It was on the 11th of February this year, that researchers at OrcaLab in northern Vancouver Island picked up unusual calls on their hydrophones. The “clicks” heard were interesting enough to head out in a boat and try to find the source. Jared Towers, a researcher with DFO in Canada was in the boat when they found what would be the first sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) on Eastern Vancouver Island since 1984.
Sperm whales are the largest member of the tooth whales, belonging to the same group of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) as killer whales and dolphins that are more familiar to our area. Their size is usually around 16 meters for large males, with maximum size listed as 20 meters. This makes them the largest toothed predator. Sperm whales are found in all large oceans, but only in very deep waters. They are deep diving specialists, able to dive down to depths greater than 2000 meters!
Females and calves live in family groups and are limited to temperate and tropical waters, while males live a solitary life and only join up with female groups during mating. These solitary males are often making journeys to higher latitudes.
So, it was no surprise that the sperm whale found in Johnstone Strait, Northeastern Vancouver Island was a male. Although we have deeper parts in the inland sea around the Island, these waters have never been home to sperm whales.
The whale remained in the area for more than a month, to the excitement of the researchers. It was a concern that the whale (later named Yukusam), wasn’t spending enough time foraging, and sperm whale specialists were contacted to analyze the series of “clicks”, “creaks” and “clangs” recorded by the hydrophones in the area. Sperm whales are using echolocation when foraging, like dolphins, but their sounds are more powerful and travel further. The strait provides some deeper areas suitable for a sperm whale to hunt in, but to what success was a concerning question. To answer this would be very difficult, but from what could be observed, Yukusam looked healthy and his diving pattern was good with 35-40 minute dives. This proved good indication that this rare visitor is finding food deep down in the strait.
All good things end… There have been similar observations of sperm whales ending up in inland waters or shallow waters away from their normal range. In many cases they have remained in the area for some time, but later moved away to more suitable waters. Yukusam was last heard heading east in Johnstone Strait on March 18th , more than a month since the first observation! On that day, researchers listening to the hydrophones for his powerful clicks didn’t know it was for the last time. He had traveled out of listening range many times before during this long visit. The next following days were however silent with Yukusam nowhere to be seen.
9 days later on March 27th news got out of a sperm whale further south outside of Nanaimo, Southern Vancouver Island. It was Yukusam! He had managed to cover great distance in these days, such as the whole Johnstone Strait and well into Georgia Strait. A few more uncertain days of his whereabouts followed until he again appeared, this time even more further south. Yukusam was seen in Haro Strait just south of Vancouver Island and very close to San Juan island (Washington state, US) and Victoria. Around San Juan island hydrophones are located to follow the movement of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales that frequently visit the area. Although, on that day the sounds from Yukusam could once again be heard as he went for deep dives in the strait. Here in Haro Strait ends the story about Yukusam. He was not seen or heard the following day and based on his movement earlier he likely continued traveling. It is a story with a happy conclusion though, Haro Strait is connecting with Juan the Fuca Strait in the south and that strait goes right by Victoria and continues west out to open waters. So, it is very likely that Yukusam found his way out of the inland sea and back to the deep waters of the Pacific.
A rare sighting for sure around Vancouver Island and a story that many in the area will remember for a long time!