Marine Animals

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Marine Animals, Pacific Northwest

Steller Sea lions
Sea lions, photo by Bud Logan

The Pacific Northwest abounds with a wild & diverse population of Marine Animals and plants. Whale watchers, naturalists, biologists & beachcombers journey from across the world to enjoy the natural beauty of our shores, while divers throng to experience the dazzling, water wonderland, below.

There are 7 species of sea lions in the world, although people tend to lump them into one category. Two of these live here – the Steller sea lion and the California sea lion. They are very interesting animals, that can grow to extremely large sizes, males being much bigger than females.

While sea lions are found in most oceans of the world, they are not in the Atlantic Ocean. Many researchers find this to be a very interesting fact, although they can’t quite pinpoint the reasons. Temperatures there are compatible for sea lions, and there is plenty of food to consume there.

Steller Sea lions, photo by Bud Logan
Steller Sea lions, photo by Bud Logan

Some species of sea lions live in the subarctic areas, while others live in warmer climates, including California. They have long, torpedo-shaped bodies, that are well designed for movement, both in water and on land. All species of sea lions are considered to be mammals, seeing that they give birth to their young, and females nurse pups with milk they produce in their bodies.

Sea lions really only have 2 predators, that are other animals: killer whales and sharks. The threat that they pose, depends on the areas of sea lions inhabit. Where they need to go further out into waters to find food, they are more likely to encounter these predators.

We know only the basics about these sea lions, including their anatomy and mating habits. We do know that they are very social animals and that they have a variety of means of communicating. We don’t know what those different types of sounds are used for, though.

They are often found in exceptionally large colonies. For their protection, they will stay very close together, both on land and in water. These big groups also have many subgroups within them. It is common for sea lions to move from one subgroup to another, during various stages of their lives.

Sea lions are considered to be highly intelligent animals. They have been trained to help the United States Navy with their nautical needs. For the most part, they are considered quite timid, but there have been some reports of hostile attacks on humans. Males are extremely aggressive when it comes to earning the right to mate with females.

The future is somewhat uncertain for many species of sea lions. Years of destruction by humans has taken a significant toll, and environmental concerns continue to plague their natural habitats, as well.

Killer Whales
Killer Whales, photos by Joey
Then there are the  Killer Whale, or Orca,  the sea wolf that hunts in packs, a common creature of the waters of the Pacific Northwest coast, they sit at the top of the food chain. They inhabit all oceans but are more common in the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans.  Killer whales that inhabit our local waters have been listed as endangered since 2001. There are about 800 whales in total in these waters.

The killer whale is the largest predator of mammals that exists on earth, today. Male killer whales can reach to almost 7 meters and weigh up to 5,500 kg. These whales can swim as fast as 48 km per hour, making them excellent hunters.

Killer Whales, Vancouver Island
Killer Whales, Vancouver Island

Orcas travel in social units called pods, containing one dominant adult male, several adult breeding females, and a number of subadults of both sexes. There may be as many as 30 whales in these pods.

They have an extremely varied diet, consuming fish, birds, seals, and even other whales.

Our warm climate is a result of warm ocean currents, that support many thousands of plants & animals, from plankton to the blue whale, and every species in between. One can encounter giant octopuses, ferocious-looking wolf eels that will eat from your hand, along with sea lions, varied fish, and playful otters. The otters are very precious as we almost lost them to hunting.

Sea Otter, photo by Bud Logan
Sea Otter, photo by Bud Logan

The sea otters that traditionally lived around Vancouver Island were numbered in the hundreds of thousands. That is until Captain Cook was presented with a bundle of pelts on his third visit to Nootka Sound in the spring of 1778. They sold these pelts on their way back home for a high price during a stop-over in Macao, China in December 1779. At one time there were healthy populations of otters along the North American west coast including all of Vancouver Island. Then both the British and the Americans began to harvest them to meet the fast-growing demand for these furs in China. Between the years 1796 to 1803, up to 18000 animals were taken per year. These pelts were luxurious and it was these pelts that were the ultimate cause of their demise. They were hunted mercilessly until the last sea otter in Canada was shot off the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1929.

Their story of the sea otter does not end there though. Between the years of 1969 and 1972, 89 sea otters were introduced to Vancouver Islands west coast. These otters were trapped in Alaska and transplanted to Checleset Bay on the northwest coast of the island. Their recovery since then has been nothing short of miraculous. The last government study of these enduring creatures was completed in 2004 and it showed that they had populations in the range of almost 3000 animals living off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island and another 500 or so living along the central coast. Quite an impressive come back for just 32 years. I now hear reports of people seeing them along the southwest coast of the island and all along the east coast as well. They have even been seen in the waters of the Victoria waterfront.

Sea Otter, photo by Bud Logan
Sea Otter, photo by Bud Logan

They are not out of the woods yet though, there are other dangers that they must contend with. Oil spills are the most dangerous of these threats as even a very small amount of oil that gets on a sea otters coat can cause the loss of all insulating qualities and quite quickly bring on hypothermia, this would most likely bring on death in short order. Disease, pollution, entanglement in abandoned fishing gear, and illegal hunting are other problems they must contend with.

The sea otter spends little time ashore as they are very clumsy on land, they refer to stay in the sea, hanging out in the coastal shallows, diving to feed on sea urchins, crabs, shrimp, abalone and various other seafood’s but sea urchins are their favorite meal. Sea otters swim through the water using their long and powerful hind feet. Their forelegs are small in comparison, but their hands have fingers with opposable thumbs which are used to hold prey. They can dive up to 100 meters and stay under for up to 4 minutes. They also have 4 incisor teeth in their lower jaws that they can use to pry open shellfish. No other carnivore that has them.

They are tool users and will take a rock down when they dive to pound the sea urchins and abalone lose from the bottom and then will bring the rock up, lay on their backs with it sitting on their chest to beat the spines off the urchins by pounding them on the rock. As they break them loose, they will roll over to wash them off without losing the rock, quite amazing to watch. I observed an otter in Winter Harbour for over an hour performing this feat over and over each time it brought up a meal. On one dive, the otter brought up a crab and proceeded to eat it one leg at a time.

Sea otters live in small groups in shallow waters, mostly around kelp beds. Kelp is also useful when they sleep at sea, they will use it to stop them from drifting. They will sleep in groups called rafts, holding on to each other while they are wrapped in the kelp.

They will mate throughout the year and the gestational period is the same as humans, after 9 months the mother will come ashore and give birth to a single pup, the pup is born open-eyed and ready to swim. She immediately returns to the sea with the pup and begins to teach it how to swim. The pup stays in close contact with its mother for a year or so, spending most of its time on the mother’s chest as she swims on her back. After a year the pup leaves its mothers care but will not reach sexual maturity until it is around 4 years of age.

See for yourself…. Take a walk along the shore, or look at a tide pool during low tide, and notice how many different creatures you can spot.

humpback Whale
humpback Whale

Our assorted ocean marine world is home to many marine residents, both year-round, and those that visit throughout the year. From very large whales to smaller otters, our seas contain such color and form that it’s simply overwhelming!

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