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Watch: Marine rescue volunteers save young eagle, get surrounded by orcas

The two encounters left RCMSAR volunteers glowing, West Vancouver’s marine search and rescue unit chief says

From the deck of a boat, Jason King has had a lot of opportunities to see the burgeoning wildlife of Howe Sound. But nothing comes quite close to what happened on Saturday.

The Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue Station 1 unit chief and his crew rescued an eagle floundering in the water off Bowen Island and then promptly found themselves surrounded by a pod of orcas.

“I looked off towards the sea a little bit and, lo and behold, there’s this poor eagle flapping along in the water,” he said. “He was struggling to try to get back to shore and the problem was the wind was blowing them out into the Georgia Strait.”

Although he needed a little help getting aboard, the eagle didn’t waste a moment to take advantage of the offer for help, King said.

“As soon as I put the boat like within about a foot of him, he, right away, tried to climb on board. He knew what we were there to do,” he said with a laugh. “It was pretty exciting.”

Once safely perched on the edge of the zodiac, the eagle outstretched his wings to dry out in the wind. When they landed near a beach, he voluntarily landed on the rocks with just a few flaps of his wings.

King said the volunteer crew “revelled” in their rare opportunity to help out wildlife.

“We go out to rescue people, normally, right? Not eagles.”

Whale tales

But, even before the buzz had worn off, the RCMSAR members were set for anther close encounter with wildlife – a pod nine to 12 orcas in Howe Sound. King cut power to the motor as soon as he saw the fins on the horizon.

“You’re supposed to give these guys a good berth. Because we were sitting quietly on the water with the engines on idle, they just swam right up to us, practically. A few of them came within probably 25 or 30 feet of the boat.”

Once the pod was at a safe distance, King put the motor back in gear and they slowly headed back to their slip in Horseshoe Bay.

Taken together, the two experiences left the crew “just sitting in awe,” he said.

“Everybody was just kind of glowing and beaming,” he said. “You just feel so good about where we are in British Columbia and being members of the West Vancouver community and being able to go out and train and do the things we do. It just felt like such a such a reward.”

Whale sightings in Howe Sound are happening far more often than they once did when the body of water was a dumping ground for mine tailings and industrial waste from pulp mills and chemical plants.

King said he’s seen it first hand in the number of orcas, humpback and grey whales, along with seals, sea lions and other species, on the water.

“It’s just it’s really great to see all the health of Howe Sound and the general area getting better and better,” he said.


Ocean Wise

The whales the RCMSAR members came across are known collectively as A5, a northern resident killer whale pod made up of three family units that typically forage for chinook salmon off the central coast of B.C. and Alaska. They rarely come south of Campbell River, said Gary Sutton, research technician with the conservation non-profit Ocean Wise, but lately they’ve been spotted numerous times off the Sunshine Coast and in Howe Sound.

“To see them in the Salish Sea in the southern waters is pretty unusual,” he said. “Venturing up into Howe Sound and spending as much time as they have is pretty unique and pretty cool.”

As spring approaches, herring are showing up to spawn in Howe Sound, and other species like salmon are following to prey on them, Sutton said.

“As long as long as [the whales] are finding lots of feed, they’re going stick around,” he said.

One of the first orcas ever captured and put into an aquarium is a member of the same pod. Corky, as she is known today, was four years old when she was captured in the winter of 1969. Now, 58 or 59, she has been living at SeaWorld in San Diego since 1985.

“It’s kind of amazing to see [A5] out there and think of how far we’ve come as humans in that time and how differently we treat these incredible animals,” Sutton said.

Save the whales

Recreational boaters who spot whales must slow down and keep 400 metres back. They should also immediately report them via Ocean Wise’s WhaleReport app, which not only helps scientists keep track of the species’ movements but also alerts commercial ships and ferry traffic so their captains know to slow down and avoid the area where the whales are.

When A5 first showed up last week, Sutton and some fellow researchers were able to collect samples of the whales’ leftovers, which will be handed over to Fisheries and Oceans Canada scientists studying the whales’ diets. DNA collected from fish scales will be able to help them pin down details as specific as what river they spawned in, Sutton said.

“If we know exactly where that fish came from and what river it came from, that may allow management officials to take more direct action to protect those certain areas and promote the health of our whales on the coast,” he said.

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