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Markus . . . and the Octopus.

Today something extraordinary happened.

It happened when we placed a memorial for a dear departed friend, Markus Kronwitter.

My primary reason for sharing this is for Markus’ family and friends but, I think others will find something here too.

You see, a Giant Pacific Octopus attended and sat right atop the memorial.

Let me recount using photos.

Memorial made by Stephanie Lacasse.

 

Markus owned and operated North Island Diving in Port Hardy. He was a dear friend and incredibly important to our dive club, the Top Island Econauts. He died more than 3 years ago and the memorial today was to honour him and maybe offer some comfort to his wife Cecelia and his two daughters, Rosie and Jennifer.

The location was Five Fathom Rock just outside Port Hardy.  Part of Markus’ legacy is that he fought for this rocky reef to be recognized as a Rockfish Conservation Area. (More about the significance of that in my eulogy at the end of this blog).

After we shared thoughts about Markus at the surface, down we went to the highest point of the reef. We would wait there till the memorial was carefully descended by Steve Lacasse of Sun Fun Divers using a lift bag and rope.

We wanted to position the memorial there, near a sunken metal beer keg. The keg used to be a mooring float on this site. It was put there by Markus but, by mysterious means, had sunk to the bottom.

As soon as we got to where the memorial was to be placed, I saw a Giant Pacific Octopus, fully out in the open.

You can even see the beer keg right in the background.

After about 5 minutes, he retreated partially into his den, likely because of some annoying underwater photographer with flashing lights.

Note that I do know this was a male Giant Pacific Octopus because the third arm on the right was a “hectocotylus arm”. Only males have the hectocotylus which stores sperm. More on that at this link. (This individual also had an injured arm. It was only about half length but will regrow. Yes, some of the awe that is octopuses, is that they can regenerate limbs.)

Giant Pacific Octopus in his den.

But then . . . when Steve arrived with the memorial, the Giant Pacific Octopus darted out of his den, landed right atop the memorial and started flashing white. See the memorial under the octopus in the photos below?

Steve Lacasse with the octopus on the memorial which was still attached to the rope and lift bag.

 

You can imagine how we marvelled as this unfolded and that some pretty big emotions were felt.

Eventually, the Giant Pacific Octopus moved away. Then, the memorial could be positioned as we had intended, but not before a mature male Wolf Eel also went swimming by.

There’s no photo of that I am afraid. I was a little overwhelmed.

Memorial positioned.

 

Dive club members from left to right: Dwayne Rudy, Steve Lacasse, Natasha Dickinson, Gord Jenkins and Andy Hanke.

Somewhat dizzied by emotion, we continued with the dive.

Below, I include some photos of what we saw, especially to give Markus’ loved ones a sense of what this site is like.

Mature male Wolf-Eel in his den, very near the memorial.

 

One of 100s of Black Rockfish at this site (and a Mottled Star).

 

Male Lingcod guarding an egg mass with 100s of eggs.

 

Male Ling Cod. The boulders here give an indication of why this is such ideal fish habitat. There are so many crevices to hide in and rocks to lounge upon.

 

Rose Anemones aka Fish-Eating Telias. Sun shining down from the surface, five fathoms above us.

 

Tiger Rockfish – longevity can be 116 years WHEN given a chance.

 

See the male Lingcod under the huge mass of eggs? He’s got a lot to protect!

 

And then . . . just as we were about to ascend, there he was again – the same Giant Pacific Octopus.

The Giant Pacific Octopus with dive buddy, Natasha Dickinson.

 

How I wish we could have stayed longer. We had to surface to a far less mysterious world, but with hearts full and so much to tell Cecelia, Jenny and Rosie.

Goodbye Markus.

We’ll be visiting again soon.


My Eulogy for Markus. 

It’s my great honour to say a few words before we dive on Five Fathom Rock to position Markus’ memorial.

I of course found it excruciating to try to find the words fitting of Markus, because you have to tap into the emotion to find the words.

It’s been more than 3 years since Markus died. Cecelia, Jenny and Rosie you need the words and, even more, you need this place where your thoughts and feelings can be anchored.

In trying to find the words, I dared remember what it felt like to be around Markus. I don’t think that I know anyone else who was quite like him in knowing the right thing to do, no matter how hard it would be and no matter how many injustices he had suffered.

Markus was about making things better and standing up for what was right. He was a man of truth and science. He appeared unflinching in facing reality. He did not suffer fools. He saw through people with crystalline clarity. He walked his own path – in red “holely soles” and multi-coloured pants – and had the wisdom to stop to have Cecelia join to walk beside him.

He made hard decisions.

He . . . was . . . a . . . fighter.

He fought to be here on northern Vancouver Island.

He fought for his girls.

He fought for our dive club.

He fought for the fishes, now flourishing beneath us.

He fought for his life.
[When diagnosed with cancer, he was told he had 2 years to live. He lived for 14 years post diagnosis].

And he has left an extraordinary legacy.

Part of this, is the legacy of Five Fathom Rock.

Markus fought for this to be a Rockfish Conservation Area so that the fish that live here might get a chance to grow bigger, reproduce more, and to thrive.

And there’s success. It’s so beautiful down there Rosie, Jenny and Cecelia. The fishes are thriving – there are clouds of rockfish and it’s so powerful to think that some, like the Tiger Rockfish, might get a chance to live to be more than 100-years-old.

If there were any place where I could picture Markus, it would be here darting around with yellow fins, fish-like himself. Clearly so at home . . . here.

His efforts for Five Fathom included trying to have a mooring here and his creativity was to use a big metal beer keg. It’s down there now, on the highest part of the reef , close to where there are 2 Wolf-Eels. It’s where we’ll attach the memorial.

And how perfect that this will happen at a time when the Lingcod fathers are protecting the next generation, standing guard, not suffering fools, making very clear when you’re trying to get too close without good intent. Fiercely fighting for the next generation, with an extraordinary sense of place.

He loved it here.

It’s impossible to forget him here.

Not that there is any possibility of forgetting Markus or what he stood for.

His legacy of course includes you Rosie, Jenny and Cecelia. He loved you so much and I can’t even imagine how hard he fought wanting to be here still to protect you, to make sure you would always be okay.

Jennifer and Rosie, you are fighters like your Papa Markus.

Jenny – I also think you have his sense of purpose.

Rosie  – I think you have his sense of place.

Cecelia – the love in your eyes makes clear how you carry Markus with you always.

Markus Kronwitter.
It is here on Northern Vancouver Island that he found his wild.
It is with you three, that he found love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Compilation of photos and video below.

 

Cetacean Gender – Male or Female? How to Know?

The information here on The Marine Detective is, in part, intended to answer important life questions like “How Do Octopuses Poo?“. Right up there as life-enhancing information is the answer to “How can you determine gender in cetaceans?” (Cetaceans are whales, dolphins and porpoises and it is important to use this term because, for example, Orca are actually members of the dolphin family.)

Please know that I am being serious here. This is meant to be anything but giddiness-inducing, whale-porn-perceived content. Further, I believe to my core that the more knowledge we have of our marine neighbours, the more understanding, connection and respect there is for the Ocean and thereby, the better the hopes for our own species.

