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It’s Canadian Thanksgiving and I am overwhelmed with depth of gratitude and purpose.

It is an extraordinary privilege to be able to live the life I do and I want so much for it to count.

Thank you dear readers for helping to amplify the beauty, mystery and fragility into the world so that there may be more understanding that there is no divide between land and sea and how our daily actions regarding chemical and energy use connect us – no matter how far away from this place you are.

The photo below is from two days ago – “Frosty” the Humpback Whale in Johnstone Strait, NE Vancouver Island.

To think we could have lost these glorious, majestic, mysterious, winged, singing, acrobatic ambassadors of our life-sustaining seas . . . .

Thank goodness for second chances.

Frosty the Humpback Whale (BCX1187) in Johnstone Strait, October 11, 2014. Just outside Telegraph Cove. Blinkhorn Light in the background. ©Jackie Hildering.

Frosty the Humpback Whale (BCX1187) in Johnstone Strait, October 11, 2014. Just outside Telegraph Cove. Blinkhorn Light in the background. ©Jackie Hildering.

Whale researchers generally have some pretty lofty goals but the methodology being used to study the health of at-risk Killer Whales might have the highest standard of all – literally.

With Johnstone Strait being one of the most predictable and sheltered places to see Killer Whales, many of us seafarers on Northern Vancouver Island had a front row seat in seeing what was “up” with this research. A marine “hexacopter” was used, a drone with a camera mounted to it that soars 30m or more above the whales to obtain high quality video and photos that provide very valuable information about the whales’ fitness.

Ready for take-off: Olympus EPL2 camera  mounted to the  APH-22 marine hexacopter. Photo Hildering.

Ready for take-off: Olympus E-PL2 camera mounted to the APH-22 marine hexacopter. Photo Hildering.

Researchers Dr. Lance Barrett-Leonard, Head of the Cetacean Research Program at the Vancouver Aquarium, and Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach of United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were very generous in sharing information about their high-flying research with our community. (Are you getting tired of my clever puns referencing height yet?!)

Dr. Holly Fearnback releasing the helicopter. Dr.  John Durban centre and Dr.Lance Barrett Leonard on the right. Photo: Hildering.

Dr. Holly Fearnbach releasing the helicopter. Dr. John Durban centre and Dr.Lance Barrett Leonard on the right. Photo: Hildering.

Photo by Suzanne Burns showing how benign this method of study is - the research boat is more than 100m away and the hexacopter with camera is 30 m or move above the whales.

Photo by Suzanne Burns showing how benign this method of study is – the research boat is +/- 100m away and the hexacopter with camera is 30m or move above the whales.

All Killer Whales in BC are all at risk (Threatened or Endangered) and by getting the images from on-high, it is possible to better determine if the whales are thin and even if they are pregnant. This provides vital data such as being able to know if pregnancies did not go to term and how much the fitness of “Resident” Killer Whales depreciates in years of low Chinook salmon abundance. “Resident” Killer Whales are inshore fish-eating populations culturally programmed to be “Chinook-aholics” and their survival has been proven to be directly correlated to the abundance of Chinook salmon.

Here are some examples of the data obtained via hexacopter, revealing good news and bad news.

The bad news first  . . .

When Killer Whales are in dire condition and lose too much fat, this manifests as “peanut head”, sunken areas near the eye patches. I see this as the equivalent as sunken cheeks in the gaunt faces of underweight humans.

A Killer Whale with "peanut head" where the extreme loss of fat around the head causes sunken areas in the whale's head = the equivalent of gaunt cheeks in underweight humans. Photo taken during presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard,  Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove's Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Jackie HIldering

A Killer Whale with “peanut head” where the extreme loss of fat around the head causes sunken areas in the whale’s head.  This is a photo of a slide from the presentation given by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Hildering.

The images obtained with the hexacopter revealed that “Northern Resident” Killer Whales A37 and I63 were in extremely poor condition and, in fact, the whales disappeared from their matrilines (families) shortly after the images were taken. “Resident” Killer Whales stay with their families their entire lives so absence from the matriline most often means death.

The cause of death cannot be determined but know that when fat stores are get used up, manmade fat-soluble persistent organic pollutants (such as brominated fire retardants, PCBs, dioxins, etc) are released and affect the whale’s immune system. The mammal-eating Killer Whale of BC are known to be the most contaminated animals on earth.

In the presentation the research team provided in Telegraph Cove, I was gutted by the images of “Plumper” (A37 of the A36s) and I63 which showed concave eye patches and a tadpole-like body shape. The image of Plumper was contrasted to a healthy mature male Killer Whale (see below). As explained by Dr. Durban, Killer Whales when faced with fat loss, put water into the blubber layer so that they remain stream-lined. Plumper had lost so much fat, that it appeared he had to keep his pectoral fins extended to remain buoyant.  Ugh.

