Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Posts from the ‘Environmental Education’ category

How Will We Look Back in Another 55 Years?

Yesterday, I had reason to stand beside the Ocean with tears in my eyes.

I again stood exactly where Moby Doll was harpooned and brought into captivity in 1964 at East Point, Saturna Island.


Unthinkable now, but back then, who we were and what we believed is that there were too many Orca.

We vilified them, shot at them, and thereby there was social license for the plan to have an artist harpoon an Orca and then make a sculpture of it for the Vancouver Aquarium. The artist / harpoonist, Sam Burich, sat at this very spot from May 22 to July 16, 1964. A young Orca was then harpooned and the artist could not bring himself to kill him. The whale was brought into Vancouver Harbour at the end of the harpoon and only lived for 87 days.

He was nicknamed “Moby Doll” because we did not even have enough knowledge to discern juvenile male and female Orca. He was to be “The whale that changed the world” helping us know how wrong we can be but how quickly we can change when knowledge replaces fear and . . . when our values change.

On that point, my reason for being on Saturna Island was another source of emotion. There was so much evidence of change.

In my role with our Marine Education & Research Society I was there to help launch the #ForTheWhales movement with Saturna Island Marine Research & Education Society.

The intent is that this hashtag be used to increase awareness of the multitude of actions we can undertake to reduce impacts to whales – as consumers, energy-users, voters, neighbours, educators and boaters. This is with emphasis on the plight of the endangered Southern Residents, Moby Doll’s lineage who now number only 73 whales.

It is essential to realize there are still many ways to kill a whale through disconnect; entitlement; absence of precaution; perceiving societal / environmental health in only election cycles of 4 years; associating using less as being about loss rather than gain (less disposables, fossil fuels and dangerous chemicals); and the overwhelm that comes from not realizing the common solutions to socio-environmental problems.

How will we look back in another 55 years? Will we reflect on how the whales again moved us forward with values that better serve our own futures as well? Or, will we acknowledge that we had a critical window in which we could act, and did not.

The whales – indicators of environmental health and barometers of human values.

Care more. Use less.

DO MORE . . .   #ForTheWhales.

Sources and additional information about Moby Doll:

CBC The Current, December 27, 2016, How Moby Doll changed the worldview of ‘monster’ orca (includes audio and video)

Colby, Jason M., and Paul Heitsch. 2019. Orca: how we came to know and love the ocean’s greatest predator.

Francis, Daniel, and Gil Hewlett. 2007. Operation Orca: Springer, Luna and the struggle to save West Coast killer whales. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Pub.

Leiren-Young, Mark. 2016. Moby doll: the killer whale that changed the world. Greystone Books.

The Tyee, May 13, 2008, They Shoot Orcas, Don’t They?

The Walrus, August 5, 2016, Moby Doll – How a bungled hunt turned killer whales into star attractions—and launched the modern conservation movement

Werner, M. T. (2010). What the whale was : orca cultural histories in British Columbia since 1964 (T). University of British Columbia. Retrieved from

What’s it Going to Be? Fight or Flight?

I learn a lot from social media.

Screen grab from SeaLegacy video of
emaciated Polar Bear. See post below.

The reactions to recent posts I’ve made have given me much to think about.

These include two horrifically compelling videos: (1) a fish full of ingested plastic; and (2) an emaciated Polar Bear.

These videos are included at the end of this blog. I hesitated to share them on social media because I know that at the heart of my “The Marine Detective” community, there are people as aware and motivated as I am. It’s not educating you really need.

Screen grab from video of a Mahi Mahi with
plastic in its intestines. See post below.

You need confirmation of solutions and protection from despondency.

But I did share the videos and you’ll notice in my text on the posts (also below) that my decision to do so was because I believed they were powerful resources for others who may not yet fully “get it”.

I am very aware that it’s a delicate dance. To engage, connect, inspire and educate for the sake of more people undertaking positive action. Graphic imagery can help motivate but it can also lead people to disengage, succumb to eco-paralysis and eco-phobia; and/or disappear into the pit of despair.

It’s about fight or flight.

When faced with a threat that’s what we do*.

And climate change, plastics pollution, lack of security – these are threats.

There are many who flee (or freeze). It’s too much. They deny. They try for alternative explanations. They turn away. They shut down. They need to believe there is somewhere to flee to.

