JACQUES SIROIS: Memorable feeding frenzy in Mayor Channel

Waters off Oak Bay produce many amazing sights and sounds

The elongated Pacific sand lance can reach 20 centimetres and often form in large schools or hide in the sand for protection from predators.

The elongated Pacific sand lance can reach 20 centimetres and often form in large schools or hide in the sand for protection from predators.

I see that food is excellent and plentiful at the new Oak Bay Bistro. Fantastic!

The same is true for Mother Nature’s “Wildlife and Seafood Bistro” at the south end of Mayor Channel, where live plankton and small fish, particularly sand lance, are now available 24/7.

Mayor Channel lies between the golf course and the Chain Islets, where hundreds of pairs of gulls presently nest. This is where krill and marbled murrelets congregated last winter and schools of Pacific sand lance – a small, slender, silver fish – feed on abundant plankton and krill each spring and summer.

In turn, large fish, seabirds, seals and sometimes whales gorge themselves on the sand lance.

In mid-May, I kayaked over there. I was attracted by a loud, vigorous and prolonged feeding frenzy, involving 1,000 seabirds, mostly glaucous-winged gulls, rhinoceros auklets and pelagic cormorants. The gulls went completely crazy as the auklets and cormorants dove under them into the schools, or balls, of sand lance and came back to the surface with countless small fishes in their beak. One beak per bird was not enough, it seemed.

At one point, a common loon swam by and yodelled away before joining the fray with three Pacific loons that quickly appeared, then disappeared out of the blue.

Then, “woosh,” a bald eagle flew in unexpectedly at full speed and grabbed a cormorant from behind. The smaller bird escaped miraculously by doing spastic contortions before diving out of sight, minus several feathers. What a show, right here, in our own marine front yard.

Moreover, I soon found myself face-to-face with three large and agitated California sea lions, all males, which “checked me out” and one of which porpoised completely out of the water right next to me.

Then the sand lance quickly moved 200 metres away, probably chased by hungry chinook and coho salmon below and all the gluttonous birds immediately followed. The loud and neurotic gulls first, the quiet and persistent auklets second and the water-logged and slow cormorants third.

Similar, but smaller feeding frenzies occurred each time during my 15 visits to this area in May and June, but the one on May 13 was the most spectacular.

I enjoy these action-packed, vivid,  kayak-based marine ecology lessons, surrounded by real wildlife next to our city as the summer solstice approaches.

The whole food chain is completely alive and on display somehow, from the guano of the gulls nesting on the islands that fertilizes the adjacent kelp forest, sea grass meadows, plankton and krill; to the fish, birds, seals and humans who, sure enough, were fishing nearby.

So-called “bait” fish like Pacific sand lance, Pacific herring; not so common anymore, and eulachon – now endangered – are strategic links in the food chain of our inshore waters.

They are a life force that humans must cherish, protect and allow to thrive.

Without them the Salish Sea would be lifeless.

Jacques Sirois is a wildlife biologist who lives in Oak Bay. He kayaks around the area frequently.