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Posts from the ‘MARINE MEGAFAUNA’ category

Wild Whales Don’t Play Rugby

Wild whales don’t play fetch with rugby balls and . . .
Belugas do not live in Antarctic waters. 

Likely many of you have seen the video of the Beluga Whale “playing fetch” with a rugby ball.

The following is a screen grab from one of the many, many news agencies that enabled this video. I added the text “What on Earth is going on here” and posted it on social media on November 8th to try to stop the very erroneous information being spread.

 

My initial text accompanying the post was: “This one makes my head and my heart hurt. Likely you’ve seen it, the video of a “wild” Beluga playing catch with a rugby ball? Two points not being addressed by those reporting this: (1) This is being reported as being in Antarctica but Belugas don’t live in Antarctica. (2) This is not natural / spontaneous behaviour. This is a whale habituated to humans and boats which is anything but heart-warming.”

Then I went digging. The pieces came together very quickly as they would have had news agencies been able to fact-check appropriately. I also received information from organizations and individuals in Norway confirming details.

I am now sharing the information here as it better allows me to provide sources and update when further information becomes available.


What I learned:

The video is from near Hammerfest, Norway.

The whale is “Hvaldimir” the Beluga found off northern Norway in April of 2019 with a harness marked “Equipment of St. Petersburg” (as confirmed by the Hvaldimir Foundation). This whale has been referenced as “the Russian spy whale”. Likely Hvaldimir’s training would have included being rewarded with food when retrieving objects.

There are efforts to have Hvaldimir adjust to being in the wild. Initially this included the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries issuing official approval for the Norwegian Orca Survey to feed him since he was malnourished. I found a Norwegian news item that referenced that he has been hit by a boat at least once. 

The boat in the video is a “Gemini” (made in Cape Town, South Africa), is the tender for the vessel the “Danah Explorer”.  The vessel is currently still in Norwegian waters. 

Danah Divers, are a research body linked to the Save Our Seas Foundation. There is email correspondence to the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries apologizing for recent misguided behaviour while in northern Norway. These actions perpetuate habituation of the whale and reduce his chances to feed for himself and, as aforementioned, are contrary to Norwegian efforts to rehabilitate the whale.

The identity of the person initially throwing the ball is known to me but I am choosing not to share the identity. The logo on the jacket is from Danah Divers / the Danah Explorer.

 

Above: Screen grab from the Hvaldimir Foundation’s website – solid resource for the history on this whale and the efforts to rehabilitate him to the wild.


How did this get erroneously get connected to South Africa and Antarctica?

I cannot find the original posting of the video. I did originally see if with very little text but that version now seems to have been deleted. Where it really seems to have taken off is when re-uploaded (without credit / source) on Facebook by two non-associated people:

November 7th, initially posted with the text “Playing fetch with an Irrawaddy Dolphin as you do. How sweet is this?” Yep, the Beluga was referenced as being an Irrawaddy Dolphin by the person who re-uploaded the video from who knows where. She then edited the text to: “Playing fetch with a Beluga Whale as you do. How sweet is this?!” A further edit added the text: “The video is of a South African crew enjoying the company of a Beluga whale, while sailing near the North Pole. I did not take this video, nor do I know who took the video, but wanted to share an extraordinary moment caught on camera.” Since November 11th, the post has been updated to acknowledge the whale is Hvaldimir.

November 6th, someone used the video to associate it with South Africa winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup on November 2nd. He framed the video as being: “Beluga Whale celebrating the Springboks victory somewhere close to the South Pole! Spot the Cape Town build Gemini Craft and the South African accents.” The accents and jargon of the people on the boat are indeed South African, the brand of the boat is South African and the ball is indeed a 2019 official Rugby World Cup ball. But, this was NOT filmed near the South Pole. 

Above: The range of Beluga Whales – only in Arctic seas, NOT near Antarctica. Source: Delphinapterus leucasThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017


Why is this important?

I understand of course that the video would have appeal to many and that not all would immediately realize that this cannot be wild behaviour.

