Thursday, March 21, 2013

Fanny Bay - not just known for their oysters

One of my sources for information about nature on the island is Island Nature .  It is because of that site that I first heard of the herring spawn in Comox, driving my desire to visit the beaches there.  The blog also informed me of the sea lions stationed at a floating wooden structure at Fanny Bay (location of the famed Fanny Bay oyster farms), which was on our way up to Comox.

I've seen sea lions in the wild, but never this close, and never this many.  They are here for the herring.  From the parking lot we could already hear their loud barks.
"I hear barking, but they don't look like dogs"

Rafts of lions
From our pier, we were probably only 10 metres away from the boisterous pinnipeds.  We didn't think we could get any closer.  But we did.  A dive boat had just dropped off its divers, and the driver of the boat asked if we'd like a short boat ride to the raft of sea lions. Who would say 'no'?


barking contest

The type who can sleep despite the ruckus

I think we all know who the bully is here

Sea lions are one of the creatures who are quite comfortable with humans, making them easily viewable.  With full bellies, and about four times heavier than any of us, they did not seem to care as we circled them in our boat.  They shouted barks in our general direction, but were generally more concerned with preserving their prime resting spots, making for a wonderful viewing opportunity.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Herring - the signal for the start of spring

A dozen or years ago, I watched the Planet Earth series for the first time.  I watched the entire series with enthusiasm, as it introduced me to groundbreaking form of wildlife cinematography. Each animal story was framed inside its ecology, to illustrate beautifully the food web.

Each episode of the series would focus on specific biomes, and one of those was Cold Waters, referring mostly to waters in the Pacific Northwest.  It described one of the natural wonders of the BC coast - the return of the herring to the beaches where they were hatched. 

Yellow brick road
For a few days, timed with a high tide, herring will proceed to spawn in the intertidal beaches.  The eggs are intended to stick on smooth surfaces like bladderwort and kelp, but billions upon billions of eggs will float away with the pounding surf and coat the beaches.  About a week later, those that survive desiccation and predation they will hatch during a high tide.  The congregation of fish does not go unnoticed, and sea lions, orcas, and sea birds will all gorge themselves on the buffet.  It is the sheer number of spawning herring that ultimately gives their next generation a fighting chance.
Peering out at the world with well developed eyes

A minute-old hatched herring next to two eggs

Tide pools are filled centimetres-deep with herring roe.  In this photo, maybe one egg might reach maturity.

We missed the actual spawn by a few days - we were told that orcas and hundreds of sea lions passed through the week before to follow the herring.

The males employ a shotgun approach at fertilization, ejecting milt (sperm) into the water after a female has laid her eggs, turning the water an aquamarine colour.

Herring roe is traditionally used by native first nations as a food source, and I wanted to try it - I picked up a clump, and bit in.  The salty crunch is no different from the Tobiko used in sushi.