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Posts from the ‘MARINE MAMMALS’ category

Rub Me Right – “Beach-Rubbing” Behaviour of Northern Resident Orca

[Update January 27th, 2018: Other videos of beach-rubbing by this family of “Northern Residents” are going viral. Videos included below.]

Likely you’ve seen it – Chris Wilton’s video of Killer Whales* / Orca rubbing on a beach in the Discovery Islands on January 29th, 2015, the whales only within ~1.5 metres of the incredibly fortunate humans’ feet?

[Video used with permission. For licensing / permission to use: Contact – licensing(at)jukinmediadotcom]

I became a resource to the news for interpreting the whales’ behaviour in this video as a result of my posting their IDs and commenting on the behaviour on social media. However, it proved difficult to extinguish some misinterpretation and misinformation, for example, the notion that the behaviour captured in the video was rare e.g. “B.C. orcas’ rare beach-rubbing behaviour caught on video” (CBC News. January 31, 2015).

It’s not rare behaviour at all. It is rare that people get to see it.

Big difference!

That’s what has motivated me to write this blog but before I proceed let me qualify that while I have spent a lot of time staring at Killer Whales through binoculars, I am a Humpback Whale researcher and marine educator. Everything that is known about Killer Whales is due to the long-term population study by DFO’s Cetacean Research Program. It began in 1973 with the late, great Dr. Michael Bigg and as a result, the Killer Whales of British Columbia have been studied as individuals longer than any other marine mammals in the world.

Thanks to the Cetacean Research Program’s work, identifying the whales in Chris’ video was easy. I recognized that they were beach-rubbing and, therefore, they had to be members of the threatened Northern Resident population. “Resident” Killer Whales are inshore, fish-eaters who can best be described as “Chinook-aholics”. The Northern Residents are the only Killer Whales of BC’s four distinct populations that rub on smooth pebble beaches.

When the video was brought to my attention, I was with two fellow Humpback Whale researcher friends, and we laughed aloud at about 1:56 in the video because there was mature male A66 (“Surf”), almost stationary on the beach. His left side was facing Chris’ camera, making it so easy to see his distinct saddle patch and the nick in his dorsal fin. It simply could not have been easier to identify him.

Screen grab from Chris Wilton's video showing why it was so easy to identify A66 / Surf. Used with permission. For licensing / permission to use: Contact -licensing(at)jukinmediadotcom

Screen grab from Chris Wilton’s video showing why it was so easy to identify A66 / Surf. Used with permission.

Ah ha! If Surf was there, his mother and three siblings had to be there too for such is the way of “Resident” Killer Whales; they stay with their mothers for their entire lives, seldom separated by more than a short distance. If the mother dies, the remaining family members stay together. Northern Resident families are in fact named for the eldest female who is believed to be the leader, A42 in this case, and the families are known as “matrilines”. This term loosely translates into “follow your mother”.

Upon viewing the rest of the video, we could confirm that all five member of the A42 matriline were indeed there. Surf was with his mother, Sonora, and her three other offspring.

Markings in blue are mine. Source: Northern Resident Killer Whales of British Columbia: 
Photo-identification Catalogue and Population Status to 2010; G.M. Ellis, J.R. Towers, and J.K.B. Ford 



[Update 2017: Sonora has had another calf, making for a matrilne of 6 whales]. Markings in blue are mine. Source: Northern Resident Killer Whales of British Columbia: 
Photo-identification Catalogue and Population Status to 2010; G.M. Ellis, J.R. Towers, and J.K.B. Ford. Nicknames determined via the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Programme. 

So what’s with the beach-rubbing?

Absolutely essential to understanding this behaviour is to know that the Killer Whales of the world have culture. Like humans, they have specialized to make use of certain prey and the geography of their area e.g. specializing in eating salmon vs. marine mammals.

In BC, the four Killer Whale populations (Northern Resident; Southern Resident; Offshore; and Bigg’s / Transients), overlap in their ranges but the populations have different languages and do NOT mate with one another. Thereby, they preserve the culture and traditions of their populations. To emphasize just how long-lived these cultural differences and specializations are, know that the mammal-hunting Bigg’s / Transients diverged from the other kinds of Killer Whales 700,000 years ago!