As stated so well by some on my social media post:

Thanks for that info. People, like myself, cannot help but want to imagine some sort of kinship and bond with animals and we go all mushy when we see this sort of thing, but nevertheless, this story did tickle my brain as being somehow off or wrong. Thanks for scratching that tickle.”

and

I am a land person. I don’t know much about marine creatures, but learn a lot from following scientists and researchers on social media. I know wild land mammals play with things (the foxes in my yard jump on the neighbor’s trampoline and play with his dog’s toys, and we’ve caught the bear playing on the swing set.) so while playing fetch seems unlikely, for someone who knows little about these animals (where they live, what they do etc) I didn’t know to be outraged or even concerned . . .

Why I have made the effort to “solve” this however is because truth, science and facts are at risk. This is an example of that reality and of the atrophying of fact-checking by media agencies. A very quick search for the range of Beluga Whales would have led to the “clue” that this was false information.

Therefore, there is the dire need for critical thinking. We live in a world of overwhelm and “fake news” being using as a defence rather than a truth. There are dizzying news cycles where so much is just a tweet and/or share away. Compounding this is that technology allows us to photoshop reality to further misguide, misinform and manipulate.

If we do not realize this to be current reality, we are unwilling participants in the spread of misinformation. Where we need to be a force insisting on fact-checking and quality reporting, instead we inadvertently fuel media being under-resourced, under-researched and prone to “click-bait. We become complicit in feeding the misinformation monster and how that shapes attitudes and actions.

I also believe it is important to understand that interactions with humans as shown in this video cannot be spontaneous nor natural and to realize how such content promotes the want of proximity that does not serve wild animals.

This is a further attempt to stand for facts in a time that it is critical to do so.


Further information: 

Colleen Gorman of “The Orca Project”, Facebook post November 8, 2019:
“Remember that video of the beluga going all over the Internet chasing a football yesterday? Well my friend Colin or Quad_Finn on Twitter, a marine animal researcher who I reached out to right away, and I, were right the whole time. This is a whale from Russia that was trained by the military and then got loose. The girl . . .  got 700K+ shares and millions of views copied (stole) the video with no credit given – for attention. She should think twice before stealing video and spreading it around. It’s not cute and it’s not funny . . .  they should know better than playing around with a beluga and trying to make it seem like they’re out to play with humans. They never travel alone . . Hvaldimir the Beluga is like Luna (L98), the orphaned juvenile Southern Resident orca who also sought out humans for social interaction instead of his conspecifics. As with Luna, such familiarity and dependence on humans will all but inevitably end in tragedy.”

TimesLive, November 7, 2019,  “Bok gees has even reached a beluga whale in the Arctic Circle“:
The voices in the clip are clearly South African . . .The man throwing the ball for the beluga is wearing a tracksuit with the logo of the Danah Explorer, a marine research vessel which is currently in Norwegian waters. TimesLIVE tracked down the vessel to the harbour at Tromsø, Norway — but not the people who created the video. A number of South African divers and researchers work with the Danah Divers, a research body linked to the Save Our Seas Foundation. The SoS-linked Danah Explorer and Danah Divers share a logo.
The boat from which the ball is thrown is a small landing craft with the logo of Cape Town boatbuilding company Gemini Marine visible. Gemini marketing manager Gerhard Neethling has said he would investigate the boat’s possible links to his company.”

Quad-Finn, November 9, 2019 in a Twitter post: “The Danah Explorer is a yacht owned by Abdulmohsen Abdulmalik Al-Sheikh. He’s the founder of the Save Our Seas Foundation. The logo on the back of jacket of the man throwing the rugby ball to Hvaldimir is that of Danah Divers”

IFLScience!; November 11, 2019; “That Viral Video Of A Beluga Whale Playing Fetch Is Probably Not What It Seems