And, in that regard, I am here to serve.
So here you go.

Pacific White-Sided Dolphins with very young calves whereby it can be concluded the adults at their side are females. ©Jackie Hildering.

 

The following allow determination of gender in cetaceans:

  • Presence of a calf beside the mother. BUT this can be difficult to determine unless the calf is really young i.e. it just could be a smaller, unrelated individual travelling with a larger one;
  • DNA testing BUT this is not useful to the average person;
  • Seeing a male’s penis BUT it is usually concealed inside the body / genital slit where it isn’t creating drag and losing heat;
  • There can be behavioural clues BUT you need some pretty good understanding of a species for this; and
  • Physical differences between genders (other than the penis). BUT, with the exception of differences between adult dorsal fins in some cetacean species, these features are on the underside of the animal. This means you don’t often get a chance to see them.

But look!
It’s a female Pacific White-Sided Dolphin!

 

How do I know? Female cetaceans have mammary slits and the genital slit is larger, containing both the vagina and anus. See below. The mammary slits contain the mammary glands which produce milk for baby.

Note too how all cetaceans have a belly button. All mammals have belly buttons of course as we develop in utero, attached with an umbilical cord to our Mom’s placenta. 🙂

 

 

Here is the contrast between a male and female Pacific White-Sided Dolphin.

 

These difference exist right from birth.

In the case of the really big dolphins – Killer Whales / Orca – not only are there these differences, but the pigmentation pattern in the pelvic area is different in males and females too, right from birth. Males have a larger area of white than the females do. See below.

Of course AFTER the age of puberty, it is really easy to discern a mature male Orca, from a female because the dorsal fin is much larger in mature males. The pectoral fins are larger too and the edges of the tail are often curved downward. Mature males are also larger than females. BUT these physical difference only start developing around the age of thirteen. Many people make the error of presuming an Orca with a smaller dorsal fin is always a female. Nope, the individual with a smaller dorsal fin could be an immature male.

[If you would like more information on the 3 ecotypes / 4 populations of Orca in the NE Pacific Ocean, see related blog item “What’s the Bigg’s Deal?”.]

To the trained eye, the dorsal fins of mature male Pacific White-Sided Dolphins are also different from that of females and immature males.

The dorsal fins of the mature males are stockier and often have more nicks and scratches as shown in the photo below.

ID photo of the dorsal fin of a mature male Pacific White-Sided Dolphin by Alexandra Morton. Her research into Pacific White-Sides continues with Dr. Erin Ashe.

 

In Dall’s Porpoises, the mature males’ dorsal fins also look different than that of the females and juvenile males. The angle is different as you can see from the images below. This is very, very difficult to discern while in the field however i.e. I can look at a photo of their dorsal fins and determine gender in mature Dall’s Porpoises but, in real time, I rely on behavioural clues and/or the presence of a calf.

How to discern gender in Harbour Porpoises?

Good luck! The mature females are bigger in this species but that is VERY difficult to discern and I have never seen the underside of a Harbour Porpoise except when a Bigg’s Killer Whale was making an attack. Harbour Porpoises are very cryptic and very rarely are they acrobatic.

Picture quality is really poor in this photo of a mother Harbour Porpoise with her calf.
Terrible photo is by yours truly.

 

Want to know the detectable gender differences in Humpback Whales?

The genital and mammary slits can be very difficult to see. What is much easier to detect is that, from birth, only females have a bump know as the “hemispherical lobe” (note that nobody knows what this structure is for). However, where in dolphins you can get a clear look at the pelvic area when they leap out of the water, this is not the case with Humpbacks. The way they breach, there is a big “skirt” of water obscuring the pelvic area.

That’s why we researchers get really excited when Humpbacks lie on their backs and tail lob, as in the photos below. THEN there is a chance of seeing the pelvic area. Please see our Marine Education and Research blog at this link for detail on discerning gender in Humpback Whales.

Source: Marine Education & Research Society blog “It’s a Girl! “Lucky” the Humpback Whale“.

 

So there you go, armed with more knowledge about our cetacean neighbours. To reiterate, I’ve made the effort to share all this because I believe that the more we see those we share the planet with as individuals and the more understanding we have  . . .  the better we can be. That you for being someone who cared enough to read this.

Since I am feeling quite “teachery” with this blog, how about a test? 🙂 “Oh yes!” (said no one ever).

But if you want to test your knowledge, see the images below. Are these male or female Pacific White-Sided Dolphins? Scroll down after the three images for the answers.

Question #1 – Male or female? ©Jackie Hildering.

 

Question #2 – Male or female? ©Jackie Hildering.

 

Question #3 – Male or female? ©Jackie Hildering.

Answers:
The genders of the Pacific White-Sided Dolphins in the last three images are:
#1 is male
#2 is male
#3 is female. The mammary slits are difficult to see but you can clearly see the larger genital slit and that there isn’t a separate slit for the anus.

Heartbreak

[Note the following is aimed at those with an association with Telegraph Cove, British Columbia. There have been developments whereby I am being asked many questions and have chosen this as a way to answer and to bundle information. If you do not have an association with Telegraph Cove, this blog item may not have interest for you.]

The emotion:

Yes, I am heartbroken.

It’s the heartbreak that comes when decisions made by people you care about, hurt other people you care about.

It’s the hurt that comes from loving a place and the community associated with it.

It’s about an ending that did not need to be.

It’s about whale watching from Telegraph Cove, British Columbia.

I am sharing this information because of the number of questions I am being asked about what happened. I am being seen as a source of information because of my attachment to Telegraph Cove and my involvement with both parties – Telegraph Cove Resorts and Stubbs Island Whale Watching. I believe this necessitates my explaining my association with them.

Also, candidly, the writing of this is also likely to help me process what has happened. I have only recently learned of the developments myself.

My background in Telegraph Cove: 

For almost 20 years, I have been involved with Stubbs Island Whale Watching which has operated out of Telegraph Cove since 1980. Telegraph Cove is a historic boardwalk community on NE Vancouver Island. For many years it has been owned and cared for by Telegraph Cove Resort Ltd.

It was a whale watching trip with Stubbs Island Whale Watching in 1998 that was the catalyst for my returning to British Columbia after having taught in the Netherlands. I wanted to learn from Nature and, having experienced firsthand the understanding that came from the power of seeing whales in the wild, I hoped I could apply my skills as an educator to contribute more directly to conservation.

In 1999, I began as a Naturalist with the company. I became Head Naturalist and, since 2011, I have served as an advisor to the new ownership for issues related to conservation and education. These roles were aimed at helping to make the experience of seeing marine wildlife count for the sake of conservation because  . . . not all whale watching companies are created equal.

The environmental ethics and contributions of Stubbs Island Whale Watching’s founders (Mackays and Borrowmans) were world renown and tied directly to whale research, and their location and use of larger boats meant that noise and fossil fuels could be better managed.