As mentioned, throughout the Northern Resident Killer Whales there is the culture of skidding their bodies over sloping beaches of smooth pebbles. None of the Killer Whale populations with which they have overlapping range in British Columbia have this behaviour. (Note: The AK Pod of Alaskan Residents is also known to beach rub. Please see detail at the end of the blog). As you can see in Chris’ video, in order to get down low and in contact with the rocks, they often super-deflate their lungs to reduce buoyancy, releasing a gush of bubbles. They rub all parts of their bodies. Sometimes they do this for a few minutes, and sometimes for more than an hour.

In OrcaLab’s video below, you can see underwater footage of the behaviour. Video was taken with remote underwater cameras under permit from Fisheries and Ocean’s Canada.

The behaviour can’t be about rubbing off parasites! The skin of Killer Whales sloughs off like ours does and therefore there’s no “fouling” of barnacles like there is on Humpbacks and Grey Whales. And hey, if it was due to ectoparasites, the other Killer Whales in BC would have them and be beach-rubbing too!

Beach-rubbing by the Northern Residents must be a social and recreational behaviour. A whale massage? Certainly it must feel good. Maybe, as an additional benefit, doing something you enjoy together also further solidifies family bonds (social cohesion being needed for community maintenance)? Reportedly, the vocals sometimes made by the Northern Residents while beach-rubbing support that this is a social behaviour since they are the same “looney tunes” made when Northern Resident families reunite.

Again, it is not rare for the Northern Residents to beach-rub at all. It is a regular social behaviour. What’s quite rare is that there were humans present on a beach when the behaviour was happening since where the whales most often are known to rub is a no-go zone.

These best known rubbing beaches are on NE Vancouver Island, in the Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve at Robson Bight in Johnstone Strait. The Northern Resident matrilines that most often feed in this area use these beaches to rub with incredible regularity, including the A42s – the whales that Chris videoed beach-rubbing much further to the south, around central Vancouver Island. These Robson Bight beaches are within recognized critical habitat for this population and are fully protected. The waters around these beaches are a restricted area as well.

But Northern Resident rubbing beaches are found all along our Coast and I believe that individual families have preferences, places they have been rubbing generation after generation after generation. There are Northern Resident families that rarely come into Johnstone Strait and they must have their equivalent of a Robson Bight somewhere else on our coast.

As confirmed by Dr. John Ford, head of DFO’s Cetacean Research Program, the Strait of Georgia where Chris got the video has been known to be part of the range of the closely related families to which the A42s belong (the A5s) since the 1960s and likely for many, many years further back. However, at that time, we would not have been collecting the data.

In 1961, near to where the video was taken, a 50-calibre machine gun was positioned for the purposes of executing Killer Whales and, as of 1964, it became common to attempt to capture them for captivity.

Just 55 years later, in January 2015, Chris and others stood on a beach in the Discovery Islands marvelling at what they were witnessing, recognizing their good luck to see this wild behaviour, and being able to record it in the video that has now gone viral.

Thank goodness that we have this capacity for positive change and that it’s now NOT rare that people feel a strong concern for and connection to Killer Whales.  I believe that the wide reach of Chris’ video has led to raised awareness about how cultured and social Killer Whales are and how lucky we are to have them as our marine neighbours. Maybe that awareness will be reflected in further changes that benefit the whales and the marine ecosystem for which they are ambassadors?

Then we’d be rubbing the right way and have more reasons to bubble with happiness.

Northern Residents using a rubbing beach on Malcolm Island off NE Vancouver Island. For more information on these beaches see Friends of the Wild Side.

Northern Residents using a rubbing beach on Malcolm Island off NE Vancouver Island. For more information on these beaches see Friends of the Wild Side.

_________________________________

Additional Videos of Beach-Rubbing of Northern Residents:

Video 2015  by – beach rubbing by A42s near Powell River.

Video January 27, 2018 by Sasha Koftinoff – beach rubbing by A42s near Sechelt.

Video January 27, 2018 by Martin Michael – beach rubbing by A42s + other Northern Residents near Sechelt.

Video January 27, 2018 by Bruce Robinson – beach rubbing by A42s + other Northern Residents near Sechelt.