Image taken from the hexacopter revealing A37's very poor condition. He disappeared about 10 days after this photo was taken. A37 aka "Plumper" was one of the last 2 remaining whales in the A36  matriline of Northern "Resident" killer whales. He was 37 years old. The hexacopter study reveals that his brother A46 aka "Kaikash" is in good condition and he has been seen travelling with members of closely related matrilines. (Photo taken during the presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard,  Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove's Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Jackie Hildering)

Image taken from the hexacopter revealing A37’s very poor condition. He disappeared about 10 days after this photo was taken. A37 aka “Plumper” was one of the last 2 remaining whales in the A36 matriline of “Northern Resident” killer whales. He was 37 years old. The hexacopter study reveals that his brother A46 aka “Kaikash” is in good condition and he has been seen travelling with members of closely related matrilines. The above is a photo of a slide from the presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014.  Photo: Hildering.

 

Image taken from the hexacopter revealing I63's very poor condition. She disappeared from her matriline about a week after this photo was taken (I15 matriline of Northern "Resident" killer whales). She was 24 years old. Photo taken during the presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard,  Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove's Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Jackie HIldering

Image revealing I63’s very poor condition. She disappeared from her matriline about a week after this photo was taken (I15 matriline of “Northern Resident” killer whales). She was 24 years old. The above is a photo of a slide from the  presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Hildering

The good news . .  .

Data collected also revealed fat calves, robust nursing mothers, and pregnant females. Below, Dr. John Durban shares an image of 34-year-old “I4″ of the I15 matriline of “Northern Residents” revealing that she is pregnant again.

Happy news! Photo taken from the hexacopter revealing reveals that I4 is pregnant. Photo taken during presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard,  Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove's Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Jackie HIldering

Happy news! Photo taken from the hexacopter revealing that I4 is pregnant again (she is the whale at the bottom of the image). With gestation being 17.5 months in killer whales and that, around the world killer whales give birth in the winter, I4 is likely about 1 year pregnant in this photo. Photo taken during presentation by Dr. Lance Barrett Leonard, Dr. John Durban and Dr. Holly Fearnbach at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre on August 25th, 2014. Photo: Hildering.

I am in no way advocating for the unregulated use of drones for viewing whales. The researchers reported that the regulatory paperwork needed to get approval for this research weighed more than the hexacopter did and that they were glad that this was the case.

This research methodology, when applied correctly, is a wonderful example of how advances in technology can lead to advances in knowledge in a way that is benign to wildlife. The sky’s the limit in how we let this knowledge impact our day-to-day actions to improve the health of the marine environment for which Killer Whales serve as powerful sentinels.

How high will you go for the sake of Killer Whales and what they are revealing about the health of our life-sustaining oceans?

 

Video taken with the Olympus EPL2 camera  mounted to the  APH-22 marine hexacopter. Note that the whales would not hear what you are hearing in this video as the camera is 30m or more above the whales. If video does not load go to http://tinyurl.com/pjz3hpf

Video taken with the Olympus EPL2 camera mounted to the APH-22 marine hexacopter. Note that the whales would not hear what you are hearing in this video as the camera is 30m or more above the whales. If video does not load go to http://tinyurl.com/pjz3hpf

Research methodology allowed for an assessment of the fitness of 77 "Northern Resident" Killer Whales (inshore fish-eaters) and 7 "Bigg's" Killer Whales (mammal-eaters aka "Transients"). Here, mature male mammal-eating killer whale T060s is being photographed from on high.

The hexacopter research allowed for an assessment of the fitness of 77 “Northern Resident” Killer Whales (inshore fish-eaters) and 7 “Bigg’s” Killer Whales (mammal-eaters aka “Transients”) by the research team during 2 weeks in August. Here, mature male mammal-eating killer whale T060C is being photographed from on high. Photo: Hildering.

Photo by Laurie Sagle showing how high the hexacopter is above the whales.

Photo by Laurie Sagle showing how high the hexacopter is above the whales.

The research team: Dr. Holly Fearnback; Dr. Lance Barrett-Leonard; and Dr.  John Durban. Photo: Hildering.

The research team: Dr. Holly Fearnbach; Dr. Lance Barrett-Leonard; and Dr. John Durban. Photo: Hildering.

For more information:

Having finally recovered from having a crashed computer hard drive, I can now share with you some of the wonder and discovery from being on DFO’s offshore survey to aid the recovery of whales.

This past July, the Cetacean Research team went as far as 200 nm (370 km) off BC’s shore and it was a great success. The team sighted over 3,000 cetaceans including two endangered Blue Whales (the biggest animal that ever lived).

One of the 2 sightings made of endangered Blue Whales. Photo ©Brianna Wright.

One of the 2 endangered Blue Whales found on DFO’s offshore survey to aid the recovery of whales. The very small dorsal fin is a discerning characteristic for Blue Whales. Our research vessel the CCGS Tully is in the background. Photo ©Brianna Wright.

And there were around 150 observations of threatened Fin Whales (the second biggest animal that ever lived).

One of the +/- 150 sightings made of threatened Fin Whales. Photo ©Bruce Paterson.

One of the +/- 150 sightings made of threatened Fin Whales. Photo ©Bruce Paterson.

Threatened Fin Whale. Note the white lower right jaw. This is a discerning feature of Fin Whales. The lower right jaw is white (and the lower left jaw is black!) ©Jackie Hildering.

Threatened Fin Whale. Notice the white lower right jaw? This is a discerning feature of Fin Whales. The lower right jaw is white (and the lower left jaw is black!) ©Jackie Hildering.

