We are grateful for what was yet another wonderful summer in Tofino. Wildlife sightings this season were extraordinary! We saw Gray Whales in Clayoquot Sound every day on our tours in July, August, and September; and we saw Black Bears on 118 out of 122 days from June to September. It's truly remarkable when you are able to have this many encounters with whales and bears in a natural setting... it is certainly part of what makes Tofino so special.
The Tla-o-qui-aht word for whale is Ihtuup. “Ih” means “really big” and “tuup” means “animal” or “creature”. Very soon we will be welcoming back a “REALLY BIG CREATURE”, our migrating Gray Whales! After wintering in the warm water lagoons of Baja California, Mexico, 18 to 24,000 whales will pass our BC shores towards the summer feeding grounds of the Bering, Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas. This 15-20,000 km round-trip migration is one of the longest known mammalian migrations.
Here in Tofino, we are fortunate to enjoy them within 5-km of shore and in shallow waters. Not all whales complete the migration north and instead spend their summer feeding in our local waters. These are what we fondly refer to as our “summer residents”. Gray Whales mostly feed in shallow areas using their baleen to strain out small invertebrates from the soft muddy bottom. Gray Whales can also be seen during summer months feeding on herring eggs and larvae found in eel grass beds.
The whale blows. It exhales a pungent mix of what lies below. Mysterious and ancient, its eye sees through you, casting a spell. You are humbled and entranced. It slowly evaporates into the salty depths with sunlight dancing across its sides until it disappears completely from sight but the feeling that it leaves lasts much longer. You want to follow. Their world is alive with song. Haunting beats, clicks, squeals… We may never comprehend the brilliance of such creatures and we feign to protect them. Mostly we ravage their heavenly bodies and watery existence. Hopefully, with education and conservation we can make a better world.
A friend recently shared with me that being anywhere near whales touches his core deeply and how much he would love to hear their thoughts. "Me too" I exclaim and this is true for many people. Even the possibility of seeing a whale is enough to draw the biggest land-lover out to sea. The experience of being on the ocean can be life changing. For many people, the ocean is a place that makes the imagination wild and despite how little we know, we are drawn by her tides and creatures we only hope to encounter. We flank her sides and seize the opportunity to head out exploring and adventuring. The ocean is full of mystery and depths unknown and unexplored.
I make no joke when I say that our guides have the best jobs on the planet. We keep a sightings board in our office. Sea stories about each day's discoveries are always thrilling. Recently, I asked a few of our guides about their favorite day on the water this season and this is what they shared. Enjoy!
The Altruistic Motivation of Whales
Interspecies adoption has forever fascinated me. For example, why would a leopard adopt an orphaned baby monkey or a lioness a small antelope? It’s easy for us to accept that our family dog has “feelings” yet science looks at any form of anthropomorphic thinking as misdirected scientific enquiry. There have been more than 100 reported cases of Humpback whales interfering with Orca hunting non-Humpback species including sunfish, porpoise, seals, sea lions and other marine mammals. It appears we have some Humpback heroes on the horizon!
In evolutionary biology, when an organism’s behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself, it is said to behave altruistically. Why would Humpback whales risk personal injury and expend so much energy to protect entirely different species? This has been the center of marine ecologist Robert Pitman’s research at NOAA Fisheries. Pitman has analyzed 115 interactions between Humpbacks and Orca. An extraordinary incident occurred near the Antarctic peninsula where Pitman observed a Humpback offer protection to a Weddell seal by rolling onto it’s back and holding the seal on it’s belly above the waters surface and out of reach of a pod of marauding killer whales...