Friday, September 19, 2014

Sep 13/14 Tofino Pelagic Adventures

Dawn rises over Tofino Inlet. Saturday, Sep 13. (Photo: RC)

As usual it has taken me a while to get around to making this post. Life has kept me busy! The following is a brief account of two pelagic trips I organized off Tofino, BC on September 13th and 14th, 2014. In recent years, WildResearch has done a fabulous job running annual boat trips out of Ucluelet (the community south of Tofino) which has made the fabulous seabirds of the west coast much more accessible to British Columbian birders and outsiders alike. Unlike the coastal states south of here, to get to the outer coast, Canadians much take a ferry to Nanaimo, then drive over two mountain passes before reaching the small port towns of Ucluelet and Tofino. This makes any pelagic an expensive undertaking, which can be made extremely frustrating when you travel all that way only to have your boat trip cancelled due to foul weather. The big MV Francis Barkley that WR eliminates some of this risk as it is much more capable of handling swell that the little whale-watching boats that most people had to use previous to 2011. This year WR only ran a spring trip so several people called me up earlier this year asking if I could put together a small venture in the fall. A rough date was settled and in the end we decided to try for two days in a row to get as much out of the weekend as possible. Gilbert Bouchard was one of the main catalysts for the trip as he came all the way here from Quebec!

As always, when running small pelagic trips I go with the Tofino Whale Center. They're rates are reasonable but most of all they're skippers know what they're doing and have many years of experience watching and working with local marine wildlife. Prices can fluctuate but chartering one of their Boston Whalers is usually around $1200 for 6 hours, so with 12 people you can bring it down close to a reasonable $100 each.

We were a little nervous showing up bright and early on Saturday. The rumour was that there were no fish out there, and thus--no birds. Locals were remarking on the lack of whales... the lack of everything close to shore. From chatting with Paul Lehman and others it seems the NE Pacific has been inundated with unusually warm waters which has resulted in some conspicuous shifts of bird life (an indicator of other things as well). Species like Ashy Storm-Petrel and Guadalupe Murrelets--normally associated with Mexican waters--have been showing up off the coast of Oregon and Washington recently, while huge Sunfish and Yellow-fin Tuna have been seen off Alaska in areas they have never been recorded. So what would this mean for us? Hardly any birds? Maybe a rarity from the south? At the very least we realized we would probably have to head out to the continental shelf or further to find anything.

