By Ian McLeod
Marine Mammal Observer
Journal Entry – October 2007
It was another early start for Raincoast’s marine mammal survey team as we needed every minute of light to complete the long transect from Haida Gwaii to the mainland in less than favourable conditions—cold winds and a slopping two-metre swell that seemed to come from random directions, determined to fling any binoculars or books left un-stowed across the cabin.
Out on the viewing platform, the lurching and rolling was further magnified. Surfing down the face of one wave then ploughing through the back of the next, catching green water over the bow, it felt like being on some crazy ride at Disneyland. Holding on tight, we laughed and rode it out.
Conditions calmed slightly as the day progressed. Our view, however, remained unchanged–gunmetal grey seas, the occasional sea bird, and the slow morphing of the clouds. After almost three hours on the platform I got to the “What the heck am I doing here?” stage—freezing toes, soaked gloves and hat, wind blowing stinging rain into my eyes. We hadn’t seen a single marine mammal all day.
“Blow!” Suddenly, a surge of adrenaline dragged me from my gloom. “That might be a fin whale,” Jeremie yelled. “Whoa, there’s another and two more”. Having never seen fin whales in the flesh, I was in awe. Fin whales are the second largest animals on our planet – weighing in at up to 50,000 kg. Whoosh! One of the whales broke the surface twenty metres to portside, so huge it seemed impossible that this could be a living creature. A creature so large would logically seem ponderous, even clumsy, but this whale moved with purpose and grace.
We went off transect towards the sighting to confirm the species. Fin whales can be easily confused with their larger blue whale cousins and their smaller sei whale relatives. The diagnostic feature for the fin whale is the white colour of the right side of their jaw.
Upon closer inspection, we caught a glimpse of this distinguishing feature, bright against the almost black upper body. After emitting a thunderous blow it slowly rolled down into a deep dive; its lengthy form seeming to take ages to disappear beneath the surface.
The crew were ecstatic, spotting whales in every direction and shouting angles and distances. The towering blows of our quarry hung in the air for a few seconds before being dissipated by gusts of wind. One smaller whale slid right under the bow of the boat, easily visible through the clear water.
After sunset and a warming meal of fried rice cooked by Des, we continued our progress toward Bella Bella. Brian, Saffrina and Ian alternated keeping an all night vigil to get us there by early morning. They were rewarded with a beautiful cloud free, moonlit night and marine companions for the last leg of the journey—a pod of fifteen Dall’s porpoises, the moonlight sparkling across their backs as they broke the surface.