by Jim Shinkewski and Marla Barker
Who doesn’t love whales? Who doesn’t at least like marine mammals in some way? Given the popularity of events, research and the industry that often spotlight their peculiar lives and the high profile of BC’s marine wildlife, it is safe to assume that many British Columbians have a soft spot for these remarkable mammals. Fortunately for us, we’re on the doorstep of migratory corridors that offer the opportunity to witness the presence of an array of whales, dolphins and porpoises, as well as the annual migration of the world’s largest population of California grey whales along our most west-coastal waters. We’re talking upwards of 20,000 strong making their way from the warm calving and breeding lagoon waters off of the Baja toward the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Arctic north, often within viewing distance of shore.
Much more than a passing fancy on the part of humans for these majestic leviathans has generated the evolution of countless opportunities to explore their underwater world. The success of the whale watching industry – ever-present along the length of the BC coast, promoting tourism as well as encounters with whales – has led to a long list of regulations to ensure ethical viewing practices, initiated by both the government and individuals. Not all that long ago, whales were hunted up and down the BC coast and when humans looked toward a spout spotted on the horizon, they wondered how many barrels of oil that whale would produce. Only a handful of decades later, we’ve come a long way to arrive at a place where our queries are much more empathetic, such as “Where do they live? How do they breathe? What do they eat?” The connection and understanding we are developing with whales has brought about the major change in the kind of interaction we seek with them. And we’re not the only species looking for a whale of a time.
Let’s consider the much less visible supporting cast in the grey whale ensemble. Who loves barnacles? Krill? How about lice? You may be hard-pressed to find someone willing to attend the Pacific Rim Marine Lice Festival. We would, but we’re among the kind of special geeks who love algae, plankton, aquatic worms and scientific nomenclature. Nonetheless, these not-so-charming organisms have very interesting stories and are important elements of marine mammal biology. An adult grey whale is an ecosystem unto itself, playing host to several species of parasites and hangers-on. Allow us to pull out the hypothetical magnifying glass for a moment.
The bumpy and calloused skin found on a grey whale’s head is due to clusters of attached barnacles. These are not the familiar
Throughout the coastal towns of Tofino and Ucluelet and the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, the Pacific Rim Whale Festival Society throws open its doors to welcome whales, springtime and visitors alike in a “Celebration of Coastal Life,” highlighting the annual spring migration of upwards of 20,000 grey whales. Enjoy live music, culinary competitions, children’s fun-fairs, art, hands-on education and interpretive walks and talks. Explore the coastal temperate rainforest, hunt in tide pools and come eye-to-eye with octopi in the Ucluelet Aquarium. Weave a cedar basket with Nuu-Chah-Nulth elders, join a researcher for a day-trip at sea with migrating grey whales, tour to Hot Springs Cove with a local biologist, or sink into a seat for the screening of a film with your family. Admire local artists in action, fill your ears with the stories of Roy Henry Vickers, or count spouts while walking the Wild Pacific Trail. Experience a unique and culturally powerful coastal tradition.
For more info, including a calendar of events, visitwww.pacificrimwhalefestival.com
seashore barnacles found on virtually every solid surface in coastal environments; instead, they’re a separate species similar in function and form. These barnacles are parasitic and embed themselves into their hosts’ skin. It is thought these parasites cause little damage to the host whale beyond decreasing swimming efficiency, as a 40-ton adult grey whale carries up to one ton of barnacle weight. Since grey whales feed in the bottom sediments (and, as a result, are most often seen so close to shore), one side of the whale’s face is scraped clean of these arthropod hitchhikers. Whichever side is barnacle-free is an indicator of whether a particular whale is ‘right-handed’ or ‘left handed.’ While there is no apparent advantage to favouring one side over the other, it is interesting to note that grey whales share this trait with humans and a few other mammals. It is not inconceivable to think these barnacle infestations are uncomfortable or itchy. Grey and humpback whales often scratch their barnacled heads on boat hulls and other solid surfaces in search of relief.
Adding to the discomfort are whale lice – small crustacean parasites living amongst the barnacle patches on the skin of grey whales. These creatures normally live their entire life cycle on a single grey whale, taking advantage of the whale’s social nature to spread to neighbouring whale hosts. Although parasitic, the lice are not thought to cause damage or injury to their hosts; they are most interested in feeding on dead skin and remnants left over from the grey whale’s enormous feeding gorges. In this sense, they could actually be helpful to their hosts in terms of grooming and exfoliating. These insect-like lice can each be as large as a two-dollar coin and they number in the thousands.
When a whale dies and sinks down to the sea floor, another specialized creature moves in to take advantage of the whale’s abundant mass. The charmingly named, bone-eating snot flower worm, or zombie worm, is a bizarre mouthless deep-sea worm that appears to only survive by feeding on bones of whale carcasses. Given the relative rarity of whale falls over the entire sea floor, it is incredible that such a species can even survive on what amounts to tiny, habitable islands in a sea of emptiness.
All of this would not be possible without krill. Krill is an understated and important character in the marine- mammal food chain. Most of the world’s largest whales include tiny krill in their diets. This small, shrimp-like animal schools in the tens of millions and contributes to a sizable proportion of the planet’s entire biomass. A species of krill native to the Antarctic constitutes almost one percent of all living biomass on Earth. This may not seem like much, but consider the mass of all the trees, insects, marine mammals and every other living thing to gain a perspective of how much krill is in the oceans. Recently opened krill fisheries pose a new hazard to whale populations, as fishing so low on the food chain in such quantities could have serious repercussions to any species that feeds on krill or any of krill’s predators.
These consequences are not to be taken lightly. Some people view fisheries management as more partisan alchemy than science and political interests can easily override sound judgment when considering conservation concerns. Many once-valuable fish stocks have completely collapsed due to overfishing, and, as a result, the majority of the world’s whale species has also felt the drastic effects in the food chain. Thankfully, the grey whales of North America’s Pacific coast are a generally healthy stock, thanks to today’s good conservation practices and the basic distaste Canadians have for commercial whaling.
Admittedly, it is easy to overlook the small and seemingly insignificant creatures when confronted with the enormity and charm of a grey whale. Nonetheless, these animals teach us much about how the ocean functions and about each species’ position within it.
During their northbound migration, grey whales are relatively abundant and accessible for viewing off of Vancouver Island’s west coast. If you have never seen a whale in the wild, go. This migration brings overwintering adults and new calves on a remarkable journey driven by basic biological needs, in part using currents and sea floor features to navigate. For a few weeks each spring, grey whales pass by welcoming communities like Ucluelet and Tofino as part of their centuries-old routine, with their barnacles and lice along for the ride as always.
Each March, in an all-out celebration of coastal life, the Pacific Rim Whale Festival presents a platform of engaging talks, walks and learning opportunities to connect us to our lives and the lives of other creatures along the coast. Featuring guests from all over Canada and the Pacific Northwest, it’s a volunteer-fuelled community event that packs a sizeable punch in the areas of education and quirky Canadian culture. Worth the road trip, and a guaranteed whale of a time – minus the parasites.
Jim Shinkewski is a biologist and director with the Ucluelet Aquarium Society. Visit the Ucluelet Aquarium to learn more about the marine plants and animals of the west coast. (The aquarium re-opens March 6.) Marla Barker is a naturalist, adventure tour guide and coordinator for the Pacific Rim Whale Festival Society. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.