So What Have I Been Up To?

ICA Youth After Cruise Fe. 2020

I have a busy life. And, for the most part, I like it that way, especially given that everything I’m doing perfectly aligns with my passions.

Being the part-time coordinator of the Greater Victoria NatureHood keeps me hopping. It is a remarkable collaboration among 16 organizations ( two businesses, four municipal departments and ten not-for-profits) sharing the mission of instilling and deepening the connection with nature through what can be found nearby in one’s backyard, neighbourhood and region.

The Greater Victoria NatureHood initiative is made possible by funding provided by Environment and Climate Change Canada through the Canadian Wildlife Service and is administered by Nature Canada.

Over the past few years, we used some of our allotted funding to offer free cruises through the Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary and by the Esquimalt Lagoon Migratory Bird Sanctuary for children, youth and families, made possible by the generosity of Eagle Wing Tours, one of the current partners.

Last year, we reached out to the Inter-Cultural Association of Greater Victoria and invited them to send the 25 youth enrolled in their youth program on an all-expense, 2 hour cruise to experience and learn about the ocean surrounding much of the region with the assurance that the current COVID protocols would be followed,

The cruise was part of the All Bufflehead Day celebration which happens every year on or near Oct. 15th. There’s a fascinating story here, but it will have to wait till a later post.

The Director was

The program manager was over the moon with excitement. Her organization could not afford such an amazing experience. Many of the youth, she said, had never been on a boat, other than maybe a BC Ferry.

So you can well imagine the excitement among the youth when they walked down the wharf and gathered around one of Eagle Wing’s excellent naturalists. Even though some were more busy trying to look and act cool, most listened intently to what she had to say.

Once on board and on the way, most of them braved the cold and rainy weather to spend much of their time on the decks, watching for wildlife. No more than maybe a half an hour on the water, we encountered the first of not two, three, or four humpback whales. Two of which swam under our vessel. They surfaced and gave out a mighty blow. Now these young people know what a whale’s breath smells like. 

They also saw, heard, and smelled the sea lions hauled out at Race Rocks, and they witnessed a large female surface only a few metres from the boat with an octopus in its mouth which it then proceeded to tear apart and eat.

Youth observing a sea lion eating an octopus

You may be able to imagine the excited squeals, shrieks, shouts and laughter that prevailed on the vessel after the first sighting and throughout the rest of the cruise.

According to one of the ICA staff on the cruise, one of the students told him: “I feel like we are like a family. Being on the trip and seeing friends again to see these ocean animals is really refreshing for my spirit. It’s really calming and healing for those of us stuck at home.”

In a blog post for the association’s website, he wrote:

“Getting to share these experiences with our youth is an incredible opportunity to learn, for staff and youth alike. Our group enjoyed teaching one another words and phrases in our home languages to help point out interesting sights along the way – with “Look over there!” and “Whale, whale, whale!” in Arabic being particularly useful to our group. Getting to appreciate something bigger than yourself is a great way to put things in perspective, particularly during these tumultuous times. For our youth, it was a welcome chance to celebrate their ICA community and learn about their marine neighbours.”

Knowing that I played an important role in making this experience possible for these youth fills my heart and energizes my spirit. It keeps me going, wanting to do more with the Greater Victoria NatureHood to connect people with the nature found nearby as well as with nature more generally. The more we can touch people the way we did on this cruise, the more we can foster the development of a public ready to protect and restore nature.

Video Climate Change Impacts on Tourism

For the past two years, a remarkable conference has taken place in Victoria, BC during the cold wet days of late January. It is completely focused on the opportunities for and challenges to sustainable travel and tourism in Canada and around the world. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only conference of its kind in Canada.

Last year, a key focus for the “IMPACT: Sustainable Travel and Tourism” conference was the anticipated impacts of climate change and what could be done to reduce them. With the assistance of Shaw Community Television, I was able to produce this short video on the issue, featuring Bob Sandford, EPCOR Chair in Water and Climate Security at the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health

Bubble-Net Feeding Among the Humpback Whales in the Great Bear Rainforest

Humpback whales surge to the surface
Humpback whales surge to the surface

Recently, I was asked about the story behind the photo in my website’s banner.

These are humpback whales and what they’re doing is really cool. It’s called “cooperative bubble-net feeding.”

Here’s how it happens, as I understand it. A small group of humpbacks come together and they begin cruising along shorelines to locate schools of small fish, most commonly herring. When a school is located, the whales move swiftly to corral the fish into a more compact ball. This enables the whales to swallow more in a gulp.

Humpback whales preparing to dive
Humpback whales preparing to dive

So how does a humpback corral the fish? First they take a few deep breaths, then they arch their backs and flip their tails signalling a deep dive.

Humpback whales Diving
Humpback whales diving

* Please note that the tour boat is further away from the whales than what it appears due to the compression of distance caused by using a long lens. The image was also slightly cropped to create a stronger composition.

For a while, there is nothing. Only stillness on the water’s surface. But the gulls wheeling around expectantly suggest something big could be coming. You can almost feel it.

Then, they begin to form. Subtly at first. Almost imperceptible, but very rapidly building into what appears to be a perfect ring of bubbles breaking the surface calm.

What’s happening below is really, really neat. As the whales dive, they blow bubbles in an ever-tightening circle below the increasingly panicky fish.  While diving, they also emit a very particular high-pitched call. In their fright to avoid the threat coming from below, the small fish move upwards towards the surface. Some can even be seen leaping out of the water to get as far away as possible. Many of these end up going down the throats of daring gulls that dart in to pick them off.

I wish I had photos of this action. It’s wild. Next year, I’ll be ready.

Anyhow, you can pretty much guess what’s coming next. Yep, a major eruption!

Humpback whales and gulls
Humpback whales and gulls

The whales have come up through the middle of the bubble-net and with their mouths open. With this mighty lunge, they gulp down hundreds of fish along with vast quantities of sea water. Pleats of skin and blubber hanging of the lower mandible unfold to accommodate.

This is truly an awesome spectacle to witness.

But as if this wasn’t amazing enough. Cooperative bubble-net feeding, it turns out, is a learned behaviour. It first appeared among humpback whales in South East Alaska in the mid-1980s and has been spreading southwards. I don’t know yet how far south it has spread, but the tactic was certainly in high use among the humpbacks seen in the Great Bear Rainforest, especially in Whale Channel. What this spread demonstrates is a form of cultural diffusion and the remarkable intelligence of these animals and their kind.

To learn more about humpback whales, I encourage you to check out the work done by the Marine Education and Research Society , For Whales.Org and BC Whales.Org