The aim was to enhance and ensure delivery of a program that could maximize meaningful messaging that might help people undertake life changes for the health of the whales (and future generations). The value of the experience, in terms of potential conservation outcomes, had to be so good that it could make the carbon and noise worth it. The aim was to continue the company’s ethics of being anything BUT about “getting up close and personal”. It was to try really hard to make the privileged experience of seeing whales in the wild count, tangibly.

The education delivered on the boats was a big part of this as was my hiring and training the biologists that had the depth of dedication and ethics to carry out this program. It has been such a source of joy to see how these team members have carried the experience of working from Telegraph Cove, and learning from wildlife, into their careers in conservation-related fields.

My being a co-founder of the Marine Education and Research Society is directly linked to Telegraph Cove and Stubbs Island Whale Watching. It was from their boats that we first documented the return of Humpback Whales and, since 2004, they have been our greatest data contributor as well as providing support in many other ways.

The kindness, generosity and support of Telegraph Cove Resort Ltd. has also played a major role in my life regarding diving, education and research. My boat is moored there. I dive from there. My footsteps have stomped on that boardwalk thousands and thousands of times.

Maintaining the historical flavour of Telegraph Cove is clearly a labour of love and the Whale Interpretive Centre (WIC) could not succeed without the involvement and support of Telegraph Cove Resorts. I am a past director, manager and chair of the society behind the WIC and still provide tours there when asked.

I will say it again, there are many people I really care about whose lives are connected to the beautiful place that is, Telegraph Cove.


The facts: 

So what has happened?

Autumn 2018

  • Stubbs Island Whale Watching was put up for sale by the three owners for a variety of personal reasons.

December 2018

  • Telegraph Cove Resorts Ltd. informed Stubbs Island Whale Watching they would not be renewing their lease.

January 22, 2019

  • Telegraph Cove Resorts announces that another whale watching company will now be operating out of Telegraph Cove.
  • Stubbs Island Whale Watching makes an announcement about the repercussions. There is no more Stubbs Island Whale Watching.

The announcements: 

Media release Stubbs Island Whale Watching – January 22, 2019 

Stubbs Island Whale Watching is closing its doors after 38 years

BC’s first whale watching company, Stubbs Island Whale Watching, is
closing its doors after 38 years in business.  Renowned for its dedication
to ethical wildlife viewing, education and conservation, the company has
welcomed nearly half a million visitors to the North Island experience
since it was established in 1980.

The closure comes following an unexpected change in the company’s office
space lease agreement with Telegraph Cove Resort after more than three
decades operating from that location. Our lease agreement will end on
January 31, 2019.  Stubbs Island Whale Watching was put up for sale at the
end of the 2018 season, but we planned to continue operating the company
until a purchaser was found. The changes to the lease agreement came as a
surprise.

Guests from all over the world come to experience whales in the wild and
the company’s ethical whale viewing practices have been part of what made
us so renowned. Stubbs Island Whale Watching is informing reservations
holders of the change and attempting to shift reservations to Discovery
Marine Safaris in Campbell River, a smaller company owned by one of the
three owners of Stubbs Island Whale Watching.

For information call: 1-250-928-3185.

Thank you for your years of support.

The owners of Stubbs Island Charters Ltd. Heike Wieske, Geord Dunstan, Roger McDonell” 


Telegraph Cove Resort – January 22, 2019

The following is from the January 22nd article in the Campbell River Mirror with quotes from Telegraph Cove Resort.

“Stubbs Island’s announcement today was quickly followed by an announcement by Telegraph Cove Resort that it was teaming up with Victoria-based Prince of Whales Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures “to enhance marine wildlife habitat and research while providing greater opportunities for outstanding eco-tourism.”

Resort owners Gordie and Marilyn Graham said they are pleased to welcome one of the province’s “largest and most-respected whale watching and eco-adventure companies” to their recreational seaside haven. The release made no mention of their relationship with Stubbs Island.

“I’ve always been impressed by the Prince of Whales’ work in marine conservation and academic research,” Gordie said. “Their principled approach dovetails perfectly with our continuing efforts to protect marine wildlife while delighting and educating visitors with awe-inspiring experiences in nature.

The Grahams established a campground and marina at Telegraph Cove in 1979, drawing enthusiasts to the great recreational ocean fishing. Over 40 years, their work restoring original buildings for tourist accommodation has brought life back to the former sawmill town. Today, the resort, which can accommodate up to 500 guests, also includes a restaurant and pub, general store, small hotel and Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretative Centre.

One of the last boardwalk settlements left on Vancouver Island, Telegraph Cove attracts thousands of whale watchers, fishermen, boaters, campers and kayakers every year.

As well as building a tourist mecca, 210 km northwest of Campbell River, the Grahams have invested in marine life protection and education, donating more than $150,000 to salmon enhancement projects.

Meanwhile, Stubbs Island Whale Watching is informing reservations holders of the change and attempting to shift reservations to Discovery Marine Safaris in Campbell River, a smaller company owned by one of the three owners of Stubbs Island Whale Watching. Guests looking for information can call: 1-250-928-3185

Stubbs Island Charters Ltd. started whale watching in 1980 out of Telegraph Cove and has worked to establish a reputation as a company that puts the wildlife first. The company supported research and education efforts, providing meaningful education to guests, modeling best practices, and sharing expertise to help build a community now known as the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association. For the past six years it has received a “Certificate of Excellence” from Trip Advisor for its many five-star reviews.”


There you have it.

Any further factual developments will be added to the content here.

My deep empathy to those for whom this news is difficult too.

Onward, facing reality and being guided by what is best for the whales and what they reveal of human value systems and the state of the environment  . . . upon which our lives depend.

 

Telegraph Cove in 2008. ©Jackie Hildering.


Related blogs:

They Can’t Thrive If We Don’t Change.

[Dear folks, I anticipate some of you will have resistance to what I write below but I have to go there – not to bemoan problems, but in the desperate want for positive change.]

When will we get it? When?!

A science-based decision is made to extend critical habitat for the 74 endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales and what happens? Seventeen British Columbian coastal Chambers of Commerce “unite” in wanting to slow down potential further implementation measures claiming there has not been enough science done. The media release is here.

I understand the climate of uncertainty I really do when you have a Federal Government that wants a pipeline to go through and is being “assessed” on how it will impact the marine environment.

However, we cannot continue in the same way “defending” ourselves against potential fisheries closures and measures to reduce disturbance to the whales, claiming to love the whales and using them as a resource.

This is so difficult to articulate but you cannot keep on keeping on and expect things to change for the better, especially in a world that is undergoing climate change.

If we change we’ll lose jobs, jobs, jobs. Will we? What if we had a transition plan? What if we got ahead of the curve? What if we shed fear and entitlement and embraced precaution and human ingenuity, but not as an exit strategy? 

Pride and positive ownership can be taken in choosing for more modest takes of salmon i.e. leaving Chinook for the Orca, and in wildlife viewing that reduces stresses to the whales.

While we’re at it, let’s realize we are literally driving climate change and increased large vessel traffic on our coast through our excessive consumerism and demand for fossil fuels and our resistance to change, absence of understanding science, and being manipulated with fear.