Good News Network; November 13, 2019; “Hope on Horizon for Escaped ‘Russian Spy Whale‘ After Video of Its Rugby Skills Goes Viral”
“Many conservationists have shunned the more recent viral video as a whimsical depiction of a grim situation—but its online fame has helped to create hope for Hvaldimir on the horizon . . .For the last three months, Advocates for Hvaldimir has been keeping track of the cetacean’s activity in order to make sure that he is faring well on his own. Regina Crosby, who is a co-founding member of the group, says they are now working with two other environmental groups to try to relocate Hvaldimir to a different oceanic region so he can potentially reintegrate with a pod of belugas for a better chance at survival . . .Crosby and Advocates for Hvaldimir have since begun collecting donations from the beluga’s internet fans in order to finance his relocation. Since the Norwegian government recently granted permission to the wildlife advocates to relocate the famous cetacean, they are now hoping to continue working with legislators to transport Hvaldimir this winter.”

NRK Finmark, September 12, 2019, “Hvaldimir is ill and has been injured: – Several have thrown planks and other things after him” (translated article on the negative impacts from human interactions with Hvaldmir).


 

How Will We Look Back in Another 55 Years?

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Care more. Use less.

DO MORE . . .   #ForTheWhales.



Sources and additional information about Moby Doll:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Werner, M. T. (2010). What the whale was : orca cultural histories in British Columbia since 1964 (T). University of British Columbia. Retrieved from https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/ubctheses/24/items/1.0071537

Abseiling Sea Snail

Go ahead, say that 5 times “abseiling sea snail, abseiling sea snail, abseiling sea snail . . .”

Now that you’ve warmed up and possibly developed a lisp, here are some details about a marine snail species that can climb, has an incredible sense of smell, and can deter much bigger predators.

Meet the Wrinkled Amphissia. No, I do not make up these names.

Amphissa columbiana can be up to 3 cm long, and is also known as the “Wrinkled Dove Snail”. 

 

Climbing

In this species, a gland near the foot secretes thick mucus that allows them to climb up and down and suspend themselves in the sea.

See the two photos below. I know it is so difficult to see the mucus strand.

Scavenging

Where are they abseiling to?

These marine snails are big time scavengers and are very active, using their long siphon to smell out the dead (photo below shows the siphon well).

It appears they can detect the chemicals of decay incredibly well in the water. Often a pile of them are scavenging together.

Wrinkled Amphissa amid Fringed Filament-Worms. If you look really closely you can even see some of the snail’s eggs attached the shell of the snail in the foreground. ©Jackie Hildering.

 

From Braidwaithe et al 2017 regarding feeding. “They appear to locate food resources primarily through chemosensory cues, often following conspecific mucus trails and sometimes congregating around actively feeding sea stars. The chemical cues that draw A. columbiana to food act as feeding stimulants; the addition of scent from a damaged animal induced the snails to feed on healthy prey. The ability to sense chemical cues from damaged animals, including those being consumed by feeding sea stars, creates scavenging opportunities other gastropods may be unable to exploit.”

 

Wrinkled Amphissa aggregation scavenging on a dead Rat Fish. The much larger snails feeding here are Oregon Tritons (Fusitron oregonensis to 13 cm long).The Tritons might follow the scent trails of the Amphissas to the food!

 

Photo above and below. Wrinkled Amphissas and Oregon Tritons snacking on a dead Lingcod. Nothing is wasted in the wild. ©Jackie Hildering.

Biting

They also have a wicked defense against sea stars where they insert their mouth parts (proboscis) into one of the grooves on the underside of the arms of predatory sea stars, biting a nerve.

From Braidwaithe et al  2010″The injury, which generally repelled the attacking sea star, immobilized the affected arm, rendering it useless for several days. The biting defense appears to be effective against several sea star species and may reduce predation on A. columbiana.” Some crab species do feed on them. 

Such remarkable adaptations in a sea of remarkable organisms which means I will be writing blogs and allotting abundant alliteration for a long, long time to come.


Adapting over thousands of years

I am sharing the photo below to give a sense of the diversity in the mollusc phylum to which snails belong.

“Mollis” means soft in Latin and the molluscs are our soft-bodied terrestrial and marine invertebrate neighbours. Their phylum is the second largest (the insects take first place). Note that all the organisms in this photo start off as larvae in the planktonic soup of the Ocean.

