Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Once in a Lifetime!

It was just passed 7am this morning when I started to hear calls from pacific white-sided dolphins on our hydrophone right here in Taylor Bight. It sounded like a lot of dolphins and they seemed to be getting closer and closer. The sun was not about to rise for another hour but because of the clear sky there was already enough daylight to perhaps see them.

It is rather unusual for the dolphins to come close into our bay especially in large numbers, so I was pretty excited to go and see them. Just as I was about to open the door to go outside I heard what I thought were faint transient Orca calls among the now close dolphin chatter. Intuitive I grabbed the video camera instead of binoculars not knowing that I was about to witness something extremely extraordinary.

As I walked towards our viewing platform I saw a group of dolphins deep in the east corner of Taylor Bight. They were swimming very fast either hunting fish or running away from potential danger. A few moments later I reached the platform and immediately heard an Orca blow to the west. There were the transients, four of them, two females and two juveniles traveling very slowly and staying close to shore. They were not following the big group of dolphins instead they stayed in the same area going in big circles remaining so very close to the rocky shoreline. It took me a few minutes to understand what was going on as the whales disappeared behind exposed rocks due to the low tide. They were pacing, waiting. But what was it that they were waiting for?

In order to find out I had to go back towards the house as the whales were right close to the beach on the west side. Of course Neekas, our dog, was with me, and in anticipation on what I was to see I locked her in the house. Then I slowly walked to the beach on the west side. The four transients were swimming right close to edge of the rocky beach in only about 10feet of water and just a few meters away from them barely above the tideline on the rocks was the reason why they were there. A young juvenile dolphin. The poor thing most likely beached itself while it was chased by the whales. It was still alive, its tail still touching the waters edge. I did not go close instead I stayed in the forest and filmed the event from a distance. The last thing I wanted to do is interfere.

My emotions were divided, on the one hand there were these beautiful transient Orcas close to my house and on the hand there was this small dolphin scared to the bone and facing death. The tide was still ebbing so it would be at least another two hours before the water would be high enough for the whales to perhaps grab the dolphin. They continued to stay close to the beach, taking turns on who would patrol close by the dolphin. They were clearly excited, especially the juveniles as they spy-hopped and rolled over each other numerous times. I did not get the feeling that my presence disturbed them, after all they continued to patrol the beach for another hour. At least one of the whales was always in eye contact with the beached dolphin and sometimes they would create waves with their tail flukes hoping the waves would pull the dolphin off the beach. To witness their strategic patrol was just amazing! But then, just after the tide turned towards a flood the whales suddenly disappeared. I thought they just a took long dive and would continue their patrol but minutes later I saw the whole group heading out of Taylor Bight. To be sure I waited another 10minutes but they never came back. I saw them one more time as they surfaced close to the east end of Taylor Bight, following the big group of dolphins perhaps.

Now I was left with a young dolphin on the beach that so urgently needed to be back in its element in order to have a second chance. I put on my drysuit and slowly approached the dolphin. I could see a few deep scratches it was bleeding from, most likely from barnacles on the rocks. The water was rising fast now, the rear end of the dolphin already submerged. So I gently lifted its body to get it back in the water. I turned its head towards the open water and held it. I waited for the dolphin to start swimming out of my hands and after a its breathing calmed down from the stress it did just that. A few shallow dives and then a long one and off it went. I heard myself screaming “You go girl!” I saw it a few more times surfacing before it was out of my sight. Of course it is hard to say what its survival chances are, the sooner it finds its pod again the higher the chances will be... This was truly an experience of a lifetime and one that I (Hermann) will never forget in my life! I later figured out that the transients where the T59s.

About the Author: Hermann Meuter is one of the founders of the North Coast Cetacean Society, a charitable organization dedicated to the research and protection of whales in BC coastal waters. Click to visit the Cetacealab and Hermann's blog.