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Finding Yoda – Part 2

From Canada’s Pacific, whale researcher Janie Wray follows the travels of Yoda, a charismatic and well-known humpback that arrives every year in Caamano Sound on B.C.’s north coast.  In Janie’s last blog post, Yoda announced his annual return to Whale Channel after a long journey from somewhere across the Pacific Ocean. Today, we find Yoda in the humpback feeding grounds where whales spend their summers filling up on food in the nutrient-rich north coast waters.  This is an important feeding area for not just Pacific humpbacks but a range of other species as well and another reason why WWF is working with Cetacea Lab to help protect whale habitat for these recovering populations. 

Written by Janie Wray, Director of Cetacea Lab

It’s 5 in the morning on a day in late August and my research partner Hermann Meuter and I are up early, sipping coffee, as we listen to the early feeding calls of humpback whales. The haunting sounds are broadcast from a network of hydrophones placed in strategic underwater positions in the coastal waters surrounding us.

This has become our favourite wake-up call of the season. The ocean here is rich with nutrients that provide enough food— including herring and small, shrimp-like animals called krill – to sustain massive amounts of humpback feeding, from first light until dusk, every day now from August through to November.

I packed supplies the night before as I’m determined to spend the entire day on the water to observe today’s feeding frenzy. As Hermann and I navigate our research boat south, the sun is peeking over the mountains, shining a golden path of sunlight on a calm sea. There’s no sign of Yoda but it’s not long before we spot a group of nine other humpback whales against the shoreline of Campania Island in Squally Channel. They’ve chosen this spot to engage in one of the most cooperative and spectacular feeding events on this planet – bubble net feeding.

yoda-2-bubble-net-mouths

Giant mouths of feeding humpbacks break the surface, ingesting krill and tiny forage fish.
© Forwhales.org

The massive humpbacks work as a team; each member has mastered its technique. One by one, they begin to dive. Huge flukes (whale tails) reach for the sky, before dipping smoothly below the surface. I lower the hydrophone overboard and soon we’re listening to distinct feeding calls. The calls climax and I wait for the group to surface.  Within seconds, a circle of bubbles boils up. Next, the water explodes as giant, gaping mouths break the surface. Pectoral fins flap, grunts and deep blows sound, as each whale takes in a mouthful of fish. As they close their mouths, massive tongues will press out all the seawater through baleen plates that act like fuzzy brushes to strain out seawater and keep in food.

After a series of blows, the whales return to the depths. Surrounding a school of fish, the group collectively begin to blow bubbles through their blowholes. As they swim together in an upward spiral, the bubbles create a net, forcing the fish to the surface. Our hydrophone relays the sound of first one then another whale, vocalizing feeding calls. These calls helps force the fish into an even tighter ball so they can’t escape, providing the whales with even more food for their effort.

On the fringe of this bubble net feeding, I notice sea lions, Dall’s porpoises and a diversity of sea birds waiting to join the fray. I realize how vital a role humpback whales play in this ecosystem. They bring a food source to the surface that would not be readily available to these opportunistic spectators.

Humpbacks don’t eat during the winter months, so the feeding they do in the Great Bear Sea coastal waters will sustain them the entire year. The ocean here is also naturally quiet, allowing them to communicate with one another to coordinate this group feeding activity.

Through binoculars, I notice another humpback whale quickly making its way towards the group, most likely attracted by the feeding calls. When it comes within 100 meters, everything suddenly changes. The surfacing whales begin a series of urgent, tonal blows, tail slaps and lobbing of heads against the water. They’re obviously upset by the presence of this newcomer.

Who is this whale that can cause so much commotion? The whale begins to fluke, diving below the surface, its tail standing at attention in the air. I aim my camera in its direction, hoping to get an ID. The familiar, all-white tail holds position above the sea and I’m shocked –  it’s Yoda!  Suddenly, very close to the boat, Yoda’s massive body effortlessly leaps into the air, then slams down hard, the sound echoing across the water as he breaches again and again.

The group dynamics between humpback whales fascinate me. Why was Yoda not welcome? Is there a history here we are unaware of? It will take decades of research to understand this type of personal behavior and relationships between humpbacks. I sense that Yoda is a dominant whale, whether male or female, which may have provoked a reaction from certain whales in this group.

Whatever the reason, Yoda slowly begins to leave the group after an amazing acrobatic display. I cannot help but hope that he, or she, finds companionship and will stay for the rest of the season.

Learn more about Cetacea Lab’s work
Learn more about WWF’s work on B.C.’s north coast.

Help protect the Great Bear Sea for now, and forever. Visit Greatbearsea.org and add your name.