Further, the idea that salmon enhancement is a panacea defies science, especially in light of climate change and the fact that we are releasing juvenile salmon into a gauntlet of open net-pen salmon farms (which indisputably amplify and transmit disease and parasites). Note too that salmon enhancement facilities are very often beholden to the open net salmon farming industry as funders. Oh what a web we weave . .

Precaution is not “let’s make sure we have done even more studies and then we’ll know for sure.” Precaution is the duty to prevent harm, even in the light of uncertainty and this involves urgency, not dragging our heals, gambling with the future.

When will we learn to draw a bigger temporal circle around our consideration of economy?

When will we truly recognize that the Orca are serving as indicators of environmental health and barometers of our value systems? The ultimate truth is that how we treat the whales will ultimately be how we treat ourselves, especially future generations.

We are all consumers and voters here. We are all empowered to influence change.

Photo: Member of the endangered Southern Residents in Blackfish Sound, ©Jackie Hildering.

From the news release: “VANCOUVER ISLAND CHAMBERS UNITE TO PROTECT MARINE-BASED TOURISM FOLLOWING FEDERAL SRKW CRITICAL HABITAT ZONE EXTENSION
In an effort to protect their communities, the Chambers of Alberni Valley, Bamfield, Campbell River, Chemainus & District, Comox Valley, Duncan-Cowichan, Ladysmith, Greater Nanaimo, Parksville & District, Port Hardy, Port McNeill & District, Port Renfrew, Qualicum Beach, Sooke, Tofino-Long Beach, Ucluelet and WestShore have united to form a coalition called Thriving Orcas, Thriving Coastal Communities . . .
As British Columbians who are now concerned about the survival of our own businesses and communities, we urge the federal government to slow down the implementation of any additional management measures, take the time to get the science right and engage coastal stakeholders,” said Ablack. “Potential restrictive management measures, such as a fin fish closure, that are based on faulty data and limited science could end up destroying our communities and do nothing to help the orcas. On the other hand, a carefully considered multi-faceted approach that includes deeper investments in restoration, enhancement, science and monitoring could ensure that orcas and coastal communities thrive* together as we have for generations.”

[*Note: The Orca are NOT thriving.]

PRISMM – survey to estimate distribution and abundance of marine megafauna off British Columbia

PRISMM = the Pacific Region International Survey of Marine Megafauna.

Yes, I now have a t-shirt with “marine megafauna” on it which I consider a measure of a very happy and fortunate life. I was a spotter on PRISMM for two weeks. Colleagues were aboard for up to six consecutive weeks.

 

“Scientists board the CCGS John P. Tully at the Institute of Ocean Sciences. July 3, 2018”. Photo by Darren Stone, Times Colonist / Vancouver Sun. Source: Vancouver Sun.

 

The survey, led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Cetacean Research Program, is aimed at determining the distribution and abundance of marine mammal’s in Canadian Pacific Waters. It involves ten weeks of surveying and two research vessels (two weeks overlapping between the two vessels).

Vessel #1. Now complete: Six weeks (July 3rd to August 13th) were surveyed from the CCGS John P.Tully (69 m), covering more than 6,000 km of BC’s offshore waters. In addition to a visual survey effort, an acoustic array was towed 24 hours a day to allow for the detection of deep diving cetaceans such as Sperm Whales and species of beaked whales and to provide detection of additional species when sighting conditions were poor.

Vessel 2. Ongoing: Four weeks (August 6th to September 6th) are being surveyed from the CCGS Tanu (51m long). These weeks will focus on BC’s coastal waters.


The maps below show the area covered by the Tully – from the west coast of Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii to 200-nautical-miles (370 km) offshore (to the edge of Canada’s exclusive economic zone). The Tanu is covering the waters on the inside of Haida Gwaii and Vancouver Island.

 

The lines show all the transects to be systematically covered by survey effort from the Tully i.e. the vessel travelled each of these lines to allow visual and acoustic survey effort.

 

Photo by Robin Abernethy, DFO, shows what area had been covered about five weeks into the PRISMM survey. Every dot represents a sighting. 

 

Detail about the PRISMM Survey from Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s website.
“Surveys of this magnitude have been conducted before by DFO in Atlantic Canada and the Central Arctic, but not in Canadian Pacific waters . . . The objective is to obtain data for as many cetacean species (e.g. whales, dolphins, and porpoises) as possible, as well as other marine species (seals and sea lions, sharks, sea turtles). [Hence “marine megafauna” as not all species are marine mammals.] Important research identified for these species include the assessment of population status, abundance trends and seasonal distribution. The emphasis will be on estimating abundance of marine mammal populations, which requires systematic surveys of all waters off British Columbia. However, this survey also provides a chance to refine our knowledge of the critical habitat of species listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), and for observation of species not listed under SARA, on which there has been less research effort in the past.”

 

Mola mola were among the marine megafauna surveyed. Photo taken during first two weeks of PRISMM. 

 

This is not the first line transect survey conducted by the Cetacean Research Program off British Columbia’s coast. For many years, surveys have been conducted for two weeks in spring and two weeks in summer. It is also important to acknowledge that the Raincoast Conservation Foundation conducted surveys of coastal BC waters (the area being covered by Tanu during PRISMM) in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008 publishing much-valued abundance estimates for Harbour and Dall’s Porpoises, Pacific White-Sided Dolphins, Humpback, Minke and Fin Whales and contributing to the knowledge of line transect survey methodology.

The catalyst for the more extensive and systematic PRISMM line transect survey is an American regulation, the Marine Mammal Import Provisions Rule, that went into effect on January 1st, 2017 (with a 5-year grace period). To comply with this regulation by January 1st, 2022, countries importing seafood into the United States must be able to prove their fisheries monitor and limit marine mammal bycatch with the same standards as U.S. fisheries are required to do under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Reportedly, such extensive surveys will be conducted every eight years (Source: Vancouver Sun).

 

In order to allow for the best possible abundance and distribution estimates, it is necessary to adhere to the line transects, consistent speed, and further protocols.Thereby, PRISMM did not involve some of the research objectives of past surveys where a smaller vessel is launched to achieve DNA sampling, identification of individual whales, and prey sampling.

 

Surveying. Chief Scientist Linda Nichol on “big eyes” and Hitomi Kimura on “little eyes”. Team member Caroline Fox surveying birds for Environment Canada.

 

Spotters relay sightings to the data recorder. Here, much bespectacled Bruce Paterson is on shift. 

 

In addition to the survey effort, moored acoustic recorders were retrieved and deployed during PRISMM. These Autonomous Multichannel Acoustic Recorders (AMARs) are moored deep below the surface (up to ~2,400m) to passively monitor for cetacean vocals (they do not send out any sound). They need to be retrieved to get the recorded data, allowing for acoustic detection of cetaceans, and to have their batteries replaced so they can be repositioned. The retrieval of AMARs is a thing of wonder.  The recorder with its buoy is released from the mooring when it receives a signal from the surface (i.e. has an acoustic release). You can imagine how much attention is paid to where the boat is positioned and how intently we are all waiting, looking for the device to surface.

An AMAR surfaces with the Tully deck crew ready to bring it aboard.