There were so many Dall’s Porpoises out there; some Northern Right Whale Dolphins (I promise that, one year, I will get a good photo) and even a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin with very unique markings.

Pacific White-Sided Dolphin on the left has anomalous colouration - see the marking around his/her eye? ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific White-Sided Dolphin on the right has anomalous colouration – see the markings around his/her eye? ©Jackie Hildering

We had many sightings of threatened populations of Killer Whales –  Offshore Killer Whales (offshore fish-eaters); Resident Killer Whales (inshore fish-eaters); and Bigg’s/Transient Killer Whales (mammal-eaters). There was even data collected on some pelagic Bigg’s/Transients that have never before been identified in BC.

These are Bigg’s/Transient Killer Whales that have never before been identified in BC (or probably anywhere) due to their being among the mammal-eating killer whales that have a preference for pelagic waters. Jared Towers, in his role with DFO, is the authority in BC on mammal-eating killer whales and it is he who immediately recognized that these individuals have not been previously identified and who will assign identification names for them.  The data obtained on the survey builds on DFO’s 40+ years of population studies on killer whales in BC. ©Jackie Hildering

These are some of the Bigg’s/Transient Killer Whales that had never before been identified in BC (or probably anywhere) due to their being among the mammal-eating Killer Whales that have a preference for pelagic waters. Jared Towers, in his role with DFO, is the authority in BC on mammal-eating killer whales and it is he who immediately recognized that these individuals have not been previously identified and who will assign identification names for them. The data obtained on the survey builds on DFO’s 40+ years of population studies on Killer Whales in BC. ©Jackie Hildering

There were Sperm Whales, Cuvier’s Beaked Whales (!!!) and threatened Fur Seals . . .

Inquisitive Northern Fur Seal (Threatened). Many young Northern Fur Seals, after weaned,  remain at sea for 22+ months (really). ©Jackie Hildering

Inquisitive Northern Fur Seal (Threatened). Many young Northern Fur Seals, after weaned, remain at sea for 22+ months (really). ©Jackie Hildering

. . . remarkable pelagic birds;

Laysan's albatros (red-listed in BC). ©Jackie Hildering

Laysan’s albatros (red-listed in BC). ©Jackie Hildering

Mola mola and a variety of species of sharks.

Blue shark. ©Jackie Hildering.

Blue shark. ©Jackie Hildering.

To see the big marine animals was astounding especially considering how at-risk many of the species are due to past whaling/hunting and current threats like vessel-strike, prey-availability, and entanglement.

Seeing +/- 60 Humpback Whales flick-feeding together, birds all around them, made me go quiet in sheer wonderment at the beauty of it  . . . blows as far as the eyes could see. To think that we could have lost them due to whaling . . . .

But look closely at the image below. Yes, it’s a humpback with a rainbow blow (rain-blow?) but look more closely. See the little white circles? This is one of the little guys that put me in the same state of rapturous awe as seeing the giants. All around the humpbacks, in fact, over almost ever square meter of ocean out there, there were sailed jellies known as “By-the-Wind Sailors” (Vellela vellela). 

Yes the rainbow in the humpback's blow is stunning but look at all the Vellela vellela around the humpback! ©Jackie Hildering.

Yes the rainbow in the humpback’s blow is stunning but look at all the Vellela vellela around the humpback! ©Jackie Hildering.

This species of hydroid has a buoyant air-filled float and a triangular, stiff sail. It is a colonial animal with a central mouth under the floats. The tentacles trap fish and invertebrate eggs, small crustaceans (copepods) and species of free-swimming tunicates.

Vellela vellela - see the feeding tentacles? Photo ©Jackie Hildering.

Vellela vellela – see the feeding tentacles and deep blue pigment of the polyp? Photo ©Jackie Hildering.

To add to how remarkable this species is, some have the sail facing one way where others in the population have their sail facing the other way – so that they get blown in different directions. (For more species information see the JelliesZone).

Vellela vellela. Photo ©Jackie Hildering.

Vellela vellela. Photo ©Jackie Hildering.

Vellela vellela are a species common to our Coast and harmless to humans. However, their numbers this year were extraordinary.

Dense concentrations of Vellela vellela. Photo ©Lisa Spaven.

Dense concentrations of Vellela vellela. Photo ©Lisa Spaven.

If you live on the Coast, maybe you’ve seen them too this year, washed up on the beach?

The media has been full of articles about them with titles like: “Velella velella turn Tofino, B.C., shore into sea of blue“; “Mysterious Blue Jellyfish-Like Creatures Invade West Coast Beaches“; and “Thousands Of These Bizarre Blue Animals Wash Up Along California Shores“.

Vellela vellela (By-the-Wind-Sailors) washed ashore. Only their chitinous-like sails remaining, the scarlet blue floating polyp having rotted away. Photo: ©Jackie Hildeirng

Vellela vellela (By-the-Wind Sailors) washed ashore. Only their chitinous-like sails remaining, the scarlet blue floating polyp having rotted away. Photo: ©Jackie Hildeirng

But there was another smaller organism way out there that is even more other-worldly, surreal and absolutely mind-blowing – the Buoy Barnacle (Dosima fascicularis).

