Climate change leads to unexpected gift from nature

Our species’ selfish behaviour is forcing Pacific white-sided dolphins closer to shore for food

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SKELHP, BC, Mar 8, 2015/ Troy Media/ -“Dad – come quick!” called my son in an earnest tone that I have long ago learned to associate with startling events in nature. It is the voice that announces the sudden sighting of a black bear, the reveal of large cat-like paw prints in drying mud, or Orcas spy hopping in front of the house. Last Saturday morning at 11:00 it was a call to run down the forest trail to the rock bluffs at Skelhp. Obviously, something was happening out on the windless waters of the inlet.

In anticipation of what was about to happen, I grabbed my cell phone and fiddled with the camera icon to get ready for a video. I also laughed internally at the idiocy of my running pell-mell across a greasy wood plank bridge that normally I would cross with care. As I burst out of the forest, my son called to me to be quiet and duck down behind a rocky outcrop. Something was about to happen just offshore.

A pod of up to 90 Pacific white-sided dolphins appeared to be having fun

I looked up and there they were, thrashing about the adjacent bay, circling feed perhaps. Then, suddenly, they changed direction and began to follow the rocky shoreline, just a few meters out from the high tide line. Initially it was hard to estimate how many there were, but I knew immediately what they were: Pacific white-sided dolphins.

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The chin, throat and belly of the Pacific white-sided dolphin are creamy white. Their beak, back, dorsal fin and flippers are dark gray. The pod passing us was big, at least 90 individuals, all about 2.0 to 2.5 meters in length, and probably ranging from 100 to 200 kg. Typically we are told they prefer off-shore deep waters, generally off the west coast of Vancouver Island. At Skelhp, however, it is now not unusual to see them in February or March. Last year, I recorded a visit on February 9.

What was different about last Saturday’s dolphin pass was its closeness to shore. They swam right through our swimming zone, and were not bothered at all by our quiet vigil on the beach. They must have sensed our presence as they raced along the shoreline, likely chasing or seeking hake, cod, herring or salmon. They were traveling in a tight-knit group, with definite leaders and followers. They also seemed to be having fun.

Much of what I now recall of their passage was only learned after they had disappeared to the east on their trip up the inlet. I really appreciated what had just happened by studying the video. After several replays I posted it to Facebook, where it quickly received 23 likes and got shared by friends. Comments ranged from “WOW” to “What a gift!” as urbanites and country folk alike related to the capture of a unique moment on 30 seconds of digital video.

The “What a gift!” comment struck home the most. In 64 summers on the edge of BC’s coast, I have only seen Pacific white-sided dolphins on the “inside coast” over the past eight years. Since 2008. Prior to that, I had only seen them at the Vancouver Aquarium. My Audubon Guide to the Pacific Northwest clearly states that they are dolphins of the deep offshore, and may be confused with Dall’s porpoise in the deep inside channels around the Gulf Islands and BC’s south coast. So why are they here now? Why are we receiving this gift of their presence?

Gift attributed to climate change
Pacific white-sided dolphins’ behaviour is being affected by climate change

My ecologist pals attribute the gift to shifts in range occurring for many oceanic species, because of climate change, consequent ocean temperature change, and food species shifts. These charismatic cetaceans travel to and with their feedstocks, and when the prey shifts, so do the predators. Because Pacific white-sided dolphins travel in large pods visible on the surface, their presence alerts us to their search for prey. Their pods also serve as protection from their Orca and shark predators, and to enable successful mating opportunities.

To me, the gift of Saturday’s Pacific white-sided dolphin visit operates at many levels. It is a blessing to see a healthy display of cetacean spirit pass by a small group of resident humans. It is humbling to see the acrobatic competence of another species truly at home in the ocean. And it is deeply troubling to think that it is our species’ selfish behaviour that ultimately has made the gift of this sighting possible.

Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum, and the Bill Reid Gallery. He currently writes for a broad range of Canadian media, and consults to the boards of start-up NGOs.

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