Video – Feodor Pitcairn’s 2001  “Realm of the Killer Whales” with underwater footage of the beach-rubbing as of timestamp 48:15. This footage was obtained as a result of a special DFO permit.

Notes and Sources:
*Scientific convention is to reference Orcinus orca as Killer Whales. Many prefer “Orca” but please know that Orcinus orca loosely translates into “demon of the underworld”. The whales did not name themselves, we did and locked within the names is our misunderstanding and complex history with these remarkable, social, intelligent, big dolphin.

For more information on the BC’s Killer Whale populations see this previous blog  or Dr. John Ford’s book Marine Mammals of British Columbia, 2015.

For more footage from the OrcaLab cameras and hydrophones from NE Vancouver Island click hereYou can sign-up for text alerts by scrolling down at that link and filling in the field on the bottom left.

For potential impact of boat presence on rubbing behaviour, see Estimating relative energetic costs of human disturbance to killer whales (Orcinus orca). Rob Williams, David Lusseauc, Philip S. Hammonda (2006).

This blog led to my being interviewed for BBC’s “Ingenious Animals”. The episode includes a compilation of video of Northern Resident matrilines beach-rubbing. Available at this link as of 41 min.

Information on Beach-Rubbing in Alaskan Residents:

  • Members of AK pod are known to beach rub using “several different rubbing locations in Prince William Sound as well as in Kenai Fjords and Resurrection Bay.” Source: North Gulf Oceanic Society.
  • Alaskan Residents’ range overlaps with that of the Northern Residents, especially in Frederick Sound. It is unknown how often the Northern Residents and the AK pod of Alaskan Residents do or do not overlap in their ranges.
  • Video below shows beach-rubbing in what is very likely Alaskan Residents (members of AK pod) by Eric Eberspeaker – August 2015; Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge on the shore of Fox Island. You’ll note there are some very unique human vocals resulting from witnessing the beach rubbing.

 

Thank Goodness for Second Chances . . . .

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.

Look Up! Way Up! – “Hexacopter” soars high above killer whales to study their fitness

[Update summer 2016 – research team is now applying this technology to Humpback Whales – both photogrammetry and collecting blow samples. See here for video of the research.]

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.

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.

 

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.

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:

Whale Watching – Not “Up-Close-and-Personal!” How to make a good choice?

This blog is catalyzed by several recent advertisements for whale watching that I perceive 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 Marine Mammal Regulations and guidelines for respectful, legal and safe marine mammal viewing which include distance limits (200m for Orca and 100m for other cetaceans). 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 Harbour 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. See here for Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations and best practices.

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 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 Harbour 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 1-800-465-4336.]


References:

“Posturing” Humpback Whales?

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

Leandrea, 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.

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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.

The Case of Stones in Sea Lions’ Stomachs

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!

 

Click here for SeaDoc footage of Steller Sea Lions playing with California Sea Cucumbers.

For the Birds! Lessons learned from exotic birds, and birders

Just another day on the sidewalk in front of my house.

Just another day on the sidewalk in front of my house.

It’s Saturday morning. I open the curtains. And there they are – three sets of binoculars pointed in my direction. Again.

It’s been like this for 2 months now**, leading neighbours to wonder what is going on and if I am okay.

I am, thanks. I’m just peachy; not a feather out of place. In fact, I have a bird’s eye view of something simply wonderous from which I have learned a great deal.

All the activity on my sidewalk – the binoculars; people coming from Kamloops, Calgary, Victoria, Vancouver and possibly further afield (with at least one person sleeping in his car till daylight so he could be the early bird) – it’s not about me at all. It’s about the birds. Against all odds, multiple species of really rare and exotic birds are here together in our little neighbourhood in Port McNeill.

We’re not used to having this kind of “vagrant” in the ‘hood!

It began in early December when, while on a conference call, I almost lost my mind when a brilliantly yellow coloured bird landed in the shrub in front of my home office window; near the feeder I leave out for the Anna’s Hummingbirds who spend the winter here.

Winter range of Hooded Orioles marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology -  - see this link for more information and a larger map    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Hooded_Oriole/id

Winter range of Hooded Orioles marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology – see this link for more information and a larger map.

