Sea-faring visitors make the open ocean a friendlier place

Amanda loves tide pools

By Amanda Kahn
For my research, I go out to sea to study sponges that form reefs (similar to coral reefs) in the straits of western Canada.  Being on a ship at sea is an incredible experience, and is all done surrounded by a small crew of people that you live with through rough waters, exciting discoveries, disappointing equipment troubles, and the isolation of the ocean.  It can get pretty lonely when out at sea, even with all the life we know are just below us underwater.

Sunset seen from the Vector

While being out at sea offers beautiful views of sunsets, no land is in sight or it is very far away.  Sunset photo taken in Hecate Strait, viewed while on the CCGS Vector. Credit: A Kahn 2012.

Fortunately, occasional visitors drop by like ambassadors of the sea.  On a recent cruise to Hecate Strait  in northern British Columbia, we were escorted by a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins, who surfed the ship’s bow wave as we transited to our study site.  The captain let us know they were out there (officers on the bridge of a ship spot so many things!) and we grabbed our cameras, donned our rain jackets, and ran outside to watch the dolphins criss-cross under the bow of the ship.  It was rainy outside, but the dolphins didn’t mind–they were wet anyway!

Pacific white-sided dolphin

This Pacific white-sided dolphin criss-crossed beneath the bow of the ship, surfing and catching the waves created as the ship plowed through the water. Credit: A Kahn 2012

Later during our cruise, we were surprised by another set of visitors. Three small birds dropped by and hung around the stern (rear) of the ship.  The birds were quite happy, chirpy little visitors, and one of them was extremely friendly.  It flitted around our equipment and even landed on the shoulder of one of the deckhands!  He wasn’t aware it was there at first and was quite confused when we kept instructing him to stay still because of a bird on his shoulder.  Oftentimes, birds like our little visitors (below) can’t fly too far offshore–if they lose sight of land and fly the wrong direction, they could get exhausted before finding land again.  The day these birds stopped by our ship, it was quite foggy.  They stayed all morning until the fog burned off, then flew away.  We hypothesized that since the birds couldn’t see land, they didn’t want to fly away from the safe, dry ship in case they flew in the wrong direction.

Bird visitors

Tiny birds visited the CCGS Vector one foggy morning. Credit: A Kahn 2012

Exciting discoveries and amazing science are the main excitement on these cruises, but occasional visits from these ambassadors are fun diversions and make great memories!

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