Have you ever been teased by a playful, juvenile humpback whale? No, I hadn’t either until recently when visiting the Whale Watching Labatory known as Cetecea Lab located in the Great Bear Rainforest on the North West Pacific Coast of Canada.
The mischievous whale spent almost a couple of hours swimming around the headland and bay in which the station is sited. At one point it swam through the kelp bed right in front of us but dived at just the right/wrong moment to prevent a clear picture. It would then reappear at another spot at the far end of the range of our lenses, like I said a tease, nature is unpredictable.
It often looked like it was about to give us a good view of the tail fluke only to slip below the surface again without as much as a tip of the tail breaking the surface. It is easy to believe the juvenile was genuinely playing with us, keeping everybody guessing where he would surface next and how much of himself he would show us.
I was there to visit Janie Wray, one of the scientists that established the station near Hartley Bay, along with two interns we watched the humpback for sometime. It was probably more frustrating for them, as I was only after some great images, they needed to identify the whale and without a clear view of the tail fluke this would be difficult.
It is possible to identify individual whales by markings on their flanks or dorsal fins but the most reliable method is to record the discolouration and scarring on their tail flukes. This is just a small part of the important work done at the research station. They record the sounds made by the whales which frequent the area, this includes orcas, humpbacks and fin whales which are the second largest of all whale species.
This allows them to track whale movements, which they also record along with behaviour which they are able to observe. Experience plays a large part, as being aware of whale behaviour enables them to piece together the jigsaw puzzle which often unfolds before them when a whale appears and disappears. The biologists are obviously unable to see these amazing animals when they dive. Therefore from previous experience which provides an understanding of whale behaviour they can piece their actions together and make informed observations.
The labatory has been here since 2001, Janie and her research partner Hermann Meuter approached the leader of the Gitga’ at Nation in Hartley Bay to ask permission to establish a station. He was not only in agreement but he also suggested the location for the positioning the station.
The work they do here is extremely important in understanding the whales, their behaviour, feeding patterns and movements. It also helps provide statistical information which demonstrates the importance of the waters surrounding the Great Bear Rainforest and how vital it is that the fragile eco-system is protected from commercial exploitation. I recommend visiting their site, it is fascinating and the gallery is stunning.
Mankind has already pushed these majestic creatures to the point of extinction once. Thankfully we came to our senses and provided some protection for them before it was too late. Protecting pristine environments and the wildlife which depend upon them must become our next priority.
I felt privileged to visit and spend sometime in the presence of these dedicated people who make many sacrifices to expand the knowledge we have about whales, which will hopefully help protect them.
The fact that a playful humpback graced us with its presence during this time even without any tail fluke displays or spectacular breaching was an added bonus. Everytime he surfaced I found myself holding my breath, even though he was a juvenile his size was immense and I was awestruck by the tiniest sighting. Of course I hoped he would be more accommodating but even the smallest glimpse of these great creatures is exciting and it is an experience I will never forget.
My whale watching safari was made complete by having the opportunity to track a pod of transient orcas later in the day. Although they also kept their distance it was incredibly exciting and the end of a perfect day.