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!