Then there are those who fight. Who become further motivated. Who become even more resolute in their actions and intentions.

What makes the difference? In the work I am compelled to do, I need to understand as best as I can.

What do the fighters need to keep fighting?

And what could motivate those who flee to turn around? To see the way forward?

Of course there are many variables at play but what has been further solidified for me as a result of these recent social media posts is that the difference between flight and fight can be  . . . knowing its worth the fight.

We run from what is overwhelming, terrifying and what is perceived to diminish our quality of life.

We fight for what we know is right and are more inclined to do so when we know how to fight and who and what we are fighting.

Who and what are we fighting?
We are being manipulated by the consumer / disposable / fossil fuel paradigm to be fearful and to continue in the way that will ensure their continued power. We are to value acquisition above time and relationships. We are to equate success with stuff. We are meant to feel discontent and that with further purchasing, life will be enhanced. Not only does this paradigm thrive on fear, it grows fat on inequality (sexism, racism, etc).

How to fight?
Realize there’s so much potential for positive change when we remove fear and recognize there are common solutions to socio-environmental problems.

It’s not climate change vs. plastic pollution vs. poverty, etc.

It’s not life depreciating.

There is great gain in:

  • Understanding our connectedness (through ecosystems and through our purchasing and voter behaviour).
  • Valuing human ingenuity but not as an exit strategy and never without true precaution.
  • Using less (less fossil fuels, less disposables, less harmful chemicals).
  • Not being about perfectionism and absolutism and righteousness and bipolarity e.g. “environmentalist” vs. “resource user”.
  • Working for equality. Empowering our fellow humans reduces poverty, violence and even overpopulation.
  • Embracing our power to make positive change.

Really, it’s no surprise that empowered people are happier people.

To you, the fighters who have read this, I hope it has been of use to you.

To those who are inclined to flee, my understanding to you and respect that you have read this far. May this have a roll in your choosing to reject fear and embrace action that leads to greater happiness and purpose. We need you.

For me, the exercise of writing this has been affirming of the path forward.

Because we are even more inclined to fight when we better know how to win.

Text I posted with the following video: “I expect very few people here need further motivation to reduce plastic use but – maybe of use in your circles? Mahi mahi (fish) in Puerto Rico full of plastic. Of course, what we can’t see is the micro-particles of plastic that enter our food chain. Don’t be despondent. Be deliberate.”

Text I posted on Facebook regarding the following:
“I have waited with sharing this. Again, because I believe so many of us here “get it” and I do not want to contribute to eco-phobia and eco-paralysis. But also again, this is so compelling and powerful to be shared with those who do not YET get it. This is what a starving Polar Bear looks like. Is it a certainty that THIS Polar Bear is starving because of climate change? No. Is it a certainty that reduced sea ice makes it far more difficult for Polar Bears to hunt and that they will starve? Yes. And THIS is what a starving Polar Bear looks like. Gutting to watch.
Adds to my motivation to reduce carbon through my consumer and voter behaviour.
Don’t be despondent. Don’t turn away. Mobilize your sorrow and outrage. Reduce carbon footprints.”
For more detail please see CBC “As It Happens” information by clicking here. The article also addresses concerns about why the bear was not fed.

* What further catalyzed this blog is the podcast by Ashley Ahearn in which fight and flight are discussed as reactions to climate changes.
See “You probably have eco anxiety. You just don’t know it.”


Come Away With Me . . .

For you: photos and a two-minute slide show from my recent days aboard Maple Leaf Adventures‘ MV Swell in my own backyard – the Broughton Archipelago on NE Vancouver Island.

The work while aboard? Striving to be a conduit of understanding for the life around us: Freckles the Humpback who was acrobatic for over an hour; the Black Bear cub in a rain-soaked, moss-covered Cedar with lichen draped over his/her ear; the Pacific White-Sided Dolphins leaping over a Humpback and then surfing in a ship’s wake; the giant Steller Sea Lions growling at a frequency the resounds far and deep; the Bald Eagles tearing apart the salmon that feeds this coast; and . . . so much more.

With the recent diesel spill further to the north on BC’s Central Coast, it all felt even more fragile. I feel even greater urgency and importance to try to capture the excruciating beauty and balance here so that it might enter more human lives and increase true awareness and true action.