 

Bringing an AMAR on deck. Yellow devices contain the acoustic recorders. 

 

Four AMARs were successfully retrieved in the first two weeks of PRISMM. Here with DFO Research Technician and friend, Robin Abernethy.

 

Marine megafauna sighted to date include:

  • Blue Whales (endangered)
  • Sei Whales (endangered)
  • Fin Whales (threatened)
  • Humpback Whales (of special concern)
  • Grey Whales (of special concern however the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada has recommended three populations be recognized of which two be protected as endangered populations)
  • Minke Whales
  • Sperm Whales
  • Killer Whales (multiple ecotypes, threatened and endangered)
  • Short-Finned Pilot Whales
  • Risso’s Dolphins
  • Cuvier’s Beaked Whales
  • Baird’s Beaked Whales
  • Pacific White-Sided Dolphins
  • Northern Right Whale Dolphins
  • Dall’s Porpoises
  • Harbour Porpoises (of special concern)
  • Northern Elephant Seals
  • Steller Sea Lions (of special concern)
  • Pacific Harbour Seals
  • Northern Fur Seals
  • Sea Otters (of special concern)
  • Mola mola
  • Blue Sharks

The rarest of the rare have not been sighted to date on PRISMM:

  • North Pacific Right Whale (endangered)
  • Basking Shark (endangered)
  • Leatherback Turtle (endangered)

Humans involved in PRISMM:

Tully PRISMM Science crew July 3 to July 17: Back row left to right: Thomas Norris, Nicholas Riddoch, Kai Meyer, Elise Keppel, Robin Abernethy, Caroline Fox. Middle row left to right: Bruce Paterson, Jacklyn Barrs, Elizabeth Kusel, HItomi Kimura, John Ford, Ali Bowker. Kneeling in front left to right: your truly and Linda Nichol (Chief Scientist). 

 

Same crew with less serious poses. Those with the head phones are the acoustics team. Photo: Sheena Majewski. 

 

Tully PRISMM science crew July 17 to August 13. Yes, there may be a “Life Aquatic” theme here. Back row from left to right: Bruce Paterson, Erika Reigh Holland, Lisa Spaven, Thomas Doniol Valcroze (Chief Scientist), Wendy Szaniszlo, Christie McMillan, Kai Meyer, Robin Abernethy, Pina Gruden. Front row from left to right: Sheena Majewski, Karen Giouard, Kyla Graham, Elizabeth Kusel, Nicholas Riddoch. 

Tanu PRISMM Science crew August 6 to 15. Back row from left to right: Nicole Koshure, Ashley Kling, Caroline Fox, Alison Ogilvie and Anna Hall; Front row right to left:Hilari Dennis Bohm, Linda Nichol (Chief Scientist) and Ali Bowker. 

Tanu PRISMM Science crew August 25 to September 6. Back row from left to right: Robin Abernethy, Thomas Doniol Valcroze (Chief Scientist), Kai Meyer. Middle row: Janet Mossman, Lisa Spaven. Front row: Jacklyn Barrs, Alison Ogilivie and Bruce Paterson. 

Additional photos from my two weeks on PRISMM

Far off the west coast of Vancouver Island with ideal surveying conditions.

 

Fin Whale.

 

Blue Shark.

 

Black-Footed Albatross. There were so many amazing pelagic bird species includes Sooty and Pink-FootedShearwaters, Storm Petrels (Fork-Tailed and Leach’s) Mottled Petrel, Northern Fulmars, gull species including Sabine’s, South Polar Skua, Peregrine Falcon, Parasitic Jaegers, etc. 

 

Black-Footed Albatross lifting off. Wing span up to 2.4 m.

 

So many stunning sunrises and sunsets

 

Another sunset far offshore.

 

Humpback Whale.

 

West side of Haida Gwaii.

 

West side of Haida Gwaii.

 

Two Rock Doves hitching a ride. See them?

 

Dall’s Porpoises.

 

Docking in Port Hardy after two weeks at sea. Robin Abernethy left and Elise Keppel right. 

 

Till next time Tully!

Sources / related articles: 

Fisheries and Oceans Canada – Pacific Region International Survey of Marine Megafauna (PRISMM)

Global News, September 26, 2018, Endangered sei whales spotted in Canadian waters for first time since 1960s

The Conversation, January 10, 2017, New US seafood rule shows global trade and conservation can work together 

Vancouver Sun, April 11, 2018, Ottawa undertakes massive cetacean survey off B.C. coast to ensure continued fish exports to U.S 

R. Williams, M. G. Burgess, E. Ashe, S. D. Gaines, R. R. Reeves. U.S. seafood import restriction presents opportunity and riskScience, 2016; 354 (6318): 1372 DOI: 10.1126/science.aai8222

So many hardships endured. 😉 Hey, when you have a large crew out for many days in big seas, you need many flavours of ice cream! This was of course an exceptional event = the celebration of a team member’s birthday. Photo: John Ford.

Opalescent Nudibranch – 3 Distinct “Hermissenda” Species in the North Pacific Ocean.

As a result of making the following post on social media, I learned that there has been a change in classifying the “Opalescent Nudibranch”.

It was Robin Agarwal who educated me and shared the following incredible photo from Monterey, California.

As you can see, the species on the left is more similar to the one I posted and which we call the “Opalescent Nudibranch” in British Columbia.

However, it has been determined (2016) that there are 3 species in the “Hermissenda” genus (all are up to about 9 cm long). One is found in the Northwest Pacific Ocean from Japan to the Russian Far East so there is no worry about confusing that one on our coast.  But, for the other two species, their range overlaps in Northern California where Robin took the photo.

 

This has of course led to the need for two common names to differentiate them there. The species on the right is being referenced as the “Opalescent Nudibranch” (reinstating the species name Hermissenda opalescens). The one on the left has retained the name Hermissenda crassicornis and is being referenced as the “Thick-Horned Nudibranch” where the species ranges overlap.

However, off British Columbia’s coast we are only likely to see the species on the left with its range being from Alaska to Northern California. Thereby, I anticipate this beautiful species will keep on being referenced as the “Opalescent Nudibranch” in the vernacular.

What are the differences between these two species?  I am so glad you asked as I totally nerded out and made a summary table to differentiate the 3 species reported in the research “The Model Organism Hermissenda crassicornis (Gastropoda: Heterobranchia) Is a Species Complex“.

The table is just for you my fellow nudibranch nerds.

But, I’ll cut to the conclusion. Don’t be fooled by the colour of the two species found in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. The colour of the cerata in BOTH species can vary from light brown to dark brown to bright orange. Cerata are the structures on some sea slugs species’ backs that have both a respiratory and defence function. The tips contain the stinging cells (nematocysts) of the nudibranch’s prey e.g. hydroids.

The easy way to differentiate the two Hermissenda species in the Northeast Pacific Ocean, is to look for white lines on the cerata. The species most often found off the BC Coast has white lines. The other does not. See my photo below to note this easily identifiable feature (and, if you need some amusement, have a look for the little hermit crab).

 

And now, for that summary table I promised you.