This species of barnacle is the only one in the world known to secrete its own float. This allows the barnacle to hang downward feeding on plankton, drifting along in the high seas. The float is gas filled and looks like polystyrene.

Buoy Barnacle with the float it has secreted itself. The smaller barnacles attached are juveniles of another species - Pelagic Gooseneck Barnacles (Lepas anatifera). Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

Buoy Barnacle with the float it has secreted itself. The smaller barnacles attached are juveniles of another species – Pelagic Gooseneck Barnacles (Lepas anatifera). Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

The little barnacles you see on the outside of the Buoy Barnacle in the above image are another species. They are juvenile Pelagic Gooseneck Barnacles (Lepas anatifera). This species attaches to anything that drifts. See below for a good example of that.

Glass ball covered with Pelagic Gooseneck Barnacles (Lepas anatifera). Photo: ©Bruce Paterson.

One of the glass balls the team found – covered with an astounding mass of Pelagic Gooseneck Barnacles (Lepas anatifera)! And notice the Vellela Vellela around the glass ball?! Photo: ©Bruce Paterson.

Imagine, imagine learning about this species out on the open sea while helping to take ID photos of threatened Fin Whales, Vellela vellela EVERYWHERE their sails glistening in the sun as they are propelled over the swell, and among them, these upside down barnacles travelling even faster by wind and current.

Imagine my further delight when, while still at sea, just after I had observed this species for the first time, I got an email from children back home in Telegraph Cove (via the wonderful interpreters at the Whale Interpretive Centre) wanting to know what the mystery organism was that they had found. It was the Buoy Barnacle. They had even found two attached to one buoy.

Here is the video of their find.

From Blue Whales to Buoyed Barnacles, the biodiversity, mystery and fragility of this Coast is simply staggering.

There’s so much to protect.

Sadie holding a Buoy Barnacle that we found on the beach north of Klemtu.

Buoy Barnacle found on the beach north of Klemtu in August. The exoskeleton of the foot is what is extended on the right. Smaller species attached are Pelagic Gooseneck Barnacles. ©Jackie Hildering (thanks Sadie!)

 

This blog is catalyzed by several recent advertisements for whale watching that I consider to be extremely exploitive of whales, suggesting high adrenaline “up-close-and-personal” encounters.

The problem with such marketing, where boats are in very close proximity with whales, is threefold:

  1. It feeds consumer demand for a whale watching experience that is not good for the whales. Close boats (including kayaks) have greater potential for stressing whales; disturbing whales’ natural behaviour; and increasing habituation to vessels whereby risks such as vessel strike are increased. These potential effects have been proven through scientific peer-reviewed research (see references below).

    Pacific White-Sided Dolphins with new born calves. ©Jackie Hildering

    Pacific White-Sided Dolphins with newborn calves. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

  2. It creates false expectations and mis-educates people. There are Be Whale Wise guidelines for respectful and safe marine mammal viewing which include distance limits. However, if people see advertising promoting close interactions between boats and whales, they may believe this is what is to be expected on their tour. Thereby, companies who choose to use this marketing approach are creating increased pressure on whale watching boat operators to fulfill these expectations. There will be those who succumb to such pressure, and who will conduct their vessel in a way that violates the guidelines and thus creates greater disturbance for the animals. I solidly believe that the average consumer wishes to marvel at whales in the wild in a way that is as benign and natural as possible. Were they to know the potential impacts of close encounters or that the company they had chosen was “blurring” the guidelines, it would very much taint the experience for them.

    Pacific Habour Seal mother nursing her newborn. The pup is so young you can see his/her umbilical cord. ©Jackie Hildering

    Pacific Habour Seal mother nursing her newborn. The pup is so young you can see his/her umbilical cord. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

  3. It creates a “marketplace” where other companies with more solid ethics face the dilemma of how to counteract such advertising and aid consumers in making a better choice. Sometimes, unexpectedly whales do surface within the viewing distance limits but to promote this feeds the “get-up-close-and-personal” monster. There are areas on our Coast where whale watching operators have agreed not to show their boats in close proximity to whales in order to solve this dilemma and counteract the above two points as well.

    Resting line of the A12 matriline of "Northern Resident" orca (inshore fish-eating population). ©Jackie Hildering

    Resting line of the A12 matriline of “Northern Resident” orca (inshore fish-eating population). ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

Granted, we’ve come a long, long way baby.  Public attitude towards whales has changed drastically. We’re not shooting whales anymore and we’re not putting them in captivity. Whaling only ended in British Columbia in 1967 and the live capture of orca only ended in 1973/74 (thank you Dr. Michael Bigg).

Now, thankfully, our values and knowledge have largely evolved to where we respect whales as sentient, social, intelligent animals with culture.

So how to make a good choice? How to choose a whale watching experience that has the least impact on the environment with the greatest potential for learning and conservation?   How to navigate the sea of choice when confronted with the vast array of variables such as location, vessel type, crew, and advertising strategies?

Humpback Whales resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering

Humpback Whales resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering

The ideal would be to watch cetaceans from land with interpretation from a knowledgeable guide but there are very few places where whales pass by with predictability.