Know and celebrate your connection no matter how many kilometres you are from the life in these images.

See the common life-enhancing solutions: reducing demand for fossil fuels; reducing use of dangerous chemicals; increasing values based on the longterm health of the environment our lives depend on . . . that’s where happiness, health and empowerment lie.

Don’t be despondent because tipping into the pit of despair will truly bring darkness.

Do it . . . . come away with me.

MV Swell built in 1912 with major overhauls by Maple Leaf Adventures to be both very comfortable and have a reduced carbon footprint / be energy efficient.

MV Swell built in 1912 with major overhauls by Maple Leaf Adventures to be both very comfortable and have a reduced carbon footprint / be energy efficient.

Pacific White-Sided Dolphin in the rain. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Pacific White-Sided Dolphin in the rain. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Freckles the Humpback Whale (BCY0727) breaching. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Freckles the Humpback Whale (BCY0727) breaching. She was acrobatic for over an hour.
©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Freckles the Humpback (BCY0727) tail-lobbing. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Freckles the Humpback (BCY0727) tail-lobbing. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Freckles the Humpback Whale (BCY0727) breaching. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Freckles the Humpback Whale (BCY0727) breaching.
©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Lacey Falls, Broughton Archipelago. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Lacey Falls, Broughton Archipelago. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Juvenile Bald Eagle water dripping off beak. Imagine the sounds and smells I cannot relay in this image - the rain falling on the Ocean; the calls of eagles, ravens, various ducks and gulls; and the air thick with the smell of Chum Salmon that fought their way back to the river where they were born to ensure their offspring have the best chance of a healthy environment by fertilizing it with their own bodies. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Juvenile Bald Eagle water dripping off beak. Imagine the sounds and smells I cannot relay in these images – the rain falling on the Ocean; the calls of eagles, ravens, various ducks and gulls; and the air thick with the smell of Chum Salmon that fought their way back to the river where they were born to ensure their offspring have the best chance of a healthy environment by fertilizing it with their own bodies.
©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Wet juvenile Bald Eagle takes flight. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Wet juvenile Bald Eagle takes flight. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Black Bear cub with lichen draped over his/her right ear

Black Bear cub with lichen draped over his/her right ear – peering down from a moss-covered Cedar, salmon musk thick in the air; moisture dripping off his/her fur and everything else including us . . so clearly this was the rainforest, fed by salmon.
©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Close-up. Little Black Bear Cub peering down from moss-covered Cedar. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Close-up. Little Black Bear Cub peering down from moss-covered Cedar. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.


See his/her tongue sticking out and the lichen over his/her right ear? ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Merganser running to before flight. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Merganser running to before flight. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Humpback Whale being mobbed by Pacific White-Sided Dolphins. S/he was repeatedly trumpeting, presumably in exasperation. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Humpback Whale being mobbed by Pacific White-Sided Dolphins. S/he was repeatedly trumpeting, presumably in exasperation. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Morning light. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Morning light. ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Argonaut the Humpback in the morning light (BCY0729). ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Argonaut the Humpback in the morning light (BCY0729). ©2016 Jackie Hildering.

Happiness . . and purpose. I'm on the right on MV Swell. Photo by Captain Alex Ruurs.

Happiness . . and purpose. I’m on the right on MV Swell. Photo by Captain Alex Ruurs.

Two-minute slide show with more images.



And -the faces and voices of the people most directly impacted by the fuel spill on BC’s Central Coast. The impacts of this, of “only” a tug sinking, it makes so very clear that there has to be a ban on tanker traffic and that we all have to reduce the demand for fossil fuels for so many reasons including that it literally fuels the demand for tankers on our coast.

The Reason You Can’t See to the Bottom . . . .

The 1.5 minute video below is my attempt to bring the astounding biodiversity of the cold, rich waters of the NE Pacific Ocean to the surface.

If there is one thing I hope to achieve with my photography, it is to shatter the perception that — because you can’t see to the bottom — there must not be much life in these waters.

The opposite it true.

The reason you can’t see to the bottom is because there is SO much life.

Please feel free to share the video widely. Hopefully it will enhance people feeling a connection to the ocean, wanting to undertake further conservation, and understanding what is at stake with high risk projects that worship short term-economic gain at the cost of long-term environmental devastation — like increasing tanker traffic along British Columbia’s precious coast.



Infinite thanks to Hunter Molnar Stanton for her expertise in refining this video (and yes, there is a big typo 😉 ).

“Who Knew a Decomposing Whale Could Be So Beautiful?”

Indeed, a decomposing whale is THIS beautiful and THIS important to the environment.

The clip above, “Whale Fall (after life of a whale)” from Sharon Shattuckwill be of particular interest to environmental educators and those of you, who like me, have “handled” dead whales for the purposes of science and education. 

Thank you so much Lisa Spaven for bringing this to my attention and a special “shout out” to those who have worked at Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre dedicating themselves to preserving marine mammal skeletons. 

Information about the clip from Andrew Liszewski’s “Who Knew a Decomposing Whale Could Be So Beautiful”: “Whales can live for 50 to 75 years. But did you know that after they die, their decomposing bodies can support a whole community of organisms and other sea life for an additional 50 to 75 years?

Whale Fall is a short documentary on what happens to the largest mammal on the planet after it dies and sinks to Davy Jones’ locker. Created by Sweet Fern Productions for Radiolab, it’s not only fascinating on an educational level, but it’s also a feast for the eyes through the use of animation, paper cutouts and puppetry. I loved science growing up, but had the educational videos in biology class looked like this, I may have actually paid attention.”

Article on the importance of whale carcasses (includes link to science papers) – “Decades of Dinner – Underwater community begins with the remains of a whale; Science News Online; 2005. 

Oceans Day – The Wisdom of James Cameron

June 8th is World Oceans Day (originating from the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit and recognized by the United Nations since 2008). 

Mature male fish eating( (“resident”) killer whale – “Skeena” (A13; born 1978; missing 2010).
Photo – Hildering.

In reflecting on what I can best share with you to honour Oceans Day and make clear the human dependence and impact on the oceans, I have decided that no one has made these points more solidly and eloquently than fellow Canadian, James Cameron. He is a lifelong activist for marine conservation who, among many other achievements,  is the award-winning director of “Titanic” and  “Avatar”. 

Below, please read, and heed, the text from his 1998 acceptance speech for the SeaKeeper Award.  

The message is more important and urgent –  than ever.  

View towards Alert Bay, Northern Vancouver Island. Photo – Hildering

James Camerson:
living soul on earth, no matter how far inland they live or how much they may hate eating fish, is utterly dependent on the divine saltwater soup of the ocean. The ocean is the engine that drives our weather and moderates our climate. The phytoplankton in the seas create the majority of the oxygen we breathe. These microscopic plants also form the bottom of a vast food chain from which we harvest a large portion of our food.

As our population increases, and arable land remains finite, we will look to the oceans more and more for our survival. Thus, our destiny as a species is interlocked with the destiny of the sea. If the seas become sick, we become sick. If they die, we die. Subconsciously we think the sea will always be there for us. 

Sunset Port McNeill. Photo – Hildering.

Right now, all over the world, coral reefs are threatened, and 40-mile-long drift nets cut huge, sterile swaths through the open ocean. Biologists estimate that over one hundred million undiscovered species remain to be identified in the oceans. We will kill half of these before, we have even had a chance to give them names.

Life began in the sea over three billion years ago. Our first upright walking ancestors appeared a mere four million years ago, and human civilization is less than ten thousand years old. If the natural history of life on earth could be viewed as a single Great Year, all of human recorded history inhabits the last couple of seconds of the last minute before midnight at the end of that year. And yet, in those last seconds, that eyeblink, we have multiplied exponentially, and our impact on the natural world has increased logarithmically.

It took the entire history of humankind to produce a global population of a billion people by the year 1800. By 1930, in just over a century, it had doubled to two billion. In another fifty years, it had doubled again to four. Now, at close to 6 billion, we are likely to double again in less than thirty years. picture it, 12 billion human souls, human mouths, crying out for food, struggling to survive, competing for resources, choking in a poisoned and depleted world, and all within the lifetime of our children.

Sunset off the coast of Northern Vancouver Island. Photo – Hildering.

We are alive now, and doing those works for which we will be remembered, at the most critical instant in the history of the Earth. Millions of years of natural evolution are focusing down to a few decades during which the game will be won or lost. And like it or not, we are the players in that game.

This is both a great honor, and a terrifying responsibility- As leaders, as decision-makers, as influencer’s of public opinion, we must do our best to preserve and restore the oceans. Humankind has, unwittingly, assumed the role of executioner of our own planet’s life force. But we can also be saviors, if we choose, and if we are willing to make the sacrifices necessary . . .

Sunrise Port McNeill – looking toward Haddington Island and Sointula. Photo – Hildering.

There is no one here who would not do the very best for their children – the best schools, the best food, the best doctors. Think of the ocean as the ultimate trust fund for your children, a living and life-giving fund.  A healthy ocean is the best gift you can give them . . . l ask everyone. . . to assume a leadership role in guarding and restoring the oceans in all ways, and as a life philosophy.”

Please see my 2020 blog “How to Love the Ocean – Daily Actions for Future Generations”

Christmas Wish for the World

As another year draws to a close, many of us reflect on stories ended and lessons learned in 2010 and focus on positive, meaningful change for 2011.

In this spirit, I share the following with you. It was written by one of the remarkable members of my Young Naturalist Club; Adrian Walker-Burroughs when he was in grade 7.


My Christmas wish is too big to fit in Santa’s sleigh – too big to fit in one hundred of Santa’s sleighs.
My wish is for a clean world of happy people, today and tomorrow.
The future is open for people to make good environmental choices.
Green cars, boats and planes have been invented, so let’s use them.
Let’s try to use vehicles that don’t impact so much on the atmosphere.
All of us can take little steps to make a big difference.
Turning off electric lights and household appliances when you’re not using them is a good way to start.
Global warming is a serious issue and the entire planet is affected.
This Christmas let’s all give a gift to our planet.
Each of us can do something to help.
Every little bit counts.
Merry environmental Christmas.

Merry Christmas to you Dear Readers.
Wishing you Oceans of Joy for 2011.

"Frosty the Humpback" by dear friend Stacey Hrushowy. Thanks to all who brought success to the Humpback Comeback Project. On January 25th we will hear if we have indeed won the $25K funding for entanglement research.

Depths of Depression – Dead Zones

[Update December 2019 – See  . International Union for Conservation of Nature’s  (IUCN) report “Ocean deoxygenation: everyone’s problem“. If the Ocean is warmer – there is less oxygen dissolved in it. If there is more runoff (sewage, fertilizers, fossil fuels), there are more algae using up the oxygen (eutrophication). Warmer surface layers mean less circulation of nutrients as well and less oxygen exchange with the atmosphere.]

Original post from October 2010.

Dear Readers,

I need to warn you, the “awareness” I am presenting here is infinitely depressing. The images at the link will sicken you.  But please, try to work through this. What you read and see will further motivate you to want to reduce humanity’s impacts on the environment – it will influence your voter choices; it will impact your consumer choices; it will fuel your drive to create positive change.

There is currently an area of ocean in Hood Canal, Washington with very little oxygen (“hypoxic” = very low levels of oxygen; “anoxic” = no oxygen).  Too little oxygen means that marine life cannot breathe.

These ocean “dead zones” appear to becoming more common in the Pacific Northwest.  As I type there are fish and other marine life that have suffocated in Hood Canal.

The lack of oxygen in the ocean water is the result of increased winds and/or too much nitrogen.

The specific event now in Hood Canal is most likely caused by the accumulation of nutrients like nitrogen (from agricultural run-off and human sewage) “fertilizing” phytoplankton (plant-like plankton / algae).  The phytoplankton thrive, increase in number, causing a “bloom” and using up the oxygen. This is called eutrophication. In this case, wind could alleviate the situation as it would cause mixing and oxygenation of the water.

However, increased winds due to climate change can also cause “dead zones”. If the winds bring oxygen-poor and nutrient rich water from the ocean’s depths to the surface, this fertilizes phytoplankton at the surface, creating a bloom. The phytoplankton use up what little oxygen there is and when they die and decay at the ocean bottom, more oxygen is used up. The dynamic is very well illustrated in the Oregon State University image above.

The situation in Hood Canal was painfully captured in images by diver Janna Nichols at Sund Rock (Southern Hood Canal) on September 27th, 2010.

From Janna: “While some of this may appear normal to non-Pacific NW divers, it is most certainly NOT normal. Fish are out of their usual depth ranges (usually found deeper) and all clustered within 15 feet of the surface of the water. They are up so high in the water column because this is the only area that contains oxygen. There are also freakishly huge schools – we don’t usually see that many at once. Fish that normally hide were found out in the open, lethargic and “panting”.