Then, more photos of the beautiful Hermissenda species found off our coast – Hermissenda crassicornis.

I share these to show the variation of colour in the species  but also, because by any name and classification, there can never be enough photos of such a stunning ambassador for the colour and biodiversity found in these cold, dark seas.

Source of table information and photos: Lindsay, T., & Valdés, Á. (2016). The Model Organism Hermissenda crassicornis (Gastropoda: Heterobranchia) Is a Species Complex. PLoS ONE, 11(4), e0154265. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0154265. Click to enlarge.

Feeding on Orange Hydroids. ©Jackie Hildering.

Hermissensa crassicornis feeding on Bushy Pink-Mouth Hydroids. Red-Gilled Nudibranch also snacking away in the background.©Jackie Hildering.

Hermissensa crassicornis on Eel Grass. ©Jackie Hildering.

With a “Jointed Three-Section Tubeworm”. ©Jackie Hildering.

Feeding on hydroids, Red Soft Corals to the left and crawling on a Red Ascidian (highly advanced invertebrate, the most advanced of all in the image). ©Jackie Hildering.

Hermissensa crassicornis feeding on Pink-Mouth Hydroids. Here you can very clearly see the distinctive white lines on the cerata. ©Jackie Hildering.

Hermissensa crassicornis on Bull Kelp. Hooded Nudibranchs in the background. ©Jackie Hildering.

On Red Soft Coral. ©Jackie Hildering.

Hermissensa crassicornis on Solitary Pink-Mouth Hydroid. ©Jackie Hildering

Hermissensa crassicornis egg mass. ©Jackie Hildering

Who Goes There? Dizzying tracks in the sand.

Let me take you on a little mystery that filled me with big wonder, inspiration and happiness.

It goes back to July of 2017 when I was naturalist around Haida Gwaii with Maple Leaf Adventures.

Let’s make it a photo essay.

To set the stage, here’s the boat and the crew.

Crew from left to right: Mate -Lynsey Rebbetoy, Deckhand -Terese Ayre, Naturalist -You-Know-Who, Captain- Ashley Stokes, Chef -Yasmin Ashi.

You’ll note that the beautiful, historic sailing ship was operated by an all female crew on this trip. Important to note? Yes, but let me not digress.

Here’s the beach at Woodruff Bay near Cape St. James.

The discovery was made by the child I was so glad was on the trip.

Meet Kay from Germany.

Like any smart, curious and observant young person would, she asked what had made the crazy, convoluted patterns in the sand.

Here’s a closer look . . .

. . . and an even closer look.

I didn’t know what species had made those remarkable, dizzying tracks. But, the best things had come together – a mystery, a child, and the chance to discover the answer together.

We struck out to solve the mystery and found lots of little clam shells near the tracks.


We looked more closely at the tracks.

And found the tiny clams IN the tracks.

And then we noted what they were doing. They were licking the sand!

We had found the animal that was making the tracks and concluded the tiny clams must be feeding on organic material in this way. It is known as “deposit feeding” whereby the bivalves use their inhalant siphons to sweep the sand for detritus and microbes = snacks.

We were in awe at thinking of how much sand they must process to leave such long individual tracks and that they must be doing this quite quickly.

Upon returning to the ship, I was able to use the resources there to determine that the tiny clam was some species a “Tellin”.

However, it took my emailing my mollusc expert friends to have the species of Tellin confirmed.

Naturalist supreme, Bill Merilees, let me know I had “met British Columbia’s most beautiful clam Tellina nuculoides, the Salmon Tellin.” He also shared the results of his work to study their growth rings (imagine the dedication needed to count the growth rings of a large sample of tiny clams.) Bill’s research suggests Salmon Tellins can live to age 11 or 12.

Armed with their species name, I was able to find out a bit more.Their maximum size is 2 cm and their range is from southern Alaska to northern California. I presume the “salmon” in their common name refers to their beautiful colour.

I became even more awe-inspired to learn that research supports that bivalves like Tellins select particles based on physical and/or chemical properties that are poorly understood! (Source: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jembe.2004.03.002.)

Imagine THAT while you watch my blurry video of the Salmon Tellins licking the sand.

To conclude, I will resist all the puns I could be using to be “tellin” it like it is. (Oops, clearly I am not entirely successful in resisting.)

Rather, I will share the quote with which mollusc expert Rick Harbo responded when I asked him about the species and their tracks.

He reflected on the tracks made by mollusc species who feed in this way with the words of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings  . . .

“All who wander are not lost”.

 

The happiness that comes with connection to nature and making discoveries – Kay with a boa of “Feather Boa Kelp” that had washed onto the beach. Be on the lookout for Salmon Tellins on a fine sand beach from Alaska to California. Note that other mollusc species (and worms, some sea slugs, etc) also leave tracks in the sand. More on other trail-blazing species in the future. 

Not a Show. Not a Breach. Not a Surprise.

There’s another viral video showing a Humpback Whale very close to a boat.

Here it is, posted on YouTube in June of 2017. Since, it has been used as “click bait” by many news outlets with little to no consideration of the impacts of rewarding bad boater behaviour.

Media coverage includes statements like the following:

“Humpback breaches next to boat”. This whale is not breaching. This whale is feeding; using a strategy called “lunge-feeding”.

– “Boaters in the right place at the right time“. No they are not.

“Whale puts on a show for boaters”. Deepest of sighs – whales do not put on shows for humans in the wild. They are carrying out their lives. In this case, a whale is trying to engulf as many small schooling fish as possible. At the time of this video, the spring, whales are particularly hungry. Likely this Humpback is recently back from the breeding grounds where there is little to no food for them.

“Whale surprises boaters”. This cannot have been a complete surprise. As you can see, their cameras were at the ready. This suggests they knew there was at least one whale in the area and likely the whale had already been feeding at the surface. There would also have been a lot of active sea birds as a clue that there was a density of fish in the area, and thereby a much increased chance of whale presence.

[Update: Via various media sources, it is confirmed that the boaters knew the whale was in the area and that they chose to move closer e.g. “Paul Ziolkowski told WABC his family and friends had been fishing for a couple of hours . . . . and saw the whale a couple of times. The whale was about 60 yards away when they decided to move a little closer to get a better view . . . ” Longer versions of the video also show they had a fishing line in the water when doing so which exposes the whale to further risk.]

It can only be hoped that the result of this video going viral leads to increased awareness of how unpredictably Humpbacks can surface; that they can be astoundingly oblivious of boats; and that they really need their space. Toothed whales like Orca have biosonar. So many boaters are not aware that baleen whales like Humpbacks do not have this biosonar. So many are not even aware that Humpback Whales are now very commonly encountered close to our coasts, having made a remarkable and very recent return from the brink of extinction.

For the sake of whale AND boater safety,  please click here for the Marine Education and Research Society’s “See a Blow? Go Slow!” campaign to reduce the risk of collision with whales.

See www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org to reduce risk of collision with whales.

 

Key points include:

 

Another deep sigh –  “The Dodo” put the following video into the world  with the text “Whales Surprise Guy on Kayak. This guy had the cutest reaction when whales surprised him up close.”