You can imagine how excited I was to chance upon  5 highly diverse marine mollusc species in one small area.

 

Details about the species in the photo:

– To the left of the Wrinkled Amphissa is a Keyhole Limpet who makes its own hat-like shell and grazes on rocks (preferred diet is bryozoans). Limpet species need to suction down hard on a flat surface because they do not have a shell to cover its underside. The individual here is in a risky position as a predator could easily flip and consume limpet. Too cool not to share with you is that engineers have found that the “teeth”  of limpets (the radula) are made of the strongest biological material ever tested (and the teeth are less than a millimetre long)! Note that marine snails like the Wrinkled Amphissa are protected not only by a shell, but they have an operculum which serves like a door to close the entrance to the shell when the snails withdrawn into its shell.

– Below the Wrinkled Amphissa, a Blue-Lined Chiton. Chitons make 8 plates to protect themselves. They are grazers like limpets. They too need to be able to suction down to protect themselves but do not need to be on a flat surface since the plates allow them to “contour” onto the surface.

– To the right of the Wrinkled Amphissa is a species of sea slug known as the Pomegranate Aeolid. It has “naked gills” and is therefore in the group of sea slugs known as “nudibranchs”. Sea slugs are marine mollusc without ANY shell or plates for protection. They are protected by feeding on animals with stinging cells (nematocysts) which become incorporated into those structures on its back (they are called cerata and also function as the naked gills for respiration). Specifically, Pomegranate Aeolids feed on Raspberry Hydroids which were only acknowledged as a new species in 2013. Scientific name is “Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus” and again, I do NOT make up these names. 🙂 See photo below.

– Below the chiton, if you look very carefully, is a very tiny sea slug species. I believe this is a Sea Cherub – a type of sea slug that swims and does not have naked gills (and therefore is not a nudibranch).

Not in the photo but to be considered too in the incredible diversity among marine molluscs is – octopuses!

Pomegranate Aeolid feeding on Raspberry Hydroids. ©Jackie Hildering.


Sources:

Anita Brinckmann-Voss & Dale R. Calder (2013). Zyzzyzus rubusidaeus (Cnidaria, Hydrozoa, Tubulariidae), a new species of anthoathecate hydroid from the coast of British Columbia, Canada” (PDF). Zootaxa. 3666 (3): 389–397.

Lee F. Braithwaite, Anthony Rodríguez-Vargas, Miles Borgen, Brian L. Bingham  (2017).”Feeding Behavior of the Wrinkled Dove Snail Amphissa columbiana,” Northwest Science, 91(4), 356-366.

Lee F. Braithwaite, Bruce Stone, Brian L. Bingham (2010). “Defensive Behaviors of the Gastropod Amphissa columbiana,” Journal of Shellfish Research, 29(1), 217-222.

Whales that Were

Whales that  . . . were.

I stumbled across this photo today and it made me take pause.

It dates back to 2009 and is of members of the threatened population of Northern Residents – mother Tsitika (A30, born ~1947) and one of her sons, Pointer (A39, born 1975). Both whales are now dead.

 

Tsitika died in 2013 and Plumper died in 2014. It’s known that they are dead because inshore fish-eating populations of Orca (known as the Northern and Southern “Residents”) stay with their families (matrilines) their entire lives. So, when truly missing from their family, they are known to be dead. (There are two notable exceptions – the calves Springer and Luna). The daughters do sometimes split off with their offspring and this appears to be related to availability of Chinook i.e. reduced prey availability appears to be a catalyst for matriline splitting (Stredulinsky, 2016).

Below is a photo of my beat-up old catalogue showing the A30 family composition back in 1999. This version of the ID catalogue was by Dr. John Ford, Graeme Ellis and Ken Balcomb who continued the work begun by the late Dr. Michael Bigg in 1973 to study Orca as individuals. That work continues to this day, whereby the Orca off the coast of British Columbia have been studied as individuals longer than any other whale populations.

My having the privilege to learn from Orca began in 1999 as a naturalist, and so much was learned from the A30s.