Going out in a private motorized vessel is also an option but most often means a larger noise and fossil fuel footprint per person and not having the many benefits of knowledgeable crew who can educate and operate the vessel in a way that is more benign. Data collected by the Cetus Research and Conservation Society supports that it is by far more often the case that recreational boaters violate the guidelines than do commercial whale watch operators.

See the little fin at the far left? That is "Cutter" (A86) as a calf in 2006 nursing mother  "Clio" (A50). Sibling "Bend" (A72) is the whale with the injured dorsal fin. Bend now has a calf of her own. A30 matriline of "Northern Resident" orca population (inshore fish- eaters) ©Jackie Hildering.

See the little fin at the far left? That is “Cutter” (A86) as a calf in 2006 nursing mother “Blinkhorn” (A54). Sibling “Bend” (A72) is the whale with the injured dorsal fin. Bend now has a calf of her own. A30 matriline of “Northern Resident” orca population (inshore fish- eaters) ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

Of course, it would help consumers and marine wildlife greatly if there were a effective system in place that guarded high standards of operation and that sufficient resources were made available for effective monitoring, education and enforcement of boaters around marine wildlife. But, we’ve not come far enough there yet. The only legal teeth to protect marine mammals is Section 7 of the federal Marine Mammal Regulations which “prohibits the disturbance of marine mammals by any person” without defining “disturbance”. Thankfully, there are some precedent setting legal cases now and charges under the Species at Risk Act have also been successful. However, we’re a long way away from ensuring repeat, flagrant offenders of the Be Whale Wise guidelines face justice.

There in fact appears to be a general absence of political will to protect marine mammals and the marine environment. A solid example of this is that the updated and comprehensive Amendments to the Marine Mammal Regulations have been drafted since 2004 but have never cleared the government process that would allow them to become law. They have in fact now been archived in the gazetting process.

Steller Sea Lions socializing at the haul-out. ©Jackie Hildering.

Steller Sea Lions socializing at the haul-out. ©Jackie Hildering.

So, here we go, my points for consideration in making a whale watching choice that is a better for the whales and environmental sustainability in general.

1. Location:

How close is the vessel departure point from the area where whales are likely to be i.e. how long and how fast will you need to travel? This affects how large your fossil fuel and noise footprint will be.

2. Crew:

How much successful experience and training and what qualifications does the crew have in:

  • Operating vessels around whales?
  • Providing science-based information that would make whale-watching count for the sake of inspiring greater conservation efforts rather than just be about opportunities for photography?
Mammal-eating orca T39 just having successfully killed a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin. Splash on the left is her calf just having entered the water before her. Splashes in the background, right in front of Telegraph Cove, are the dolphins that got away. ©Jackie Hildering

Mammal-eating orca T39 just having successfully killed a Pacific White-Sided Dolphin. Splash on the left is her calf just having entered the water, learning to hunt alongside her. Splashes in the background, right in front of Telegraph Cove, are the dolphins that got away. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

3. Vessel Related:

Does the vessel type allow for effective delivery of educational information?

How large is the vessel?  This is highly relevant in determining the noise and fossil fuel footprint per person as is the fuel efficiency of the vessel and the engine type.

4. Ethics and Approach:

Does the company:

  • Contribute to marine conservation and research efforts e.g. sightings data being relayed to research initiatives, financial or in-kind support, etc.
  • Have a holistic and comprehensive approach to environmental sustainability e.g. reduction of waste, use of organic, energy-efficient, and biodegradable products, etc?
  • Use language and images that are respectful of the marine wildlife and the guidelines for viewing them?

My life radically changed after going on just one whale-watching trip many years ago. I certainly know how profoundly transformative and powerful an experience it can be.

Pacific Harbour Seal about to give birth. ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific Harbour Seal about to give birth. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

When done right, ensuring guidelines are adhered to and solid conservation messaging is shared, whale-watching guests are able to have the best possible experience. An experience that is benign and respectful can lead to greater caring; a sense of connection to the animals and the life-sustaining ocean for which they are ambassadors; and the inspiration to undertake action that is better for the environment (and therefore, ourselves).

Consumers have very significant power to shape how whale watching is conducted. By supporting companies striving to operate in a way that is best for the whales and the environment at large, you are not feeding the “get-up-close-and-personal” monster. The resulting reward is to know that your experience will be as wild as can be – best for you, best for the whales and best in not rewarding those who compromise their ethics and the privilege of being a conduit for people to experience the raw beauty of seeing whales in the wild, where they belong.

So please, consider the above points and take particular notice of whale watching companies’ advertisements.  Choosing a company whose marketing reflects respectful whale watching is the first step to ensuring your experience will be as good as you want it to be.

Resting line of "Northern Resident" orca (inshore fish-eaters). ©Jackie Hildering

Resting line of “Northern Resident” orca (inshore fish-eaters). ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

Pacific Habour Seal resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering

Pacific Habour Seal resting at the surface. ©Jackie Hildering; telephoto and cropped image.

[If you witness an incident of concern regarding marine life, please call the DFO Incident Reporting Line at 1-800-465-4335.]


References:

Some experiences are best shared in photos. So here you have 20 images documenting the marvel of how 2 humpback whales interacted with one another for more than an hour. Huge energy was expended by both whales in head lobbing, lobtailing, pectoral fin slapping, and breaching. Back and forth it went, the sounds resounding above and under the water in the Great Bear Sea around Caamano Sound (proposed tanker route).