No. Just no. This too could NOT have been a surprise. The birds are an indicator of the presence of feed and the whales would have surfaced previously, feeding in the area. This is a boater getting in the way of feeding whales and putting himself at risk. This is another case of the media rewarding boater bad behaviour for the sake of views / “click bait”. 

Enough is enough! Your help needed to stop disturbance of marine mammals in Canada

Update July 11, 2018: Amended Marine Mammal Regulations posted at http://gazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p2/2018/2018-07-11/html/sor-dors126-eng.html. FINALLY, FINALLY they include the following:

    • Disturbance is defined.
      “ Disturb includes to approach the marine mammal to, or to attempt to:
      (a) feed it;
      (b) swim with it or interact with it;
      (c) move it or entice or cause it to move from the immediate vicinity in which it is found . . .
      (e) trap it or its group between a vessel and the shore or between a vessel and one or more other vessels . . .”
    •  In addition to a minimum approach distance of 200m for all Killer Whales in BC and the Pacific Ocean, there is a 100m general distance for all marine mammals. However, the distance must be 200m if a whale, dolphin or porpoise is resting or with its calf.
    • Mandatory reporting of collisions and accidental contact between marine mammals and vessels or fishing gear.

Original post form May 2017:
You’ve seen it haven’t you, the video of the little girl getting pulled into the water by a sea lion habituated to people feeding him?

18588743_10155592674299218_1830232447761924957_o

And  . . . you’re likely baffled and outraged that there has been no penalization for those humans misguided enough to cause this habituation?

Please then, while there is so much public attention on this “incident” and the limits of the current Canadian Marine Mammal Regulations, let’s make it count.

Let’s ensure that the amendments that would much improve these regulations are FINALLY passed into law. It will take less than 5 minutes of your time to help, I promise. But I need to provide a bit of background to maximize our chances of succeeding. If you are already aware of the limitations, click here to go directly to “This Is How We Create Change”.

The Problem:
Currently, the Marine Mammal Regulations under the Fisheries Act (Section 7) state “No person shall disturb a marine mammal  . . .” but there is no definition of disturbance. Thereby, there are significant limitations to prosecuting people whose behaviour puts marine mammals at risk e.g. an expert witness is needed to testify that a marine mammal was indeed “disturbed”.  

KW_2016-09-08_JH_Wastell Islands-12598

Vessel under power and almost on top of a member of the A30 matriline of Northern Residents (Threatened population). Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

The Solution:
The solution has been available since 2004 but has yet to be entered into law by the Federal Government.  That’s right, 13 years ago, the “Regulations Amending the Marine Mammal Regulations” were drafted. I was part of the process. They have twice gone through a public review process and still  . . . no action.

They are incredibly solid and will allow for b
etter prevention, enforcement and understanding of threats to Canada’s marine mammals because they: 

  • Define “disturbance” as “approaching the marine mammal to (a) feed it; (b) swim with it or otherwise interact with it; (c) move it or entice or cause it to move from the immediate vicinity in which it is found; or (d) tag or mark it.”
  • Specify minimum approach distances to marine mammals for boats and aircraft e.g. that boats must stay at minimum of 100m away.
  • Require reporting to DFO of any accidental contact with a marine mammal (e.g. entanglement or collision).

These regulations would of course also reduce risk to humans e.g. the girl being pulled into the water by a habituated sea lion and injury to boaters as a result of colliding with a whale.

Vessel at high speed near Northern Resident Orca (Threatened population). Did not slow down while clearly aware of the whale’s presence, and presumably, the potential of other whales being in the area. Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

Here’s How We Make Change

Please, contact your Member of Parliament and insist upon these regulations being passed into law. 

You can find their contact information by clicking this link.

In case it is of help, here is sample text that could be used:

“I am aware of the limitations of the current Marine Mammal Regulations and that, for more than a decade, amendments have existed that would much improve the protection of Canada’s marine mammals (many of which are at risk). It is unacceptable that the Federal Government has yet to pass these into law. Thereby, I ask you, as my Member of Parliament, to urgently undertake action to enable the “Regulations Amending the Marine Mammal Regulations” to come into force. If further background is needed to understand why there is such urgency, see this link https://themarinedetective.com/2017/05/24/enough-is-enough.”

Please also share this information so that more will contact their MPs.

How’s this for astoundingly misguided behaviour? Boats are to remain at least 100m away from seal and sea lion haulouts and rookeries. Steller Sea Lions are protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Male California Sea Lion being hand fed. Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

HW_2016-09-29_JH_White Cliffs-13974

Boat at high speed in proximity of Humpback Whales “Slash” (BCY0177) and her 2016 calf (on left). Collision is a serious risk for whales AND boaters. Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

Background:
A video went into the world on May 20th, 2017 entitled “Killer Sea lion drags girl into Steveston waters” (Steveston, British Columbia). When it was brought to my attention, I posted the following on social media:

“NOT a “Killer Sea Lion”. Rather – misguided humans. Please help educate around why a mature male California Sea Lion grabbed a child that was allowed within a metre of him. This is absolutely not natural behaviour. THIS is indisputably a sea lion that has been fed and habituated to humans. This is predictable. By humans not respecting the wild, the wild loses wariness, associates humans with food (or some other “reward”), and most often . . . loses entirely. THIS is yet another reason why the amendments to the marine mammal regulations should finally be passed by our government. They define “disturbance” and enter into law . . . no feeding, no swimming with, no touching, stay 100m away, etc (they have been drafted since 2004!).  Please, if you witness marine mammal distress or disturbance (includes feeding) call the Incident Reporting Line 1-800-465-4336.” 

The resounding response of outrage to the incident is what has led to my believing that we can make this count; that we can ride this wave of awareness to have the amended regulations passed.

Thank you so much for caring as you do and helping to ensure the protection of Canada’s marine mammals.

For best practices to avoid disturbance of marine mammals see www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org

Close passes like this contribute to habitation; animals losing their wariness; and the disruption of life processes like feeding, nursing and resting. Photo: ©Jackie Hildering.

The A23s – the Story of One Whale Family

A43 "Ripple" of the A23 matriline. @2015 Jackie Hildering.

A43 “Ripple” of the A23s, August 22, 2015. @Jackie Hildering.

The A23 matriline of Northern Resident Killer Whales / Orca has been seen by thousands and thousands of people.

They are one of the families that most often chase salmon in the Johnstone Strait area (NE Vancouver Island) and therefore, have been observed and photographed by so many whale watchers and have been studied by researchers since the early 1970s.

They are also featured in the documentary “Realm of the Killer Whales” for which the PBS film crew, under special permit in 1997, was able to get remarkable footage of the A23s beach-rubbing in the Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve (see this link for underwater footage of beach-rubbing – as of timestamp 48:15).