Caption: “The top three feet under the surface are occupied by hundreds of small silvery Shiner Perch. Under them are hundreds of schooling Black and Copper Rockfish – densely packed and hardly moving. (to conserve energy). It is very unusual to see SO MANY of these fish together. All of this is in 9 feet of water or less. (The top number you see on my dive computer is the depth).”

She watched a Giant Pacific Octopus die; finds 4 Wolf-Eels and multiple Decorator Warbonnets out in the open, panting (these are cryptic species that are usually not out in the open and do not “breathe” like this) and she films dense schools of fish attempting to conserve energy to lower their oxygen demands. [I think these images may be all the more painful for fellow divers as you will fully know how aberrant these behaviours are.]

How to solve the problem? Don’t become despondent. Take this for what it is, an additional symptom of the same disease and therefore the solutions are the same – less fossil fuel use, less disposables, valuing life in terms of an economy based on carbon.

Help empower change.


Fish Forever – The Wisdom of a Nine-Year-Old

Nature gave us sockeye salmon this year. A red-scaled, bounding life source, some 34 million fish strong.

This has led to human voices shouting out in all from gratitude to greed; from delight to denial.

Predictably, sadly, there have been far too many who have been at the “greedy denial” end of the spectrum. I will not tire you with that here though.

I want to fish out two voices of sanity from the ocean of opinions. One voice is that of reporter Stephen Hume from the Vancouver Sun. The other is nine-year-old Avery Walker who I am privileged to have as a member of my Northern Vancouver Island Young Naturalists’ Club.

Stephen Hume, award-winning author,  in The Vancouver Sun: “Columnists who apparently wouldn’t know the difference between a sockeye and a sculpin cluck and scold in a Toronto newspaper. One enthusiastically advances the argument that we should whack 30 million of the 34 million returning salmon . . . . . Instead of permitting a lust for instant gratification to derail a natural process for rebuilding small stocks, now is the time for restraint, for harvest restraint is a critical investment in future abundance. So enjoy your sockeye. Be grateful for this gift from nature. But don’t let the gong show of greed sway us from good stewardship.”

Avery Walker - Salmon Superstar. Photo by Larry Walker and Anna Marchand.

Avery Walker, 9-year-old Young Naturalist, with his prize-winning submission to the Wild Salmon Circle’s “Spawning Ideas” contest: “I fish only with barbless hooks, I’ve taken all the treble hooks from the all the buzzbombs I have and replaced them with single barbless hooks. I don’t jig the fish, I fish the ones who bite. Sometimes this is really hard to do, because not all of my friends fish like this, and so they sometimes take home more fish than I do. I abide by the regulations about which salmon I can keep and which ones I can’t. I never go over my limit. Or keep undersized fish. Most of the time, I catch and release. I love to fish, and I want to be able to do it forever.”

Thank you Avery. Thank you Stephen. Thank you all who make choices that may allow us to have  . . . fish forever.

For insights into the need for precaution in managing the harvesting and threats to the Fraser River sockeye, please click here for information from “Save Our Salmon”.

Sperm Whales – Magnificent and Misunderstood

It was on July 16th, 2010 when I saw Sperm Whales for the first time off the coast of British Columbia and my world rocked.

This whale species is unlike any other and is extreme in so many ways.

Sperm Whales:

  • Make very long and very deep dives
  • Have the biggest brains
  • Are the largest toothed animals
  • Make the loudest sounds
  • Have a very strange common name reflecting great misunderstanding
  • Were hunted intensely
  • And are so very, very unique looking.

I saw the Sperm Whales while having the joy of being a Marine Mammal Observer on DFO’s Cetacean Research Program’s offshore survey. I first saw them in the area where I have put the blue star on the map below. You’ll note from this image that this area off the continental shelf is where many sperm whales were “taken” by whalers. It is in deep waters like this that sperm whales find their prey of deep ocean fishes and squid (from medium-sized squid species to the giant squid).

Sperm Whales inshore of Vancouver Island are exceedingly rare. There was one documented in February 2018 near Telegraph Cove by Lisa Larsson of OrcaLab and Jared Towers of DFO. In late fall of 1984 Dr. John Ford of DFO recorded the clicks from one in Johnstone Strait near Telegraph Cove (source: Ford, Marine Mammals of British Columbia).

