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Posts tagged ‘killer whales’

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

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


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

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

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

Big difference!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

So what’s with the beach-rubbing?

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

In BC, the four Killer Whale populations (Northern Resident; Southern Resident; Offshore; and Bigg’s / Transients), overlap in their ranges but the populations have different languages and do NOT mate with one another. Thereby, they preserve the culture and traditions of their populations. To emphasize just how long-lived these cultural differences and specializations are, know that the mammal-hunting Bigg’s / Transients diverged from the other kinds of Killer Whales 700,000 years ago!   (For more information on the BC’s Killer Whale populations see this previous blog  or Dr. John Ford’s excellent new book 2015).

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

In Feodor Pitcairn’s 2001 video “Realm of the Killer Whales” below, you can see underwater footage of the behaviour as of timestamp 48:15. This footage was obtained as a result of a special DFO permit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Information on beach rubbing in Alaskan Residents:

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

Video #1 showing beach-rubbing in what is very likely Alaskan Residents (members of AK pod) by Eric Eberspeaker – August 2015; Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge on the shore of Fox Island (human reaction is a little distracting). 

 

See the BBC’s “Ingenious Animals” for interview with yours truly re. Beach rubbing with compilation of video of multiple incidents of Northern Resident matrilines undertaking this behaviour. Available at this link as of 41 min.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bad news first  . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The good news . .  .

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information:

What’s the Bigg’s Deal?!

Dr. Michael Bigg

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • 1.  Bigg’s Killer Whales are marine mammal-hunters (they also eat an occasional bird and, very rarely, a terrestrial mammal). The population estimate for this threatened population is 300 individuals (2016) that are more often along coastal BC, with research ongoing regarding population numbers further off the coast (see “Biggs/Transients” information at this link).  Their behaviour has changed in recent years, as reported by colleague researchers at the Marine Education and Research Society.   They are not so “transient” anymore. In some areas they are more commonly sighted than “Residents” and appear to be travelling, socializing and hunting in bigger groups. They also appear to be more vocal, especially after a kill.  This may be due to changes in the location and density of their prey. Status report and further information at this link. Note that there are no documented incidents of Bigg’s Killer Whales in the wild ever injuring a human.
  • “Residents” are inshore fish-eating Killer Whales (ingesting an occasional squid too) and there are two distinct populations. The vast majority of their fish diet is salmon and of the salmon species, their absolute favourite is Chinook. (Their diet is also known to include lingcod, halibut, herring, squid, rockfish, flounder).
    • 2. The Northern “Residents” are a threatened population of some ~300 whales (2016) more often found in northern British Columbia but also in southeastern Alaska and Washington State. Status report and further information here. For the story of one N. Resdient Killer Whale family (the A23s) and what their story reveals about us, click here.
    • 3. The Southern “Residents” are most often swimming around southern British Columbia and Washington State but are sometimes also in the waters of northern British Columbia, Oregon and California. At only ~83 individuals (2016), this population is recognized as being endangered. Status report and further information here.
  •  4. Offshore Killer Whales are fish-eaters often found along the continental shelf from the Aleutian Islands to California. To date, published research has confirmed that their diet includes Pacific Sleeper Sharks and Pacific Halibut. The population estimate is 355 individuals (2015) and this too is a threatened population. Status report and further information here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For more information:

What's the Bigg's Deal.001.001

What’s At Stake – Images Speaking Louder Than Words

Three minutes of images speaking louder than words . . .

This short slide show of my images testifies to the astonishing marine biodiversity of Northern Vancouver Island and what is put at risk with projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project which would bring super-tanker traffic of toxic bitumen and condensate to B.C.’s fragile coast, and to the waters on which we depend for oxygen, food, buffering of climate change gases, aesthetics and so much more.

I have submitted this slide show for inclusion on “Hope, the Whale”, a 25′ whale sculpture being brought to the Vancouver Enbridge public hearings (January 14 to 18, 2013) “to symbolize the expansive and growing community of people with a vision of an oil-free coast in BC. The sculpture is designed to be a welcoming, collaborative, visual, interactive and peaceful approach to supporting a healthy environment. The whale will amplify our a collective messages of hope and a vision for a healthy ocean, water, land, communities, green economy, cultures and people.” See this link to contribute your message.

For more information, see my testimony to the Joint Review Panel included in my blog item “Super Natural or Super Tanker?” at this link.