A23 Matriline Quick Facts
Members of the N. Resident population; ~295 whales (end 2015); threatened population.
– “Residents” do not stay in one area; they are inshore fish-eating Killer Whales. Prefer salmon, especially Chinook. They often share their catches. 
– They stay with mother, siblings and offspring their whole lives.
– Mating can happen when different N. Resident matrilines come together but, ultimately, males leave with their family and females leave with theirs.
– Each matriline sounds different; aiding in determining degree of relatedness and avoiding inbreeding.
– Only the N. Residents have the culture of rubbing on smooth, stone beaches. Click here for more.
– In BC there are also S. Resident Killer Whales (endangered); and mammal-eating and offshore fish-eating populations (both threatened).
– Only the N. Residents have the culture of rubbing on smooth, stone beaches. Click here for more.
– See this link for more on the kinds of Killer Whale populations in BC.

So many human eyes have been cast upon them, but so few of us are aware of what this family has endured. This is the story of the A23s, and what one Killer Whale family’s history reveals about us.

Knowledge about the A23 matriline goes back to at least 1969 when we did not even know that there are different populations of Killer Whales with distinct culture. We also sure didn’t have knowledge of their intelligence, long-lived family bonds, and limited numbers (all Killer Whale populations in BC are at risk).

Here’s some sample text from around 1969 that gives a sense of who we were at the time:

  • From “Killer Whale!“, the 1963 book by Joseph J. Cook and William J. Wisner:
    • . . . the fiercest, most terrifying animal in all the world  . . . capable of attacking anything that swims, no matter how large. They are afraid of nothing, not even boats or ships.”
    • “The killer whale is well designed for a career of destruction and mayhem”.
    • “How different the orca, which seems to be filled with a burning hatred. Nothing that lives or moves in the water is safe from its assaults. It’s size, power, speed, agility and disposition have made this black monster feared wherever it is known.
  • And from 1973 US Navy diving manuals:
    • Killer Whales are “extremely ferocious” 
and will “attack human beings at every opportunity”.

Extremely ferocious? Terrifying? Monster? Designed for a career of destruction and mayhem?

Please see below for my summary of what the A23s are known to have endured since 1969 (based largely on the longterm population study by DFO’s Cetacean Research Program).

A23s story of one family www.TheMarineDetective.com

Summary of the known history of the A23 matriline. Click to enlarge.

Note that at least three family members were hunted down and captured; one is still in captivity (poor Corky’s been there for 46 years!); and two or three have been hit by boats. Further, it is very likely that family members were shot at and possibly killed but that this has not been documented because the late Dr. Michael Bigg only began his revolutionary work to study Killer Whales as individuals in 1973. It is not known how A27, A29 or A63 died.

Oh Corky! The longest surviving Killer Whale in captivity.
–  On December 11th, 1969 A23 “Stripe” and her calves, A21 and A16 “Corky”, were among 12 whales captured at Pender Harbour, BC. Six were released including A23 and A21 and six were retained to be sold to aquariums – this included “Corky”, desirable as a young female who might give birth in captivity.
– In 1977, she indeed was the first to conceive and give birth in captivity. She has been pregnant 7 times but none of her calves survived beyond 46 days.
– Corky is still in captivity today in San Diego, 46 years later.
– Read more about Corky from OrcaLab at this link (click “Corky Campaign” and then “Corky’s Story”).

There is a firsthand account of the 1973 ferry accident, which most likely involved A21, that provides insight into the bonds between Killer Whales. It is from Killer Whales  – The Natural History & Genealogy of Orcinus orca in British Columbia & Washington State by Dr. John Ford, Graeme Ellis and Kenneth Balcomb (1997): “The following is an account of a collision between a ship and a killer whale that demonstrates the persistence of the whales in helping one of their pod mates. It is drawn from a letter written by Captain D. Manuel of the M/V Comox Queen . . . the ship was en route from Comox to Powell River on 26 December 1973:   . . . .  It was a very sad scene to see. The cow and the bull cradled the injured calf between them to prevent it from turning upside-down. Occasionally the bull would lose its position and the calf would roll over on its side. When this occurred the slashes caused by our propellor were quite visible. The bull, when this happened, would make a tight circle, submerge, and rise slowly beside the calf, righting it . . . While this was going on the other calf stayed right behind the injured one . . . It appears the young whale did live for at least fifteen days. We later received a report from a resident of Powell River, who, on 10 January 1974, observed “two whales supporting a third one, preventing it from turning over.”

In having the great privilege of often seeing Killer Whales in the wild, it is so powerful to recognize a family like the A23s and be aware of what they have endured. Granted, some tragedy was accidental, but so much was the result of our ignorance and vilification.

The A23s from the Photo-identification Catalogue and Status of the 
Northern Resident Killer Whale Population in 2014. 
J.R. Towers, G.M. Ellis and J.K.B. Ford. Click to enlarge.

The A23 matriline from “Photo-identification Catalogue and Status of the 
Northern Resident Killer Whale Population in 2014”. 
J.R. Towers, G.M. Ellis and J.K.B. Ford. Click to enlarge.

But the story of the A23s also provides insight into how we have changed, now that knowledge has replaced fear and the fallacy of the “educational value” of Killer Whales being in captivity has been exposed as desire for commercial gain.

We’ve come a long way. As an indicator of this, on December 11th, 1969, members of the A23 matriline were being pursued and captured for captivity. Yesterday, 46 years later (January 14th, 2016), in the wilds of Johnstone Strait, the A23s (and A25s) were being studied by Jared Towers of the DFO Cetacean Research Program. Continuing the work pioneered by Dr. Bigg, he photo-documented them, took note of how the vessel-strike scars were healing (see photos below), and collected prey samples so that winter diet may be better understood.

A23s on November 9th, 2015. Photo: Jackie Hildering.

A23s on November 9th, 2015. Photo: Jackie Hildering.

The Killer Whales of British Columbia have been studied as individuals in this way longer than any other marine mammal. The knowledge gained has led to where we are now. For the most part, there is no social license/tolerance for Killer Whales being in captivity. There is federal legislation aimed at the protection of BC’s Killer Whale populations and their habitat. They are not to be disturbed as per the Be Whale Wise guidelines and there is global interest in them with evidence of this including the contribution whale watching makes to BC’s economy.

Now, the dominant perceptions are that Killer Whales are iconic; powerful symbols of all that is wild and free; and that it is remarkable, considering our complicated history with them, that there has never been a documented attack by a Killer Whale on a human in the wild. Many of us would agree that the descriptors “ferocious”, “terrifying”, “monster” and “designed for a career of destruction and mayhem” are better applied to humans than Killer Whales when we act with ignorance, greed, and disconnect from nature.

What story will the next 46 years tell – about us, about them?

I am so hopeful that we will better understand how our use of contaminants and fossil fuels impacts them, and the rest the marine ecosystem upon which human health also depends.

Thereby, there will be more positive stories for our future generations – and future generations of the A23 matriline.

 

A23 and A25 matrilines in Johnstone Strait, January 14, 2016. ©Jared Towers, DFO Cetacean Research Program.

A23 and A25 matrilines were in Johnstone Strait, January 13 and 14, 2016. Photo from August 26, 2015. From front to back: A60, A69, A109, A43, A61. Photo: Jared Towers, DFO Cetacean Research Program; taken with telephoto lens under research permit.

A60 vessel strike scarring

A95 vessel strike scars