I witnessed this while with Pacific Wild as an educator for the SEAS program (Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards).

What was this humpback whale exchange about?  In this case, I really don’t know.

One of the two humpbacks that was incredibly surface active ©Jackie Hildering. All photos Telephoto and cropped.

One of the two humpbacks that was incredibly surface active ©Jackie Hildering. All photos telephoto and cropped.

I have had the privilege of learning from these giants for more than a decade now and have seen such exchanges in all sorts of contexts.

I reference the behaviour as “posturing” since the whales appear to making a display to one another. Outside of play behaviour and learning in young animals, my interpretation is that these incredibly powerful surface active displays between whales may serve the purpose of:

  • Delivering a clear “I’m big don’t mess with me” message to a perceived threat e.g. the presence of mammal-eating killer whales (“Bigg’s”/”transients) or the vocals of fish-eating killer whales (“residents”) to which the humpbacks are not habituated;
  • Communicating the presence of a perceived threat to other humpback whales since the slaps of humpback fins and bodies resound underwater;
  • Striving to display dominance / greater vigour to other humpbacks which may be particularly relevant for mating;
  • Possibly establishing spacing between humpbacks; and/or
  • Some sort of social function that leads to them ultimately joining up and swimming away together as was the case in exchange for which I provide the photos below.

Here we go. Photos provided in chronological order.

Almost simultaneously, when both whales were within 200 m of one another, Humpback 1 (lots of barnacles and smaller but too big to be the 2nd whale’s calf) started breaching and Humpback 2 (larger) started lobtailing. [Note, there were also two other humpbacks in the area but at a greater distance away and they were not surface active.]

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 starts breaching. ©Jackie Hildering. All photos telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 starts tail-lobbing. ©Jackie Hildering. All photos telephoto and cropped.

Humpback #1 then began repeatedly head-lobbing, advancing away from Humpback 2.

 All photos telephoto and cropped ©2014 Jackie Hildering.

Humpback 1 head-lobbing. All photos telephoto and cropped ©2014 Jackie Hildering.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 continues to be very surface active.  ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 continues to be very surface active. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 still at it. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 breaching. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Some more head lobbing from Humpback 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Some more head lobbing from Humpback 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

HW_2014-08-05-_JH_Rambothem Island-1536

Leeandrea, intern at Pacific Wild, listening to how the slaps of fins and body could be heard underwater.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Whale 1 not done yet. Breaching here. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Half an hour later, Whale 2 advanced from the position where the exchange with Whale 1 began. S/he head-lobbed and breached down the same track as Whale 1.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 head-lobbing, advancing down from where the exchange with Whale 1 began. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 – more head lobbing. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback  2 – head lobbing and moving toward Whale 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback  2. See his/her eye? ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback  2. Imagine the energy expended to lob his/her body like this. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 continues in the direction of Whale 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback  2. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Shortly after this, s/he joined with Humpback 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 only stopped this highly surface active behaviour after half an hour when close to Humpback 1. And then . . . . then they joined up very close together and swam back in the direction that exchange had begun. What was it all about?!

With these whales being on the Central Coast, I am relaying fluke and dorsal photos to the wonderful Janie Wray and Herman Meuter of Cetacea Lab to find out if they might know the identities of the whales involved in this exchange. They are not known to us at the Marine Education and Research Society.

But will we ever know for sure what such a display was about? In having the extraordinary privilege of learning from the marine environment, one of my most valued lessons is to recognize how little we know and thereby to have the correct humility and precaution in decisions about marine resources.

Humpback whales are giants, they are easy to identify as individuals, they have been studied for some 40 years and still there is so very much we don’t know – including the benefit of expending so much energy in such an exchange.

_________________________________________

For related information see my previous blog “Might As Well Jump

For an ethogram of humpback whale behaviours from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, see here.   

This is an open case; one that has me bemused and amused.

While recently diving near the Great Bear Rainforest in Jackson Narrows as part of my involvement with Pacific Wild’s SEAS program, my buddy Tavish Campbell came upon a Giant Sea Cucumber in this very unusual position (Parastichopus californicus aka California Sea Cucumber).

It was stretched straight up and down, head end up.

Giant Red Sea Cucumber reaching for new heights? Dive buddy - Tavish Campbell. ©Jackie Hildering

Giant Sea Cucumber reaching for new heights? Dive buddy – Tavish Campbell. ©Jackie Hildering

As you likely know, this species is most often horizontal; “face” down cruising up to around 4 meters a day along the ocean bottom, mopping up nutritious particles with mucus-covered bushy white tentacles. When there is good stuff stuck on the tentacles, these retract into the mouth (with sandy casts coming out the other end).

A Giant Red Sea Cucumber in its usual position, horizontal so that it can feed by mopping up particles. This one has a nudibranch crossing over it (Flabellina trephine). ©Jackie Hildering

A Giant Sea Cucumber in its usual position, horizontal so that it can feed by mopping up particles. This one has a nudibranch crossing over it (Flabellina trophina). ©Jackie Hildering

So why would this individual assume such a remarkably vertical position? Could it be feeding related? It was extending and retracting its mouth tentacles repeatedly but clearly this was not effective in gathering any snacks.