I scrambled for my camera uttering colourful nouns, thankfully having the sense to put the phone on mute. I got a picture.

I don’t know much about birds and therefore did not trust my ID. Could it be a . . . could it really be . . . a male Hooded Oriole?!

They are not supposed to be here. They should be in palm trees in the Baja in winter but I dared share the photo and my timid ID with those I know to be BC’s leading bird authorities. The responses came back pretty quickly.

They confirmed how rare this sighting was. Apparently, there have only been two previous recorded cases of Hooded Orioles making it through a BC winter – in Terrace in 1998 and in Prince Rupert in 2007. I was determined to do all I could to give this one a fighting chance since the odds of him finding his way “home” were infinitely small.

The photo I sent to the bird experts, timidly asking if indeed this was a male Hooded Oriole. Jeremy Gatten, would recount in his blog “I received an e-mail from Port McNeill resident Jackie Hildering about a bird that she thought might be a Hooded Oriole.  It's a good thing I was sitting on a couch because the attached photo would have knocked me to the floor if I was on a chair or stool!  The extremely crisp, full-frame shot showed a healthy, vibrant male Hooded Oriole in winter plumage.” http://naturalestnaturalist.blogspot.ca/2014/01/a-dick-and-hoor-longest-hardest-wettest.html

This is my first photo; the one I sent to the bird experts, asking if indeed this was a male Hooded Oriole. Jeremy Gatten, would recount in his blog “I received an e-mail from Port McNeill resident Jackie Hildering about a bird that she thought might be a Hooded Oriole. It’s a good thing I was sitting on a couch because the attached photo would have knocked me to the floor if I was on a chair or stool! The extremely crisp, full-frame shot showed a healthy, vibrant male Hooded Oriole in winter plumage.”

I slightly modified the hummingbird feeder. It appeared to meet his needs and he stayed. The word spread about how predictably such a rare bird could be sighted, and the birders started appearing.

Male Hooded Oriole at the feeder.  © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Male Hooded Oriole at the feeder. See his tongue? © 2014 Jackie Hildering

At first I was very worried about how the attention might disturb the Oriole (and me) but many could learn a thing or two from the nature viewing ethics of bird-watchers.

Winter range of Dickcissels marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology -  - see this link for more information and a larger map    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Dickcissel/id

Winter range of Dickcissels marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology – see this link for more information and a larger map.

They watch from a respectful distance, never setting foot on my property, truly wanting to witness natural behaviour. They rarely strive to get a photo to affirm their experience and certainly would not disturb the bird for the sake of getting the photo. They appear to “just” delight in seeing a rarity and being able to add a bird species to their list. Certainly there is no “get up and personal” – the phrase I loathe most in reference to wildlife viewing.

Then, things got even more exotic.

With all the birder expertise directed at the shrub with Mr. Oriole, a Harris’s Sparrow* was also spotted (winter range is the south central US), and a Yellow-Rumped Warbler (somewhat less noteworthy as this area is part of their summer range) and . . . a female Dickcissel.

Yes, that’s right – a Dickcissel. I too had no idea such a species existed and certainly would not have been able to discern her from the House Sparrows she often hangs out with. Neighbour Jim Nolan was the first to notice her, and teach me to spell “Dickcissel”! And how exotic is she? Her kind winters in Guatemala and Venezuela.

Female Dickcissel - quite difficult to discern her from the House Sparrows if the light is low and you can't see the yellow markings © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Female Dickcissel – quite difficult to discern her from the House Sparrows if the light is low and you can’t see the yellow markings © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Bring on more birders! And more binoculars on the sidewalk! And more neighbours wondering what on earth was going on.

Bird watchers reference this phenomenon as the  “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect”.  One rare bird attracts birders, who then find another rare bird, which brings in more birders . . . and so on!

In this case it is the “Port McNeill Shrub in Front of My House Effect” and how grateful I am for privilege of a front row seat to the birds, and the birders.