 

I share the image of the tattered page to give a sense of how often I used this resource because this family was so frequently in the Johnstone Strait area – A30, her sons, daughters and grand-calves – always together. They are “the A30s”.

The families are named for the eldest female*. Orca females can live well beyond their reproductive years e.g. A30 lived to approximately age 64 but she was only reproductive to age ~40.  It is believed the post-reproductive females are the teachers and decision-makers and hence, this is why the families are named for them. The rationale is that, if females live longer than they can have babies (thereby no longer directly contributing to the bank of their family’s DNA), they must be doing something so important that they are indirectly benefitting the DNA of their kin e.g. teaching mothering skills and how and where to hunt. They also share food with their family. These activities would be of benefit by ensuring that the offspring are better able to survive and mate, thereby passing on the family’s genes.

Mothers sharing food with their sons in particular would enhance the chances of the family’s DNA getting passed on i.e. big, strong boys might have more luck with the ladies (Wright et al, 2016).

The sons’ reliance on their mothers appears to be so strong, that research has found that they have a greater chance of dying if their mother dies. From Foster, 2012: “For a male whale over 30, a mother’s death meant he was 14 times more likely to die within the year. For his female counterparts, a mother’s death only boosted the risk of death by just under three-fold. And daughters under 30 saw no change to their survival rate when they lost their moms.”

Indeed, Pointer died within the year after Tsitika died. His older brother Blackney (A38) died ~4 years after she died. Big brother “Strider” had already gone missing in 1999.

 

Mother and son, Tsitika and Pointer in 1999. ©Jackie Hildering. 

 

What made me take pause today however was not this science, at least not directly.

That image of mother of son, of Tsitika and Pointer, so often side-by-side for those many years, it triggered in me the knowledge that it is through these whales that I have come to a much deeper understanding of the interconnectedness and fragility of this coast. It has been pivotal in how I live my life and essential in my evolution into becoming a Humpback researcher.

Through the extraordinary privilege of learning to recognize whales as individuals, I have broken free of thinking of whales as populations; as numbers of animals. Whales are not randomly moving / blundering along our coast. Their culture has been passed on through generations.

A30’s ancestors would have pursued the same runs of salmon (and rubbed on the rocks of the same beaches). Let me emphasize this. The same lineages of Orca have been following the same runs of salmon spawning in the rivers of their birth . . . generation . . . upon generation . . . upon generation . . . upon generation.

A30 came here as a calf with her mother, A2 (Nicola). Her daughters A50 (Clio) and A54 (Blinkhorn) continue to come into the area with their offspring and grand-offspring, in search of salmon (with their greatest reliance being on Chinook). Once the salmon have spawned, they are far less likely to be in the area.

A30 and A34 matrilines near the Bere Point rubbing beaches in 2016. In the foreground, Cedar (A75, born in 2002). She is A30’s granddaughter and a mother herself. ©Jackie Hildering. 

 

I have come to better understand the longevity of these lineages. Not all rivers are the same to salmon. Not all salmon are the same to Orca. And not all Orca should be perceived to be the same by we humans.

Too many of us don’t even know that there are different kinds of Orca off our coast with different diets, languages, histories and relationships. All are at risk and no, they really will not mate with one another nor will they switch their diet (see below for information on the four BC Orca populations).

Too many of our children know more about kangaroos and elephants than they do about the whales off our shores.

This absence of knowledge is very problematic – for the whales and for the ecosystem upon which our lives also depend. One of the most powerful lessons learned from Orca is how very wrong we can be (having vilified them, presumed them to be abundant, shot at them, put them into captivity, etc) BUT how quickly we can change when knowledge replaces fear.

We could learn so much about our sense of place through the whales’ sense of place.

We would do so much better by respecting those whose lineages and cultures date back 1000s of years.

And, understanding the whales of the past, would certainly help us with our futures.

