Cetacean sightings with Des Kawai

By Des Kawai
Marine Mammal Biologist
Grenville Channel, August 2008

It was not a humpback whale. But if not, then what? We were in the middle of Grenville Channel, conducting our summer survey for marine mammals and birds. Usually, the large whales we see in BC coastal inlets turn out to be humpbacks. Yet from a far distance, an observer pointed out that it had an unusually large dorsal fin. As we approached to have a closer look, the whale let out a tall blow, then showed its long sleek body and a falcated large dorsal fin. It was a fin whale.

The long back and falcated dorsal of a fin whale
The long back and falcated dorsal of a fin whale

We were very excited to see the fin whale at the middle of this narrow passage. The BC Cetacean Sightings Network recently reported some sightings near the mainland, but we had never observed this species in this inlet system during our 5-year-survey. This great whale’s numbers were heavily depleted from inshore waters by whaling companies, which didn’t fully stop in BC until the 1960’s. It appears they are finally coming back though, even to such a narrow passage as Grenville Channel.

Ecological information about these spectacular inlets is in short supply, so one of the purposes of our project is to obtain basic information regarding marine mammals and birds. We are trying to estimate abundance of these animals in the province’s inlets, although it is quite a difficult task given the complicated geography of the coastline.

So, you ask, what kind of marine mammals have I seen in the inlets since I

joined the survey in the spring of 2007? As you might guess, the most abundant mammals are harbour seals. We also see other pinnipeds, such as Steller’s sealions and elephant seals. Other

Pacific white-sided dolphins play in Achiever’s wake and bow.

interesting sightings included a stag (male deer) swimming across a passage, with a swimming wolf in hot pursuit! For cetaceans, both harbour and Dall’s porpoise are quite common species, yet they are my favorites. I have seen Pacific white-sided dolphins slowly swimming through a narrow passage, where massive woods stretched their green-coated arms over the passing dolphins. We saw killer whales in one of the passages too. I remember their white breath released in the air with the dark shadow of deep forest silhouetted in the background; they seemed like forest spirits to me. Humpback whales, the passionate great whale, sometimes showed us their dynamic breaches. By contrast, elusive minke whales are one of the most difficult whales to find in these waters. And, of course, there is the majestic fin whale.

The long back and falcated dorsal of a fin whale

The excitement of spotting a fin whale did not leave me for a long time as we kept conducting the survey northwards up the channel. It was becoming evident to me that the other side of Pacific coast in my original country, Japan, could not compare with this beautiful coast. Standing on the observation platform of our research boat, Achiever, I found myself developing a great love of this rugged and remote region. At the same time, I wondered about its future and whether we would find ways to co-exist with its inhabitants.

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.