Studying the Grey Whale
Yurts at Poncha Pass - Colorado Yurt Rentals and Sustainable Building Workshops - Photo of Chris in ground of Earthship

Written by Chris

July 6, 2009

Grey Whales, Eschrichtius robustus, represent one of the more interesting whale species, classified as one of the Great Whales. Probably the least alike any other great whale and often considered the ugly ducking… they also happen to be some of the more facinating species of whales. Unlike other great whales, Grey Whales often feed by digging their heads into the substrate of coastal benthic sea floors as they feed on mysids. Their parrot shaped heads and modelled skin make them seem like very awkward creatures. It is these whales, more specifically Grey whales of the North Pacific who are one of two poplulations that I found myself studying for my Bachlors thesis. The study was a two pronged approach, one to learn about Photo Identification and create a data base for the Bamfield Marine Science Centre where the other focussed on an actual study of sight fidelity using Photo Identification as a method.
Getting up each moring at 6 am for 3 weeks, I’d meet my co-worker and we’d set off to the caffeteria to grab a quick baggle or banana before the morning search. Setting off from the Bamfield Marine Science Centre, we’d explore the Deer Groups Islands for any signs of Grey Whales. Scanning the horizon with fresh eyes, a rising light in the sky and hot coffee, we’d look for blows from afar. Most mornings we could count on meeting a Grey near the mouth of the Deer Group where the water meets the larger Pacific Ocean just before King Edward Island. The Greys seemed to enjoy this spot above others, perhaps for its higher wave action and mini islands making it a better feeding ground. Regardless, we’d try and keep transects even. In the evening, we’d set out the same, each time taking us about 1 to 2 hours to complete a transect depending on the weather, what we found and where we went. Afternoons always held more variables such as wind and waves, but sunsets on the water make it all worth while.
With over 40 different transects and some 25 encounters, after all said and done we had ID’ed 5 different whales who continued to remain in the same area for a month. Greys exhibit the largest mammal migration known on earth making an annual round trip from the shallow nursery grounds of Baja California all the way north to the Bearing Sea. Why a specific resident population returns to the same spots along the coast without making it to the Bearing Sea remains someone of a mystery. Perhaps they found enough food to not need to go farther north, a carrying capacity in the north has been reached and an overflow spills down the coast…or they just like it better in B.C… I would not blame them.
It was an interesting experience in retrospect knowing that when we went out to greet the whales, it was often the same ones. Sitting in the boat quietly surrounded by morning fog, I’d watch at they would come up a 100-meters away going back and forth in search for food. Sometimes they’d swim over and dive under our boat making one feel very small and in the presence of a stronger power. It makes your choices easier as all you can do is sit and wait.
After our first week, one of the whales spy-hopped a couple of times raising its head vertically out of the water until its’ eye was just paralle with our own above the surface. After checking us out, the whale would sink back down leaving nothing but ripples coming across a sheet of glass. It is in the presence of this kind of life, something larger than oneself exists. It conveys a certain knowledge hidden from view, just lingering beyond…kept secret by these creatures from the sea and others like them. Even in the eyes of science, not everything can be understood… allowed to be understood. The awe of life itself is just that; something that encompasses us all and to which we are all bound, but which none of us will ever be able to see as a whole from that distant certain perspective.

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