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Captain’s Blog

Port Renfrew Report: Humpbacks, Sea Otters, Killer Whales, & More!

July 29, 2022

Port Renfrew July Summary:

Written by: Matt, Zodiac Captain

There is something truly eye-opening about venturing out to true open ocean, to peer out into an endless horizon with an incomprehensible vastness of ocean ahead of you. It is humbling, to feel so small and to be greeted there by the giants of the sea: humpback whales. Making a triumphant return after being extirpated from the region during the whaling era which ended between the 50s and 70s, it has been a glimmer of hope to see these whales returning each year with their newborn calves, who will be seeing our colder north waters for the first time in their lives. Being born during the winter in warmer waters around Hawaii and Mexico, it is a long swim to their summer feeding grounds and most often the newborn calves are slow travelling and later to arrive near Port Renfrew. It has been heartwarming to see so many youngsters this July, clearly exhilarated by the new environment and independence as mom leaves them temporarily to join the large groups of adults feeding all around our boat. The calves when left on their own are full of energy – chasing sealions, breaching, investigating kelp and up to all kinds of mischief overall.

While travelling to and from these whale feeding grounds we have been surprised to see other rare and exotic species this year. Sea otters, another species hunted to the brink of extinction, have been seen in the area this year more than ever. These adorable and furry animals seem rightly out of place in the open ocean, and they signify an expanding range for one of our most important marine predators. These otters live in kelp forests, the equivalent to a jungle in the sea, and the otters are the guardians of this underwater realm. This is because they eat sea urchins and other shellfish who, left unchecked, would eat all the kelp, and leave nowhere to live for the animals who call the kelp forests their home. Sea otters are clever and resourceful, often seen carrying a small stone with them to use as a tool to crack the hard shells of their food, or other times seen using long pieces of kelp as a blanket that protects them from drifting away while napping in the sun. They have a long way to go before recovering their population but seeing so many in the area this year fills me with hope. 

A truly rare and spectacular encounter! There are many interesting birds to see in the open ocean around Port Renfrew. To name a few: Tufted Puffins, Red Phalaropes, Shearwaters, Parasitic Yaegers, Storm Petrels and so many more. But on the open sea there is one bird held in highest regard and at the heart of many sailors’ superstition – the Albatross. The largest of any flying bird, these giants dwarf those around it. Famously written in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner: 

“And a good south wind sprung up behind; The Albatross did follow, And every day, for food or play, Came to the mariner’s hollo! In mist or cloud, on mast or shroud, It perched for vespers nine; Whiles all the night, through fog-smoke white, Glimmered the white Moon-shine.”

I may have startled my guests when first shouting with glee at the sight of a black-footed albatross soaring across the waves and over the whales we were viewing. But they too realized the significance, with a wingspan up to 7ft across, it’s hard to ignore such a huge bird as it flew in circles around us. A truly pelagic seabird, these albatross fly thousands of miles without returning to land. They feed off the ocean and can sleep while mid-flight, some may not see land for many years before returning to their breeding grounds.

I have no idea when I’ll see another one, probably years from now. But I know that those who come out to Port Renfrew to see these little-known waters will have at least a few experiences that will be the first of their lives.

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