Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS A sperm whale is seen along the Johnstone Strait northeast of Vancouver Island. Researchers studying the activity of whales off British Columbia’s coast had a rare encounter this week.

Researchers make rare sighting of sperm whale near Alert Bay, B.C.

VANCOUVER — Researchers studying the activity of whales off British Columbia’s coast have had an unusual and “surreal” encounter with a sperm whale.

Jared Towers is part of a Fisheries and Oceans Canada team monitoring the sound of cetaceans and marine mammals using a network of hydrophones in the Johnstone Strait off northeastern Vancouver Island.

Towers said his colleagues at a research station on Hanson Island heard an unusual echolocation and determined on Sunday that the sound didn’t belong to orcas typically found in the area.

“We started inferring that it was a sperm whale and kind of convinced each other that’s what it was,” he said Wednesday.

They sent recordings to other specialists who study sperm whales and had their suspicion confirmed.

Sperm whales are typically found in deep waters offshore, Towers said. Males typically occupy cold waters while females and juveniles frequent waters in the tropics.

Conditions were too rough on Sunday to attempt tracking down the whale but Towers said the water was calm when he headed out with a colleague on Monday.

“I had to sleuth for it,” he said.

Towers used a hydrophone to follow the sound of the whale, which would go quiet while it surfaced, leaving him and the team to wait and watch.

“We had to be patient,” he said. “It was often 30 to 40 minutes between surfacing.”

Towers said his colleague described the experience of spotting the whale as surreal, and he agrees.

“I’ve worked and lived in the area almost my entire life. I spend a lot of days on the water researching whales, that’s what I do, and I’ve never known there to be a sperm whale here before,” he said. “It’s pretty cool to know there is one out there and be fortunate enough to see it.”

A sperm whale was last documented in British Columbia in 1984, and it was only heard, not seen, Towers said.

It’s unclear why the whale came to the strait, but Towers said it could have been looking for a new source of food.

The whale may have been attracted to fish and cephalopods, such as squid, in the area, Towers said, adding it was still there as of Wednesday morning.

The sperm whale’s presence is likely an anomaly and doesn’t indicate significant changes about the environment, Towers said, adding orcas that frequent the waters can be an important sign of health of the ecosystem.

“That’s why I do the work I do,” he said. ”I like to see healthy whale populations out there.”

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