Captain’s Blog

Sea Lions & Sea Otters Are Moving to Race Rocks

January 13, 2016

Every other hundred years or so, a naturally-occurring habitat about which we think we know everything undergoes a dramatic shift.

And yes, a furry sea otter pup being born at Race Rocks Lighthouse represents a dynamic shift.

It’s not s huge surprise for Rachael Merrett of course, even if it’s so hard to fathom for a certain blogger.

“There could be any number of reasons why we’re seeing more sea otters and stellar sea lions in the area,” Rachael told me a couple weeks ago. “But regardless, we’re happy they’re here and I can’t wait to watch their colony develop.”

This topic of conversation was kickstarted as we were talking about orcas (obviously), but it’s clear that BC’s Vancouver Island waters are a trendy bit of real estate for more than just the whales.

Kelvin: Tell me a bit about wildlife other than orcas in the area during the winter.

Rachael: There’s not as much demand for tours in the water, mostly owing to the weather which is understandable, but the orcas themselves are more unpredictable. In the winter you’re most likely to see a transient killer whale or a mammal-hunting killer whale, because they’re in and out of here twelve months of the year. More than likely in the winter, if you’re going to see the resident, it’s likely going to be J-pod.

But that’s not a huge issue, because it gives me a chance to focus on some other pretty cool animals. In the winter, we’ll go out to Race Rocks Lighthouse where you see California and Stellar sea lions, as well as the harbour seals. In the last four years or so, a Northern Elephant Seal colony has been established so that’s another new species we’re seeing out there, which is really special. Over the last couple of winters they’ve given birth to a couple pups each year, which has been fascinating to see unfold in right in front of our eyes.

Do you think that that could result in more of the transient orcas coming back into the area in the winter?

It’s hard to say, the colony establishment is still relatively new, but it’s still a new food opportunity. It’s more variety. But ultimately it’s obviously indicative of new animals coming into the area, which means the area is conducive to this new life. I love that.

It’s fascinating to me that the Northern Elephant Seal, this ancient animal, would pack up and establish this new colony. Like you said, four years is pretty tiny on the grand scale of things.

I think it’s been about four years, at first we were just seeing a few females lying out at what we call Helicopter Rock. And then every year there’s been more and more and we’ve had the big males and now we’ve had the pups.

It’s kind of a famous story in the whale watching industry too. Jim Darling, he’s a big cetacean biologist and he did a talk at a whale festival in Tofino and Ucluelet I was volunteering at, and I got to talk to him, and he actually asked me about the new colony. In our world, he’s someone you read about your whole life so to hear, “have you seen the Northern Elephant seal at Race Rocks? I heard they had a pup, can you confirm that?” It’s exciting on a lot of levels, scientific and moreso! [laughs]

Whale watching industry gossip!

Exactly! Word travels fast when someone new moves in next door.

There’s also the sea otters that have been appearing at Race Rocks for the last two seasons. In the summer of 2014, we did spot a sea otter infrequently at Race Rocks or at Brentwood Bay. We were all very excited because it’s been decades upon decades without sea otters off Vancouver Island. I think the closest colony we have is in Barclay Sound. And this year, there’s actually been two and most times they’re spotted at Race Rocks. So we’re hoping that’s them scouting out a new place to have their own colony.

That’s so cool. Race Rocks is a popular place these days,

I know. We’re jumping up and down over here! [laughs]

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