas were nearby. We spent a bit of time enjoying the orcas before heading out in the direction of the shipping lanes where soon we spotted 4 humpbacks. They put on quite a show for us including some excellent tail flukes. The humpbacks were also very vocal. All this in the space of 4 hours on one of those special autumn days when the seas were calm and the sun was out.