 

*The A30 matriline is now comprised of sisters A50 and A54, their offspring and grand-offspring. Note that the matriline is still referenced as “the A30s” because there are two surviving daughters. Were a mother to die and there was only one surviving daughter and her offspring, the matriline would then be named for that daughter e.g. the A12s are now the A34s. See this link. But when there is more than one surviving daughter; only surviving sons; or son(s) and daughters(s), the matriline retains the name of the deceased mother. (Clear as mud right? 🙂 ) Source: BC Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program.

 


Northern “Resident” Quick Facts:

  • N. Resident population; ~302 whales (2018); threatened population.
  • There are 4 populations of Killer Whales / Orca off the coast of British Columbia. They do not mate with one another, having distinct cultures.
  • In addition to the N. Residents, the other 3 populations of Orca off the coast of British Columbia are the “Southern Residents” (also inshore fish-eaters; endangered population of 73 whales, August 2019); mammal-eating Bigg’s Killer Whales (aka Transients, threatened population) and offshore fish-eating “Offshores” (threatened population whose diet includes sharks).
  • “Resident” type Orca do not stay in one area as the name suggests. They are inshore fish-eating Orca. They are highly reliant on salmon, especially Chinook. Thereby, matrilines are more predictably sighted when salmon are spawning i.e. predictable salmon returning to the rivers of their birth = predictable predators following them.
  • Residents stay with their mothers, siblings and offspring their whole lives. The families are known as matrilines. They share their catches.
  • Mating happens when different N. Resident matrilines come together IF they are not closely related. Each matriline of N. Residents sounds different; aiding in determining degree of relatedness and avoiding inbreeding. Ultimately, males leave with their family and females leave with theirs. The calves are of course raised by their mothers who nurse them. Nobody leaves to mate.
  • Only the N. Residents (and a few families of resident type Orca in Alaska) have the culture of rubbing on smooth, stone beaches. Click here for video and information on beach-rubbing.

Please see previous blogs for further detail:


Sources:

Extinction? Every individual’s name was known.

 

Upon hearing the quote above, the truth of it gutted me.

If we lose the endangered Southern Residents, it will be the first time in human history that we let a population vanish having studied them for so long that each individual is known, most since their birth.

Currently at 75 whales, we know what has depleted the Southern Resident population. We know the current threats they face (and we know that these are synergistic). We know that the threats will be intensified due to a changing climate. We know enough to provide a life history on every individual that dies – their age, their lineage, their culture.

This captures so powerfully how we are participants in their demise. There is no surprise here. There is even acknowledgment by Canada’s National Energy Board of how precarious their survival is. In reviewing a proposed pipeline expansion they report: “Project-related marine shipping is likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects on the Southern resident killer whale”.

And yet the recommendation is, to proceed with the Project. 

Please take the time to reflect on this, to help share the reality but not to give in to despondency. Rather rise to a roaring “HELL NO”. NOT on our watch. NOT with our knowing.

I will say it again and again and again: the whales are barometers of our value systems and indicators of environmental health. How we treat them will ultimately be a measure of how we treat ourselves. 

We have to do better in understanding this and seeing the GAINS in weaning off fossil fuels, disposables, excessive consumerism and governments that wield fear and short-term economic arguments at the potential cost of . . . so much loss. 

Recognize the common solutions to socio-environmental problems, and apply your power as a consumer and as a voter.

Care more. Consume less. Vote for future generations. 


 

Thank you Alexandra Morton for this wisdom, shared on March 4th by Dr. Paul Spong of OrcaLab.

For better understanding of the plight of the Northern and Southern Residents, see the Recovery Strategy at this link. See Section 4 for Threats. There are many.

The main threats are recognized to be prey availability (in particular, Chinook Salmon), chemical and biological pollutants and physical and acoustic disturbance. These are synergistic i.e. if the whales do not have enough Chinook, the fat-soluble toxins (both historic and emerging) enter their systems impacting immunity and ability to reproduce. If the whales are stressed by acoustic and / or physical disturbance, this can impede their ability to hunt, to fight disease and to carry out other essential life processes like nursing and resting. 

For more detail on the National Energy Board decision I reference above, see my previous blog at this link. 

Photo: L-Pod in Blackfish Sound in 2009 ©Jackie Hildering. .

 

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.