Female Yellow-Rumped Warbler. She's so territorial - chasing the Anna's Hummingbirds away and sometimes even bombs the much bigger Male Hooded Oriole. She is very often near the Oriole. © 2014 Jackie Hilderin

Female Yellow-Rumped Warbler. She’s so territorial – chasing the Anna’s Hummingbirds away and even dive-bombing the much bigger male Hooded Oriole. She is most often near him. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

They have made me reflect more on human behavior and expectations while viewing wild animals. I have become even more attuned to how extraordinary the wildlife of our area is and how, if you are especially watchful and respectful, the reward can be so great.

Clearly, the idiom “birds of a feather flock together” has also been challenged and I am greatly comforted that one rare bird can find another!

Not surprisingly, the birds have further heightened my wonder in Nature and, frankly, in life as well. Why that shrub? Why our neighbourhood in Port McNeill? Random chance? Ideal conditions? I will add this to the many things I will never know for sure.

What I will also allow myself to believe is that the appearance of the birds is evidence that colourful, rare and exotic beings can find my front door!

__________________________________________________

*I never saw the Harris’s Sparrow and have not heard of repeat sightings of this individual from birders.

Note that all photos were taken through the front windows of my home.

See end of blog for range maps for Yellow-Rumped Warblers and Harris’s Sparrows.

** Update April 6, 2014: The female Dickcissel is still a daily visitor. My last sighting of Mr. Hooded Oriole was March 29th. Presumably, he has moved on to new adventures, striving to join with his own kind and find a mate.

Male Hooded Oriole. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Male Hooded Oriole. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

© 2014 Jackie Hildering -8883

Female Dickcissel © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Male Hooded Oriole in flight © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Male Hooded Oriole in flight © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Female Dickcissel - quite difficult to discern her from the House Sparrows if the light is low and you can't see the yellow markings © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Female Dickcissel – quite difficult to discern her from the House Sparrows if the light is low and you can’t see the yellow markings © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Male Hooded Oriole at the feeder. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Male Hooded Oriole at the feeder. © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Winter range of Harris's Sparrows marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology - see this link for more information and a larger map  http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/harriss_sparrow/id

Winter range of Harris’s Sparrows marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology – see this link for more information and a larger map.

Winter range of Yellow-Rumped Warblers marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology -  - see this link for more information and a larger map    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/yellow-rumped_warbler/id

Winter range of Yellow-Rumped Warblers marked in blue. Source: Cornell Lab of Ornithology – see this link for more information and a larger map.

Still here- February 22nd, 2014. Maybe one of the only photos in the world of a Male Hooded Oriole in the snow? © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Still here- February 22nd, 2014. Maybe one of the only photos in the world of a Male Hooded Oriole in the snow? © 2014 Jackie Hildering

Heart for Whales

Apologies for a longer absence here. It has been a full summer of marine research, education and inspiration.

I will have the joy of sharing much with you in the coming months.

For now – three remarkable images taken in the last months where the whales’ blows are heart-shaped.

With whales being ambassadors for marine ecosystems in so many ways, these images may be particularly engaging – suggesting that we should love the Oceans as if our lives depend on them because  . . . they do!

5-year-old humpback whale "Moonstar" (BCY0768) with heart-shaped blow. Threatened population © 2013 Jackie Hildering

September 2013 – 5-year-old humpback whale “Moonstar” (BCY0768) with heart-shaped blow. Threatened population. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Member of the I15 matriline of "northern resident" (inshore fish-eating) orca with heart-shaped blow. Threatened population. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

September 2013 – Member of the I15 matriline of “northern resident” (inshore fish-eating) orca with heart-shaped blow. Threatened population. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

October 2013 - Heart-shaped blow from humpback "Flash". © 2013 Jackie Hildering

October 2013 – Heart-shaped blow from humpback “Flash”. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Also to make your heart sing, see the clip below (or access it at this link). I was able to capture the vocals of northern residents AND humpbacks from one of the most mind-blowing days I have ever had the privilege of experiencing on the water. Enjoy!

[These images and video were previously shared on the TMD FaceBook page].

Knowing Right From Wrong – North Pacific Right Whale

NPRW and Gordon Pike

North Pacific Right Whale at the Coal Harbour whaling station in 1951. This was the last Right Whale seen in BC waters until June 2013. With Gordon Pike, the DFO biologist responsible for monitoring whaling at Coal Harbour. Photo credit: Pacific Biological Station, DFO.

Update June 19th, 2018
Right Whale sighting of the west coast of Haida Gwaii on June 4th. News items provided below.
 It’s only the 3rd North Pacific Right Whale documented off the coast of BC in 67 years. 

Update October 25th, 2013
2nd right whale sighting in BC waters (different whale that than the one seen in June). See news item below. 

On June 9th 2013, while surveying off the west coast of Haida Gwaii for DFO’s Cetacean Research Program, biologist James Pilkington sighted one of the world’s most critically endangered mammals – a North Pacific Right Whale (Eubalaena japonica).

The species was once common but endured a catastrophic assault by whaling whereby there are now only about 30 left in the whole eastern North Pacific.

Reflecting on this whaling history makes clear how much positive change there has been in our attitudes to whales and this may have particular potency for those of us on Northern Vancouver Island due to BC’s last whaling station having operated in Coal Harbour from 1948 to 1967.

But, the devastation started far before that.

In 1835, intensive whaling began in the North Pacific and the most desirable target was the RIGHT whale. It was the right whale to kill since they were easy pickings with high reward.

Right Whales feed by using their huge baleen plates (up to 3 m long) to skim zooplankton into their mouths, slowly powering themselves forward with massive tails. When feeding on the surface in this manner, they made life very easy for whalers – being slow moving, often near the coast and easy to approach. The long, fine baleen had very high commercial value as “whale bone”, largely used to stiffen women’s clothing.

Also making them a preferred species for whalers is that Right Whales are particularly stout, weighing as much 90,000 kg at about 17 m.  They have very thick blubber which provided whalers with vast amounts of oil, desirable for lighting in that era. The large blubber layer also meant that right whales floated when killed, making them easier to harvest than other whale species.

Annotated diagram of a North Pacific right whale.  Image by Uko Gorter Natural History Illustrations. Annotations ©Jackie Hildering; The Marine Detective.

Annotated diagram of a North Pacific Right Whale. Image by Uko Gorter Natural History Illustrations.

Being easy to kill and having high commercial value, meant the Right Whales of the world were done a great deal of wrong. For the North Pacific Right Whale alone, the estimate is that 11,000 were killed between 1835 and 1849 and that the species was determined to be “commercially extinct” by 1900.

Protection was very late for animals so very endangered. The first International Whaling Convention only came into effect in 1935 and was not ratified by Japan and Russia. An additional Convention came into effect in 1949 strengthening protection, but there was still illegal Soviet whaling in the North Pacific from 1961 to 1979.

In British Columbian waters, despite the knowledge that they were the rarest of the rare, BC whalers killed the only 6 confirmed North Pacific Right Whales sighted in the last century. Five of these were killed before 1933 and 1 was killed in 1951.

What might make this hit literally close to home is that the 1951 whale, a 12.5 m mature male was killed by Coal Harbour whalers (see photograph, 1951 North Pacific right whale with Gordon Pike, the DFO biologist responsible for monitoring whaling at Coal Harbour).

It was said to be an accident; that they did not know it was a North Pacific Right Whale but got the directive to kill him anyway.

What a difference 62 years makes.

North Pacific right whale at the Coal Harbour whaling station in 1951. Photo credit: Pacific Biological Station, DFO.

North Pacific Right Whale at the Coal Harbour whaling station in 1951. Photo credit: Pacific Biological Station, DFO.

The last thing on the minds of those observing the North Pacific Right Whale in June 2013 was killing it. From the moment James Pilkington noted the distinct v-shaped blow, hope soared that the “holy grail of whales” had been found and that the opportunity to study it might aid conservation.

DFO’s cetacean researchers, Dr. John Ford and Graeme Ellis joined James and shot the whale with cameras not harpoons, allowing the whale (a sub-adult) to be identified as an individual from the raised patches of skin called callosities that are unique to every right whale. They managed to get DNA and scat samples. DNA confirmed the whale was a young female and had not been previously documented. She has been assigned the ID MML90 (See Ford et al).

And when the sighting was relayed to the media, the societal change became so very clear. What was once the right whale to kill, is now the right whale to provide us with hope about the resilience of nature.

