WHERE IS SAM? It’s a question on the minds of BC researchers and whalewatchers this winter following an unusual whale “rescue” on the province’s central coast this past August. That’s when researchers came across a young killer whale all by itself in a small bay on Aristazabal Island.
The whale was calling out frequently and seemed unwilling to pass through the bay’s shallow opening.
“This animal just tore your heart strings out,” Vancouver Aquarium whale researcher Lance Barrett-Lennard told Maclean’s magazine. “I spent a few nights in the bay and he was calling incessantly, almost human-like calls and screams. You could really relate to him as a very distressed animal trying desperately to make social contact [with his family].”
Researchers decided the whale—who they nicknamed Sam—was psychologically trapped in the bay. After observing him for several weeks, the researchers realized he was not going to leave on his own. They also noticed he was developing a depression behind his blowhole—known as “peanut-head’—which is a sure sign of weight loss.
So, it was time for action. Using a long floating line tied between two boats, researchers herded the whale toward the bay opening. At the same time, another boat just outside the bay played transient calls underwater. It worked like a charm, first time. Sam shot through the opening and headed out to sea.
Since then, has Sam found his family? We don’t have an answer yet.
BUT THERE ARE SEVERAL THINGS we do know. First of all, we know exactly who Sam is. From the grayish saddle patch just behind his dorsal fin—which is uniquely shaped and scarred on every individual—Sam was identified as T46C2, a four-year-old member of the West Coast transient population.
(We don’t yet know whether Sam is a male or female, although in this blog we refer to him as a male.)
West Coast transient (also known as Bigg’s) killer whales roam the coast from Glacier Bay, Alaska, to Oregon. They eat seals, sea lions, porpoise and sometimes larger whales and travel in small family groups—usually two to six animals. They can be seen anywhere, anytime along the BC coast.
T46C2 is not a very sexy name, for sure. But it tells us that Sam is the second known calf of a 19-year-old female known to researchers as T46C.
In late September, Sam was seen near Knight Inlet with a small group of transients led by a whale known as T123, who is thought to be his aunt. And he looked healthy. But in October, the T123s were seen several times—including near Victoria—without Sam.
THE PLOT THICKENED on an Eagle Wing Tours trip on Oct. 14 when we spotted three killer whales swimming east in the middle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We quickly identified them as Sam’s mom, T46C, and his older brother, T46C1.
Who was the third whale? It was a youngster, but we were puzzled. It looked way too small to be four-year-old Sam.
We were the only boat on scene, so we took lots of photos. When BC whale researcher Jared Towers saw one of them, he contacted us. Was there a fourth whale there, he asked hopefully? No, sadly there wasn’t.
Still, Jared was pleased. Turns out the T46Cs (except for Sam) had not been seen anywhere along the coast for nearly two years, so he’s relieved to know they’re doing okay. And our photos show there’s a new addition to the family—T46C3!
It’s always exciting to contribute directly to whale research in this way. And now that we know Sam’s family is alive and well, our fingers are crossed that somehow, somewhere the little family will manage to reunite.