Giant Red Sea Cucumber with buddy Tavish Campbell. ©Jackie Hildering

Giant Sea Cucumber with buddy Tavish Campbell. Mouth tentacles extended. Note all the tube feed revealing its relatedness to sea stars and sea urchins (phylum Echinodermata). ©Jackie Hildering

My best hypothesis is that this was mating related. Giant Sea Cucumbers have separate sexes and rise up in a python-like position to release their sex cells (see figure below from A Snail’s Odyssey). This pose reduces the number of sex cells that settle to the ocean bottom, unfertilized.

Position undertaken by Giant Sea Cucumbers when mating. Source: A Snails Odyssey. 

Additional strategies to enhance the chances of fertilization are to twist back and forth and/or intertwine with a partner while releasing gametes. (This species will also catapult back and forth when trying to escape predation by Sunflower Stars).

Striving to ensure your DNA gets passed on does not happen randomly however. As with all broadcast spawners, there is a cue so that the release of sex cells is coordinated. (See previous blog “Sea of Love – Broadcast Spawning“). Giant Sea Cucumbers are known to mate in the shallows from April to August repeatedly “dribble” spawning).

Our high-reaching Sea Cucumber friend was indeed in the shallows and it was significantly warmer there. Was the temperature a cue that it was time to mate? Was s/he trying to sense the presence of a partner or others of his/her kind already broadcasting?

Was s/he reaching to new heights to allow even better distribution of sex cells than the python pose?

Was this individual even old enough to mate as they do not sexually mature till age 4? It’s size certainly suggested it was older since maximum size for the species is reported to be 50 cm.

Had we had more air we could have waited and likely concluded what was up with this behaviour.

As is so often the case however I surfaced with even more questions and a greater sense of wonder about the life below. And yes, this time it may be that I was laughing so hard I was sputtering sea water as well.

Unsolved mystery! ©Jackie Hildering

Unsolved mystery! ©Jackie Hildering

Sources / more information:

Reflections for Oceans Day 2014.

We are wholly dependent and connected to the Ocean.

Life on land cannot survive without the Ocean.

It is life in the Ocean that will testify to magnitude of environmental problems first.

Change is needed; and we humans have an astounding capacity to make a positive difference.

Oceans Day 2014

Likely as a reader of “The Marine Detective”, you already share the following perspective:

The majority of messaging we get is controlled by those with power in the current paradigm not wanting us to change our value systems, and consumer and voter behaviour.

Therefore, they perpetuate:

  • Fear;
  • Ignorance, uncertainty and inaction by limiting access to independent science;
  • The notion that it is jobs OR the environment;
  • The fallacy that being good for the environment is about loss rather than joy; and
  • The mythology that consuming more will certainly make us happier and more “successful”.

What a different world it would be if:

  • More of us were to consume less and care more;
  • Value time and health over possessions;
  • Think in terms of an economy of chemicals and energy use instead of just money;
  • Know that there is no divide between land and sea and that Ocean sustains human life;
  • Be empowered;
  • And . . . . be happier.

Spread the word?

Happy Oceans Day.

Did you know that stones are commonly found in the stomachs of Steller sea lions?

These stomach stones or “gastroliths” are as big as 12 cm!

Share your theories about why you think this might be after viewing the video below. It provides you with information to help with this Marine Detective case.

Happy sleuthing to you!

 

Recently, while diving with God’s Pocket, the sea suddenly clouded up. Anemones and sea cucumbers appeared to be releasing smoke and these green packets drifted by my mask.

Orange sea cucumber egg pellet

Egg pellet from an orange sea cucumber. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

Most often, divers prefer good visibility. However, in this case as I watched the sea turn white, I was euphoric that I happened to be in the water when orange sea cucumbers (Cucumaria miniata) and plumose anemones (Metridium farcimen) were broadcast spawning. Witnessing the magnitude of this great force that ensures these species will survive is as awe-inspiring as witnessing the annual spawn of herring or salmon.

Female orange sea cucumber about to release an egg pellet. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; www.themarinedetective.ca

Female orange sea cucumber about to release an egg pellet. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

The same female orange sea cucumber 1 minute later, releasing the egg pellet. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; www.themarinedetective.ca

The same female orange sea cucumber 1 minute later, releasing the egg pellet. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

Another spawning male. Orange sea cucumbers can also be this darker colour. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; www.themarinedetective.ca

Spawning male. Orange sea cucumbers can also be this darker colour. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

Spawning giant plumose anemone. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; www.themarinedetective.ca

Spawning female giant plumose anemone. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

Giant plumose anemone releasing gametes. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; www.themarinedetective.ca

Giant plumose female releasing eggs.  Unfortunately I did not get a photo of a male spawning. The spawning by males appears more like smoke coming out of the anemone. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

While plumose anemones reproduce asexually as well (by pedal laceration), broadcast spawning allows for diversity through sexual reproduction.

During broadcast spawning, invertebrate males and females each release their sex cells into the water column – in astoundingly copious amounts.

You can imagine how many gametes must be released for there to be a chance of fertilization and for enough of the resulting larvae to survive and not to be eaten by the many filter feeders such as barnacles, anemones and sea cucumbers!

