Month: December 2017

Scottish orcas return to Iceland

Today I saw some fantastic news from a good friend Marie, who runs Orca Guardians, an independent conservation non-profit dedicated to the protection of orcas in Iceland.

For the first time this winter season, they spotted Vendetta/Mousa (SN069) and her core group back along the Icelandic shoreline! These individuals travel between Iceland and Scotland. The orcas spend time off the coast of Iceland between November and March, returning to the Scottish coast (including Shetland and Orkney) numerous times starting in May and throughout the summer.

Orca Guardians have put together a fantastic ID catalogue, which helps them to keep track of the orcas that visit the waters of western Iceland, they work collaboratively with organisations in Scotland and have been able to match individuals that are spotted off Scotland in the summer with individuals they have been seeing in Iceland, giving us a greater understanding of their behaviour, movements and migration. You can find all the information on the groups as well as their matching IDs here: http://orcaguardians.org/id-matches/

B.C government ends the grizzly bear trophy hunt

Grizzly bear

The provincial government has just announced a complete ban on the grizzly bear trophy hunt throughout British Columbia.

This fantastic announcement ends two decades of campaigning by environmental groups to end the annual trophy hunt.  The spring grizzly bear hunt was scheduled to open on April 1, 2018, but the ban on hunting for resident and non-resident hunters takes effect immediately.

The B.C grizzly bear population is estimated to be around 15,000, and the province is one of their last strongholds in North America, despite this, they have been extirpated from parts of their former range, mostly southern B.C and their population has decreased dramatically. The bears play a vital role in the ecosystem, they help to distribute the ocean-derived nutrients in salmon carcasses through the forests, producing larger, healthier trees. They keep prey population levels sustainable and disperse the seeds of many plants and berries throughout the forest.

Banning trophy hunting was a vital step in conserving grizzly bears, as well as an acknowledgement of the important role they play in the ecosystem, their cultural importance to First Nations and to the people of British Columbia. The government has also finally recognised that a live grizzly bear is worth more to the province than a dead one.

George Heyman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, also stated that “Our government is committed to improving wildlife management in B.C., and today’s announcement, along with a focused grizzly bear management plan, are the first steps in protecting one of our most iconic species.” Hopefully this will focus on some of the key issues impacting grizzly bears, such as habitat fragmentation and human-bear conflict.

Swallowed by a whale (well, almost)

A few weeks ago, after bird banding, I got the opportunity to take a boat trip out into the Salish Sea, looking for some of the incredible wildlife that lives there.

It did not take long for us to find something cool, almost straight away after leaving the harbour we encountered two humpback whales. The area we were looking in surrounds Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, a small cluster of rocks, and includes a beautiful lighthouse. The area is fantastic for wildlife , with a great number of bird species present and a large sea lion colony, which is easy to see, hear and quite frankly smell (you can tell if you’re downwind from it)! The humpbacks were easy to spot, the water was calm and the sun was out, meaning the spray from the humpback blow was clearly visible. The blow can be up to four metres and looks like white smoke. After spotting the initial two, we realised that we were pretty much surrounded by whales. We were counting multiple blows as far as the eye could see. The humpback whale was once an endangered species in this area, but in recent years their population has boomed and now they’re probably the most commonly seen whale in the area. The whales we were seeing are preparing for their long migration south to Mexico, where they’ll spend the winter months in warmer water. After watching the two closest to us  we decided to focus on the birds and moved towards a bait ball we could see in the distance, as we made our way there, we could see and hear humpback whale blows (and sea lions) coming from all directions.

We approached the bait ball and started birdwatching. Bait balls occur when small fish swarm into a tightly packed ball, this is pretty much their last line of defense against predators. They are a chaotic affair, with birds piling in from all directions. Here, the gulls were on the surface of the water and in the air, whilst below the waves, common and ancient murres were gliding effortlessly through the school, cormorants were also diving in and out, what was amazing, and a first for me, was that you could see the fish scales twinkling in the water. We counted at least ten species of bird that were predating the fish, however, we did not realise that a much larger predator was lurking deep below our boat.

Suddenly, the birds all just flew away, for a split second the bait ball was quiet and calm. Then, whoosh, out of nowhere a humpback whale lunged to the surface, it threw open its gigantic mouth, extended its throat grooves and ingested the entire bait ball in one go. On the boat, we were screaming, we had no idea the humpback was around, we had not seen or heard any blows and we certainly could not see it under the water. Personally, I have never seen anything like it, a humpback whale lunge feeding right off our boat! We could see the baleen of the whale in such detail, I can only really describe the moment it burst through the surface as like an explosion of air. The humpback then surfaced once more, before diving deep again into the chilly depths of the Salish Sea. In total we counted 28 humpback whales, just in the small area we covered, what a conservation success story, and a successful boat trip!

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