However, I believe that to truly know the significance of this sighting, it may take another 62 years.

Will society then be able to look back with the same sense of positive change, having learned that there are still many ways to kill a whale and impact the ecosystems for which they are ambassadors?

Will we have significantly reduced our fossil fuel addiction that drives climate change, impacting the whales’ food supply? Will we have realized that our individual demand for energy literally fuels the threat of tanker traffic, and therefore oil spills, on our Coast?  Will we have curbed our consumer lifestyles of disposable goods that lead to a literal sea of plastic?

With such changes, the potential increases for the recovery of North Pacific Right Whales and the health of the marine ecosystem on which we too depend. This will be our ultimate reward for better knowing right, from wrong. 

North Pacific Right Whale catches from 1785 to 1913 in the eastern North Pacific from the records of American whale ships. Photo by Environment and Climate Change Canada’s species at risk registry (via National Observer article at this link).

See video of the June 2013 sighting of the first North Pacific Right Whale in 62 years by clicking here, narration by Dr. John Ford.

Updates:

Coverage of the June 2018 sighting:

Scientific paper on the two 2013 sightings. Includes that the 2nd sighting in 2013 was of a previously undocumented whale (now assigned ID MML92) and that the whale had severe scarring, likely from entanglement. DNA was not collected so gender of this whale is not known.
Ford, J.K.B., Pilkington, J.F., Gisborne, B. et al. Recent observations of critically endangered North Pacific right whales (Eubalaena japonica) off the west coast of Canada. Mar Biodivers Rec (2016) 9: 50.

Retrospective on the 2013 sighting off Haida Gwaii; Haida Gwaii Observer; July 22, 2016; “Scientists recall the whale tale of a lifetime

2nd right whale sighting in BC waters in 2013, was on October 25, 2013. See – Vancouver Sun; October 31, 2013; “Second sighting of endangered North Pacific right whale in B.C. waters in 62 years – Researchers ‘astonished’ after whale spotted off the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait near Victoria”

 

Sources:

BC Cetacean Sightings Network – Right Whale

BC Cetacean Sightings Network – Whaling

Feldhamer, George A.; Thompson, Bruce C.; Chapman, Joseph A. (2003). Wild mammals of North America : biology, management, and conservation (2nd ed. ed.). Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 432. ISBN 9780801874161.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2013. Partial Action Plan for Blue, Fin, Sei and North Pacific Right Whales (Balaenoptera musculus, B. physalus, B. borealis, and Eubalaena japonica) in Pacific Canadian Waters. Species at Risk Act Action Plan Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. iv + 23 pp.

Globe and Mail; June 20, 2013; ‘Miracle’ whale leaves scientists elated – and relieved

Nichol, L.M., E.J. Gregr, R. Flinn, J.K.B. Ford, R. Gurney, L. Michaluk, and A. Peacock. 2002. British Columbia Commercial Whaling Catch Data 1908 to 1967: A detailed Description of the B.C. Historical Whaling Database. Can. Tech. Rep. Fish Aquat. Sci. 2371: vi + 77 p.

Pilkington, James; July 2, 2013; AquaBlog – “The Right Place, Right Time, Right Whale: Update #1”

Scarff, J.E. 1986. Historic and present distribution and abundance of the right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) in the eastern North Pacific south of 50N and east of 180W. Rep. int. Whal. Commn (Special issue 10):43-63.

Welcome to Coal Harbour, Canada –  webpage

Uko Gorter Natural History Illustrations (with great thanks Uko)

What’s the Bigg’s Deal?!

Dr. Michael Bigg

Super hero – Dr. Michael Bigg. Achieved so much before passing at just age 51 (1939 to 1990).

What’s the Bigg’s Deal?  I’ve been asked this a lot lately: “Why are the mammal-hunting killer whales being referenced as “Bigg’s Killer Whales” rather than as “Transients” as they were previously known?”

This is because a 2010 study found that the mammal-hunting ecotype of Killer Whales / Orca diverged from the other ecotypes some 700,000 years ago and the researchers (Morin et al) put forward that they be recognized as a distinct species.

