Canadian photographer R. John Knight shares the stories behind some of his nature and wildlife images

Monday, June 13, 2011

Zodiac Adventures From Port MacNeill, B.C.

With all of the rain that we've had recently, it makes me think back to being stranded in Bella Coola late last September when the road was washed out by heavy rains.

After escaping from Bella Coola to Vancouver Island, we had to decide what to do with this change of plans.  We first checked to see if there were any openings to photograph grizzlies at Chilko Lake, where we were supposed to be the week before.  Unfortunately, there were none.  So, what to do now?

We wondered if it was possible to photograph Orcas at this time of year.  By late September, most tour operators were winding down for the season, so there were few choices.  We checked with BC Tourism in Port McNeill, and were fortunate to learn about Angela and Ocean Rose Coastal Adventures.  She runs tours from Port McNeill in a zodiac.

With the hope of seeing Orcas, we headed off, sharing the boat with a deckhand and two locals from Port McNeill.  The Orcas must have heard that we were coming because they disappeared to the other side of Queen Charlotte Strait beyond our range.  We were not, however, disappointed in what we saw during our day on the water.

As we headed down the strait under grey skies past Alert Bay, we saw Cormorants sitting on a navigation buoy.

As we entered a small inter-island channel, we caught a brief glimpse of several Ringed Seals before they slid into the water and out of sight.

We carried on under a light drizzle.  Two, somewhat soggy, Bald Eagles kept a watchful eye on our progress from their perches in coniferous trees along the shoreline.

At the west end of one of the islands, we found a rocky island covered with about a hundred Sea Lions  (females, ~2 m long and ~270 kg; males, ~3 m long and ~900 kg).  What a sight.  A few were in the water, popping up periodically to check us out.  Most, however, were quietly resting on the rocks with their eyes closed.  We didn't know whether they were sleeping, or just resting, and we weren't about to check.  A few of the bigger Sea Lions snorted loudly with wide-open mouths, and aggressively pushed back and forth.  This was not a place to go walking with your camera.

Leaving the islands, our attention was drawn to the raucous noise from hundreds of sea birds feeding on Herring Balls that periodically came near the surface. The birds rose several metres into the air, then dove past each other into the water without collision, but many near misses.  What chaos, and what a racket, as the birds fought for their share of the herring.

We sat and watched the birds for some time, then noticed a fast moving disturbance on the water about a kilometre further north.  Pacific White-sided Dolphins (~2 m long and weighing ~150 kg) porpoised through the water at great speed, presumably in search of herring or other food.  They raced one way for several hundreds of metres, then abruptly headed off in another direction.  What a spectacle!  And what a challenge to get a decent shot while sitting in a bobbing zodiac as they sped by, diving in and out of the waves.

We did not see any Orcas, but we did see several Humpback Whales that were feeding in the area.

At one point, after seeing a feeding whale go past with the usual sea birds following in its wake, we noticed that there were about 25-30 dead sea birds floating on the water.  There had been no collision that we were aware of, so we were mystified about what had happened.  Most of the birds were clearly dead.  Four seemed to be still alive, but in obvious distress.  Angela pulled the boat alongside one of the birds.  As we watched, it stopped breathing, and slowly slipped beneath the waves. The remaining three birds were carefully brought aboard and covered to keep them warm.  Angela contacted a biologist-friend by cell-phone for advice.  Although there was little hope, she was encouraged to bring the birds back for examination.  Only one survived the journey back to port.  We never heard what happened to it after we left, so we were left wondering.  Watching Nature take a life is hard, but it is Nature's way.

We had a full and enjoyable day on the water with Angela and the others on the boat.  Angela showed great sensitivity in staying at a respectful distance from wildlife so as not to disturb their activities.  We found that photographing from a bobbing zodiac was quite a challenge.  Nevertheless, we came home with some 'keepers', some new knowledge, and a few stories from our adventures with Angela.

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