Our first clue that we might be sighting Sperm Whales was the very unique blows that veer sharply off to the left. Through binoculars we could confirm the species ID by seeing the animals’ colossal heads and wrinkly skin and, when they descended for a long and deep dive, it was indisputable that we were seeing Sperm Whales. The distinctly shaped tails came high out of the water, straight up and down and the animals descended as if slowly going down in an elevator. I found myself gasping in amazement when I first saw this. (Note that the images below showing the Sperm Whale’s dive and blow are not from the research trip in B.C.)

Down he went. Down, down, down. The dive could take up to 90+ minutes and could be to a depth of 1185 m (most dives to ~400 metres for 35 to 60 minutes). That’s more than 100 atmospheres of pressure!  (One weblink I provide below provides video of a Sperm Whale at this depth.)

Apparently an average Sperm Whale’s dive profile is to slowly descend for 10 minutes, hunt at depth (more often at 300 to 800 m) for approximately 25 minutes, then slowly ascend for 10 minutes. The whales then stay at the surface for some 8 minutes, taking up to 90 breaths (range of 20 to 70) to offload carbon dioxide and reload oxygen into their blood and muscles.

This long period at the surface is when they were an easy target for the whalers. Yes, Moby Dick was a Sperm Whale but the ferociousness portrayed by Herman Melville in this classic novel is pure fiction. Were Sperm Whales to attack and swallow people whole, they may not have been so terribly exploited. We humans wanted their blubber, their spermaceti and their ambergris. Ambergris is found in the intestines (see previous blog item) and “spermaceti” is a semi-liquid wax found in the Sperm Whales’ huge heads. Early whalers thought it was a reproductive material which is why the species has its strange common name. Science now believes that this material has a role in buoyancy by being cooled and contracting to become more dense when the whale is diving and then becoming heated and expanding to allow the whale to ascend from such great depths. It may also have a role in sound production.

In the dark world to which the Sperm Whales descended, they find their prey through echolocation. These clicks act like an “acoustic flashlight”. They go out from the whale’s huge head and, when they bounce off an object and “echo” back, this allows the sperm whale to form an image of its surroundings and prey. (I also provide a weblink below that provides amazing, but very worrying, video of a Sperm Whale using echolocation to take fish off a longline = “depredation”).

As well as these slow and regular echolocation clicks, Sperm Whales also make really loud clicks called “codas”. Codas are believed to allow the Sperm Whales to communicate with one another, maybe in a way like we humans use Morse code. Listen to the Sperm Whale that was in Johnstone Strait in February 2018 at this link. 

I don’t know that anyone can be quite the same after an enormously privileged experience like seeing a Sperm whale. I was left stunned with a cocktail of emotion surging through me that included wonder, joy, passion and resolve. More passion for conservation and more resolve to share these experiences to make them count.

Male adult Sperm Whale going of a deep dive. Image by Peter Jucker; taken in the St.

Typical Sperm Whale blow = low, bushy, explosive and at a sharp left angle.Image by Peter Jucker; taken in the St.

Sperm Whale tooth. Image by Louisa Bates of Telegraph Coves Whale Interpretive

Many thanks to Peter Jucker and Uko Gorter for their great generosity in sharing images for the purpose of education and conservation.

Links to Sperm Whale sound and video:


Great resource for further information on Sperm Whales off British Columbia’s coast: John Ford’s 2014; Marine Mammals of British Columbia: Royal BC Museum Handbook; available via the Royal BC Museum and .

AOKI, KAGARI; MASAO AMANO; KYOICHI MORI; AYA KOUROGI; TSUNEMI KUBODERA and NOBUYUKI MIYAZAKI (2012) Active hunting deep-diving sperm whales: 3D profiles and maneuvers during bursts of speed. Marine Ecology Progress Series 444:289-301.

Watwood SL, Miller P, Johnson M, Madsen PT, Tyack PL (2006) Deep-diving foraging behaviour of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus). Journal of Animal Ecology 75: 814-825.

Whitehead, H. (2003). “Vertical Movements: The Sperm Whale’s Dive”. Sperm Whales Social Evolution in the Ocean. University of Chicago Press. p. 79.