If they are to be recognized as such, many in whale-research-world believe it is only appropriate that the species be named in honour of the late and great Dr. Michael Bigg whose pioneering Killer Whale ID research in the eastern North Pacific in the 1970s – 1980s revealed that Killer Whales have distinct populations and that there are very limited numbers within these populations.

Ultimately, his research led to the understanding that Killer Whale populations have distinct cultures.

This knowledge of course had huge conservation implications. It was previously believed that there were abundant Killer Whales in the eastern North Pacific and that they all eat salmon in addition to marine mammals; rather than the reality that there are four at risk populations that are genetically and ecologically distinct:

  • 1.  Bigg’s Killer Whales are marine mammal-hunters (they also eat an occasional bird and, very rarely, a terrestrial mammal). Because they are hunting marine mammals, they generally have to be stealthy and unpredictable (when hungry). The population estimate for this threatened population is 300 individuals (2017) that are more often along coastal BC, with research ongoing regarding population numbers further off the coast (see “Biggs/Transients” information at this link).  Their behaviour has changed in recent years, as reported by colleague researchers at the Marine Education and Research Society.   They are not so “transient” anymore. In some areas they are more commonly sighted than “Residents” and appear to be travelling, socializing and hunting in bigger groups. They also appear to be more vocal, especially after a kill.  This may be due to changes in the location and density of their prey. Status report and further information at this link. Note that there are no documented incidents of Bigg’s Killer Whales in the wild ever injuring a human.
  • “Residents” are inshore fish-eating Killer Whales (ingesting an occasional squid too) and there are two distinct populations. The vast majority of their fish diet is salmon and of the salmon species, their absolute favourite is Chinook. (Their diet is also known to include lingcod, halibut, herring, squid, rockfish, flounder). Because salmon is so predictable (salmon return to the river of their birth to spawn and die) and because fish have very bad hearing, these populations of Killer Whales can afford to be highly vocal and use echolocation a lot. 
    • 2. The Northern “Residents” are a threatened population of some ~305 whales (2017) more often found in northern British Columbia but also in southeastern Alaska and Washington State. Status report and further information here. For the story of one N. Resident Killer Whale family (the A23s) and what their story reveals about us, click here.
    • 3. The Southern “Residents” are most often swimming around southern British Columbia and Washington State but are sometimes also in the waters of northern British Columbia, Oregon and California. At only 75 individuals (2018), this population is recognized as being endangered. Status report and further information here.
  •  4. Offshore Killer Whales are fish-eaters often found along the continental shelf from the Aleutian Islands to California. To date, published research has confirmed that their diet includes Pacific Sleeper Sharks and Pacific Halibut. The population estimate is 355 individuals (2017) and this too is a threatened population. Status report and further information here.

Through the research of Dr. Bigg, the Killer Whales of British Columbia have been studied as individuals longer than any other marine mammal species on the planet – and not only marine species have benefited from this. We all have.

Due to his work, whereby the age, gender, diet and range is known for almost every Killer Whale in British Columbia, these whales “tell the story” of global chemical pollution. The work of Dr. Peter Ross examines the toxins in the blubber and indeed the Killer Whales of BC are the “canaries in the coal mine” informing the science that should shape international policies and regulations regarding toxins.

However, there is also much that has NOT changed since the days of Dr. Bigg’s pioneering Killer Whale research.

At that time, Killer Whales were the scapegoat for declining salmon populations and the “gold rush” on their being put into captivity was likely perceived as a favourable management tool.  Conservation costs money, not only for science and management, but also by limiting industries whose activities may negatively impact species at risk.

Flash forward some 40 years to 2013. Dr. Peter Ross’ work with Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been terminated as part of what can only be called the demise of Canada’s ocean contaminants research program and prior to his termination he, like so many other government scientists in Canada, has been constrained in being able to communicate about his research. (Update 2014: Dr. Ross now heads the Ocean Pollution Research Program at the Vancouver Aquarium).

The ultimate Bigg’s Deal is that one person can make a profound positive difference – replacing knowledge where fear and misunderstanding once dwelled.

However, to work against government forces that imperil our environment and suppress science in favour of short-term economic gain, it is going to take a very great many of us to make our voices and actions . . . Bigg-er.

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For more information:

What's the Bigg's Deal.001.001