Sure enough there was very little inshore. In fact I don't think we saw a single Sooty Shearwater within the first 10 km offshore. Even Glaucous-winged Gull numbers were dramatically and noticeably low on the rocky islets near Cleland Island. Still, we did note a few nice birds as we made our way out, including a group of 65 BLACK OYSTERCATCHERS on one small islet and a WANDERING TATTLER not far from Tofino. A few WESTERN GULLS were also around. Below are a few photo-highlights from the two boat trips, with COMPLETE LIST TOTALS AT THE BOTTOM.
With a sigh of relief, we spotted our first Black-footed Albatross as we neared the continental shelf. A single fishing boat has attracted around 18 of these gentle giants from Hawaii and as always I savoured the call, "Albatrosssss!" (Photo credit: Dave Fraser)
Mid-September is a great time to see Buller's Shearwaters off BC. These NZ endemics are possible the most beautiful shearwater when seen in flight, but it's also pretty cool to observe them resting casually on the water. As the wind and swell was fairly light on both days, many of the shearwaters we encountered were "chilling" in mixed flocks, allowing for careful approach. (Photo: Dave Fraser)
Of the regular tubenose species encountered in BC waters, the Flesh-footed Shearwater is often one of the most coveted. I think in around 10 Tofino pelagic trips that I have participated in, this is only the second time I have had one. This bird was picked out among 10 other Pink-footed Shearwaters resting on the water. (Photo: Yousif Attia)
These guys might just be my favourite species encountered regularly in BC pelagic waters. Small and pudgy balls of feathers with a stomach packed with fish, these Cassin's Auklets are absolutely comical to watch as they attempt to "fly" away from the boat, skipping off each tiny wave; their bellies dragging as their tiny wings try desperately to lift their body weight. I assume many are molting which may explain their poor flying abilities at this time of year. We encountered many of them on both days out beyond the shelf in Clayoquot Canyon. (Photo: Dave Fraser)
For many on board, mammals stole the show on both days. I'm used to seeing plenty of Humpback spouts on boat-trips off the west coast but we really were spoiled by close encounters with these amazing beauties, including a group of around 8 that surrounded our boat and casually fed around us as other seabirds like the Pink-footed Shearwater pictured to the right, went after schools of fish pushed to the surface. This year has been a struggle for the whale-watching industry in Tofino apparently so we felt a bit spoiled with our show 60 km offshore. I guess it pays to be a crazy birdwatcher!
The highlight for our skipper John Fordde was undoubtedly this FIN WHALE, which we encountered on the Sunday. This was a lifer mammal for him, and one that obviously is not regular off this part of the island (at least not this close to shore). At one point the whale lay completely upside-down under our boat, explosing its long white belly for nearly a minute of eerie silence as we sat wondering what its next move would be! I've seen Fins off the east coast but that was 15 years ago so this was fantastic--and it's the second largest animal in the world! (Photo: Dave Fraser)
This photo captures just how calm the seas were on the weekend. Here, part of the group photograph a Tufted Puffin as it paddles casually away. (Photo: Russell Cannings)
A huge highlight for me, was seeing this massive ELEPHANT SEAL! I've wanted to see one in BC for a long time and seeing this big boy was a real treat. This appears to be a young male but from what I could see I would estimate he was well over 1500 lbs! (Photo: Dave Fraser)
Elephant Seal from the forehead angle. Just bouncing up and down like a cork. If a cork was made of blubber and thick skin.
DAY TOTALS: Only counting species seen more than ~2km offshore out to a maximum of 67km offshore.

Saturday, September 13th

Surf Scoter--8

Loon sp.--4

Black-footed Albatross--26

Northern Fulmar--31

Pink-footed Shearwater--230

Buller's Shearwater--20

Sooty- Shearwater--84


South Polar Skua--3

Pomarine Jaeger--2

Parasitic Jaeger--3

Long-tailed Jaeger--1

Jaeger sp.--5

Common Murre--51

*Probable Scripps's/Guadalupe Murrelet--1+ (Only seen by 2 people. Read comments here)

Cassin's Auklet--80

Rhinoceros Auklet--33

Tufted Puffin--7

Black-legged Kittiwake--2

Sabine's Gull--2

California Gull--217

Herring Gull--5

Glaucous-winged Gull--1

Gull sp.--20

Sunday, September 14th

Common Loon--2

Loon sp.--4

Black-footed Albatross--33

Northern Fulmar--54

Pink-footed Shearwater--160

Flesh-footed Shearwater--1

Buller's Shearwater--33

Sooty Shearwater--78 (Very low count--last year on the same date I had 6000+)

Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel--2

Phalarope sp.--3

South Polar Skua--3

Parasitic Jaeger--3

Common Murre--60

Pigeon Guillemot--2

Marbled Murrelet--2

Cassin's Auklet--51

Rhinoceros Aucklet--42

Tufted Puffin--11

Sabine's Gull--3

California Gull--190

Herring Gull--9

Glaucous-winged Gull--22

Mammal List (Combined):

Fin Whale
Humpback Whale
Harbour Porpoise
Northern Elephant Seal
Harbour Seal
Steller's Sea Lion
California Sea Lion
Northern Fur Seal
Sea Otter


  1. Wow Russ! What an amazing time you all had!! I love the elephant seal wow what a great find! and humpback whale tail is a lovely shot.

    Very cool you saw the black-footed albatross what incredible shots you got! Hope the next one is as successful tomorrow!


  2. We'll have to do one ourselves one of these days!

  3. Cannings I miss you
    So does Logan

  4. Haha, I miss you all too. So many memories.......