Male orange sea cucumber spawning amid red soft coral. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; www.themarinedetective.ca

Male orange sea cucumber spawning amid red soft coral. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

Giant plumose anemone releasing gametes. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; www.themarinedetective.ca

Female giant plumose anemone releasing eggs. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

It is of course a good strategy to have males and females living in close proximity and that timing is everything! The spawn must be synchronized. To release sex cells when others of your kind are not doing so, would be a very failed reproductive strategy indeed.  Probable cues for spawning are ocean temperature; the number of days/hours of sunlight (cumulative temperature); and/or the presence of a plankton bloom.

Apparently for both orange sea cucumbers and giant plumose anemones, the males are the first to release their gametes, triggering the females to spawn.

Research has also found that, in the case of orange sea cucumbers, females release around 130,000 eggs packaged in buoyant egg pellets. The egg pellets drift to the surface and dissociate into the individual eggs after about 20 minutes. Spawning in orange sea cucumbers most often happens within 1.5 hours after slack low tide which adds to the success by allowing for a greater concentration of sex cells, maximizing the chances of fertilization.

Through these images, I hope I have been able to relay the awe I felt at witnessing this biological marvel that has allowed these species to survive on Earth for thousands of times longer than we humans have walked upright.

Giant plumose anemone releasing gametes. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; www.themarinedetective.ca

Giant plumose anemone releasing eggs. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

Orange sea cucumber male.

Another orange sea cucumber male spawning. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

Female orange sea cucumber

Another female orange sea releasing an egg pellet. Click to enlarge. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

 

 

Related The Marine Detective posts:

Sources:

Attack of the Sea Slugs!

This is an opalescent nudibranch.

Opalescent nudibranch. The white batch is a colony of animals known as kelp-encrusting bryozoan.  © 2014 Jackie Hildering; www.themarinedetective.ca

Opalescent nudibranch – species up to 8 cm long. The white patch on the right is a colony of animals known as “kelp-encrusting bryozoan”. © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

Here is one climbing giant kelp with hooded nudibranchs in the background.

Opalescent nudibranch © 2014 Jackie Hildering; www.themarinedetective.ca

   © 2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

I know! Aren’t they astonishingly beautiful? Opalescent nudibranchs are one of the most powerful ambassadors for shattering the misconception that warm waters are home to more colourful life. They truly help in raising awareness about the incredibly exotic and vibrant life hidden just below the surface in the dark, rich, cold waters of the NE Pacific.

But they help with something else too.

I recently received a video clip of opalescent nudibranchs from Tavish Campbell, taken while with Pacific Wild documenting the life that would be at risk if tanker traffic came to Caamano Sound. Tavish, who is a fellow-diver and appreciator of all things marine, asked, “Hey Marine Detective, what’s going on here?!”  What I saw led me to realize how this species is also a very powerful engager for addressing another default notion we humans seem to have.

We tend to bestow judgemental labels on animals depending on our interpretation of their beauty.  We are inclined to think beautiful animals are “nice”, “cute” and “benign”, and foreign looking animals are “mean”, “ugly” and/or “bad”.

While I appreciate that some organisms may be more aesthetically pleasing than others, there is no “ugly” in Nature and there certainly isn’t “bad”.  Organisms look and live as they do because it works. Their appearance and behaviours are the result of expanses of time longer than we humans, as newcomers, can truly appreciate. Organisms’ adaptation allow them to survive and fulfil their niche in Nature’s puzzle so that there is the greatest chance of balance. [Insert "God" instead of "Nature" if this is your preference.]

Therefore, for example, there are no “bad” kinds of orca but rather orca populations whose job in Nature is to eat other marine mammals. There are dolphins that sometimes kill other marine mammals without this being for the purposes of food (no matter how much this conflicts with the “Flipper-like” identities we have imposed on them). Sea otters do things that definitely are NOT cute and .  . . it also means that beautiful sea slugs will also do what they need to in order to survive.

I take such comfort in not needing to judge Nature. It just is. In contrast, human behaviours too often do NOT enhance the potential of balance in Nature or even the chances of our own survival.

So here’s the jaw-dropping video. Ready . . .?

Opalescent nudibranchs in all their beauty, are extremely voracious predators and, as is evident in the video, will also attack their own kind.  Reportedly, fights most often result when the animals come into contact head-to-head. The animal closest to the head or end of the other has the advantage of getting in the first bite and thereby the greater likelihood of killing their opponent and eating them.

But, they are hermaphrodites, they need one another to mate! As hermaphrodites, there is not even male-to-male competition for females! So why, when your chances of finding a mate as a sea slug are already pretty limited, would you kill another of your kind instead of mating with them?

I hypothesize that it would have to do with the balance between needing to eat and needing to mate and/or that there is some sort of genetic competition going on. That’s all I got. Insert rap awe and wonder here. I may not know why they do what they do but I do know, there has to be an advantage to their survival.

What I also know for sure is that this gives a whole new meaning to “slugging it out”!

Opalescent nudibranch egg mass. http://jackiehildering.smugmug.com/Underwater/Sea-slugs/

Opalescent nudibranch egg mass. Every species of nudibranch has distinct egg masses i.e. they are species specific.  2014 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

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