Harbour porpoise are like that obscure band you like. Few people know them, even fewer could name one of their songs, and nobody really pays much attention to them. But you know they’re amazing, very underrated and deserving of everybody’s attention, really.
We see porpoises all the time. As volunteer marine mammal observers with the Porpoise Conservation Society, we spend countless hours every month looking for the tiny dorsal fins of harbour porpoise, and more often than not, we are rewarded for our patience with a sighting. Sometimes it’s just a single animal, somewhere in the distance. Every now and then, it’s cow-calf pair and sometimes even a large group (for this part of the world anyway) of six to eight animals.
From our spot in West Vancouver, we’ve seen just about any behaviour you can imagine: porpoises resting, socializing, foraging (they do that a lot); we’ve even witnessed mating attempts. But the last couple of weeks have been different.
We often hear stories from our friends on the East Coast of very large groups porpoising, breaching, hunting together — but that is something very rarely observed here. Harbour porpoise in this part of the world are known to stay “under the radar”, stealthily surfacing without even disturbing the surface before disappearing again. You could easily miss a group foraging right in front of you, just a few metres off shore, if you didn’t pay attention.
So imagine our surprise when we arrived at our study site only to immediately find a large group of harbour porpoise right in front of us, porpoising, foraging, seemingly doing all kinds of things at the same time. They came so close, we had difficulty capturing any of the action in pictures, as from our vantage point on a cliff we had to look straight down to see it all.
It was hard not to break protocol, to diligently record every detail of what we were seeing while still taking it all in. We had seen porpoises this close to shore before, but this group was different. They seemed to aggregate around a navigational beacon before spreading out, only to return before again splitting into smaller groups to forage in the tide lines.
And this wasn’t the last we had seen of porpoises in action! For about two weeks, nearly every time we saw porpoises, we also got to witness these behaviours. Was that some sort of coordinated social event? Did we witness cooperative hunting? This was something to keep our researchers busy for a while.
Watch some videos of these encounters here: