2018 Season Final Sightings Report and Highlights.

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©Five Star Whale Watching/Andrew Lees. A large Humpback Whale reaches the surface during feeding. Note the baleen attached to the top jaw and the enlarged throat of the animal; both mechanisms allow the trapping and sifting out of large amounts of small prey.

Overview:

Welcome to our 2018 summary! This season presented many opportunities to witness an unforgettable variety of wildlife and their behaviours. The 2018 season was unique in the frequency of certain species we observed as well as the long duration of our season, the latter unlike any previous season. This was possible as we excitedly acquired a new 12-passenger vessel named “Salish Shadow.” This provided us the opportunity to continue exploring through late fall and even winter months! 

Season Trends and Sightings:

The sheer amount of certain marine mammals we observed this year was astounding. Unfortunately, this year also saw the continuation of the heartbreaking trend of reduction in the Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) population. With L92 (Crewser) and J50 (Scarlet) declared missing/assumed dead this year (Source: Orca Network), we were reminded of the many obstacles these whales face, most majorly a shortage of food.

The beginning of the season was an exciting mix of whales, and sightings remained high for Biggs’ (transient) Killer Whales (orcas), though SRKW’s were also spotted on some occasions! On a rare note, some of our tours also encountered the less commonly seen Gray Whale! Minke whales also made an appearance this season. As the season progressed, evidence of a strong, healthy and growing migratory Humpback Whale population was clear. We had the fortunate opportunity to witness a number of mothers with their new calves! This included one of the most famous mothers known to us, named “Big Mama”. Big Mama was one of the first females to begin to bring subsequent calves into the Salish Sea as the population began to recover steadily years ago. We are learning to recognize many individual Humpback Whales that pass into the Salish Sea, thus we were also able to recognize “Split Fin”, among many others.

Humpback Whale calves were not the only calves we saw, and fortunately we were able to encounter new members of the Biggs’ orca population with their mothers and families. Presence of Biggs’ orcas and Humpbacks remained extremely high throughout most of the summer, with SRKW’s reappearing at more limited instances. To take a closer look at July, we were thrilled to see incredible breaching Humpbacks and active SRKW’s on some of our tours! Throughout the summer and towards some of the later summer months, we spotted incredible gatherings of multiple Biggs’ orca pods. Earlier fall months allowed us another incredible mix of whales with the return of Jpod (SRKW’s), Biggs’ gatherings, and a huge number of encounters with Humpback Whales. We quickly realized (and observed) that there was lots of feeding being done by Humpback Whales through October and November…this even lasting through to December. The last month of our season still presented this unique mix of both orca ecotypes and Humpbacks. Never had we witnessed this many animals so far into the fall and winter as our seasons had previously not extended so long! 

Overview and Special Encounters:

2018 was truly a special year for Biggs’ orcas and Humpback Whales, as both populations clearly continued to thrive. We noted so many exciting behaviours within these populations, as well as in the SRKW population (when spotted). Some of our favourite experiences included beautiful evening tours witnessing SRKW’s, experiencing the sight of new Biggs’ and Humpback Whale calves, orcas hunting, massive breaching Humpbacks  and even a few instances of Humpback Whales nursing their young!

On many of our tours, we were able to encounter multiple whale species or sometimes both ecotypes of orcas! We occasionally witnessed the large Biggs’ male orca known as T77A; he is often seen travelling alone and is quite recognizable. Humpback Whales and orca whales were both seen to exhibit the kelping behaviour on some of our tours, and lunge-feeding (Humpback Whales) were also seen by some of our lucky guests! In addition to whales, we spotted a few unusual and notable species throughout the season; a Black Bear, terrestrial wildlife on Spieden Island, Elephant seals and a Brown Pelican. This season was truly diverse with lots of healthy, active populations flourishing in the Salish Sea. However, SRKW sightings remained low and with more deaths, we were further reminded of the critical nature of the Southern Resident orca population and the need to continue advocating for its recovery.

Source: Orca Network. 2020. “Births and Deaths.” Southern Resident Orca Community Demographics, Composition of Pods, Births and Deaths since 1998. <https://www.orcanetwork.org/Main/index.php?categories_file=Births%20and%20Deaths>.

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