Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Whale With No Name

Over the Labour Day weekend someone had made a whale sand sculpture on the beach at English Bay.  A tribute no doubt to the grey whale that has been delighting everyone with his sporadic guest appearances throughout the summer.  I say "he" because in the whale world it's generally the women and children that stick together and only the males who go walkabout on their own.

Whale Sand Sculpture photo by Junie Quiroga

Of course the whale didn't have any papers to show either the Fish & Wildlife, Coast Guard, or Customs & Immigration officials that would normally be controlling the access of pelagic tourists choosing to enter Vancouver by sea, so nobody really knows anything about him including his name. He first showed up in May coming into False Creek and doing a bit of an O.J. Simpson with helicopters circling around him and everyone crowding the bridges and seawall to get a glimpse and take photos.  He also took his tour to the bustling metropolis of Squamish to wow the locals there and then spent the summer cruising along the Sunshine Coast and mingling with the boaters before coming back to Vancouver.

photo by Andrew Hood
While hunted to extinction by the 19th century on the east coast of North America, grey whales survived on the west coast and, in the 20th century were only hunted sporadically.  The last grey whale hunting in B.C. was in 1953 when a dozen were killed, and in California a few hundred were killed in the 1960's.  Since then they have been protected from commercial fishing (in spite of the Makah tribe in Washington state who are still claiming the right to hunt a few every year) and their population has grown to over 20,000 individuals.
Grey Whale and her calf

Migrating up and down the coast from the warm winter waters of Baja, Mexico, where they mate and give birth, to the cool waters of British Columbia and Alaska in summer, where they come to feast, their aquatic world knows no borders.  All they are interested in are the yummy amphipods and benthic crustaceans they scoop up along with all the mud, sand and sediment on the ocean bottom, that they mix together with a generous amount of seawater, and then strain it all through their baleen, a sort of natural sieve that is built into their mouth. It's a healthy diet that allows them to grow up to 50 feet in length, 35 tons in weight, and live until the ripe old age of 60 years.

English Bay Slide photo by Junie Quiroga

Watching that September afternoon as the whale cruised along the stretch of beach between English Bay and Second Beach, where I go for my daily morning swim, I decided to put on my wetsuit and join him.  Unfortunately for me, by the time I got past all the excited sunbathers, the whale had already headed over to Kits Beach and into the ocean.  Considering grey whales cruise at 8 km per hour compared to my 2 - 3 km per hour (depending on current) I didn't have a hope of catching up.

As I watched him disappear into the sunset of his borderless world I couldn't help but envy his lifestyle and was glad to see he had such a huge fan club.  Perhaps he will spread the word to the others that it's safe to come through the Inside Passage again and the scenery is just as interesting as on the West Coast.  Maybe I'll even meet up with him down in Mexico one winter.

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