Success! No Tidal Turbines in Whale Epicentre

“KC” breaches in Blackney Pass. Photo: Hildering

As follow-up to last week’s call to action, “Tidal Turbines in Whale Epicentre? Hell No!” , I am so pleased to relay the following media release from myself, the OrcaLab and the proponent, SRM Projects Ltd

The short of it is, due to the efforts of many (including you) and the integrity and ethics of the proponent – the application for an investigative license for ocean power in whale critical habitat has been withdrawn. 

Please read further below.

 Media Coverage:

For details of how this resolve was achieved see this OrcaLab blog item. 

Humpback whale “KC” (BCY0291, born in 2002) breaching in Blackney Pass.
The investigative license application for ocean power has now been withdrawn for this area.
© 2012 Jackie Hildering; http://www.themarinedetective.ca

Tidal Turbines in Whale Epicentre? Hell No!

[Updates: November 18, 2012 – the application for an investigative license for ocean power in whale critical habitat has been withdrawn. Please see the media release at this link.
November 14, 2012 – To our surprise, the deadline to provide comment regarding the land tenure has been extended, it is now also December 2nd.
November 13, 2012 – As testimony to how serious this is – international Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) has picked this up and put out an action alert.]


For a bundling of media items on this see the end of the blog.] 

There are times when expletives like “Hell No!” are justified and I am sure you will agree this is one of those very unfortunate times and – your action is needed.

Blackney Pass off Johnstone Strait is an epicentre of whale activity and there is an application for an “Investigative License of Occupation – Ocean Power ” for this very area. Yep, that’s right . . . an application for “actual installment of technical investigative and monitoring equipment” that could lead to turbines being in critical whale habitat. The proponent is SRM Projects Ltd of Nanaimo, B.C.

While I of course support initiatives to reduce the use of climate-changing fossil fuels, to have turbines in critical whale habitat would be pure, simple, total, utter insanity. No matter how advanced the turbine technology, no amount of mitigation could compensate for the noise, prey reduction, and other disturbance to the whales.

The deadline for your two quick submissions is December 2nd. Below, I have strived to make commenting very expeditious for you, but first, a bit more on how preposterous the application is, just to fuel you up for those comments. 

Here is the map showing the area for the “license of occupation“.

Source: Application for OCEAN ENERGY/INVESTIGATIVE AND MONITORING by SRM Projects Ltd of Nanaimo, B.C.  Click image to enlarge.

Here is the map showing the application site relative to the critical habitat map for northern resident killer whales from the Final Amended Recovery Strategy for Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales in Canada. [Why was it amended you might ask? Because the federal government had to be taken to court TWICE to enforce their legal obligation to protect killer whale habitat – first ruling December 7, 2010; appeal ruling February 9th, 2011.]

Proposed site (red) relative to acknowledged northern resident killer whale critical habitat (cross hatched area). Source Amended Recovery Strategy for Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales in Canada. Click image to enlarge.

The very ocean current that makes this area of interest for staking a claim for ocean energy is what makes this such a rich area for marine life. Multiple currents collide causing a merry-go-round in which plankton and fish are concentrated. The threatened northern resident killer whales feed here with great regularity, as do members of the threatened population of humpback whales, Steller sea lions, Dall’s porpoise, etc.

The importance of this area for killer whales can be supported by almost 4 decades of data collected by Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the OrcaLab. More recently, with regard to the humpbacks, I and my fellow researchers from the Marine Education and Research Society, can testify to how often these giants are in this area.

But it is the whales that speak with the most convincing voices of all. Here is the OrcaLab’s September 16th, 2012 visual and acoustic recording of the I15 and A30 matrilines of northern resident killer whales in the very area “in question”.

For researchers, whale watchers and on-line followers of the OrcaLab’s monitoring of whales, we all know that this kind of activity is not exceptional in this area and we know what is at stake.

As final stark evidence of how often there are whales in this area, note where, of all the places the OrcaLab could have put their whale-monitoring cameras and hydrophones, they are positioned. Then again, note the location of the proposed ocean power project.

Proposed site (red) relative to positions of the OrcaLab, and their hydrophones and cameras. Testimony to just how often there are whales here. Click image to enlarge.


One would hope that government agencies would surely deny this application but  . . . we have so many recent examples of this being tragically misplaced faith and we cannot count on there being any legislation in place for sound environmental assessment that would confirm environmental impacts. May I point out again that the government had to be taken to court TWICE to be order to acknowledge and protect killer whale critical habitat?!

Therefore, we collectively need to make our “Hell No!” heard now.

Essential action needed by December 2nd – submission to two government agencies. 

  1. By December 2nd, regarding the land tenure,  click this link, go to the bottom of this Integrated Land Management Bureau page, and comment on the project. Sample text below in green. [Note that, to our surprise, this deadline changed on November 14th, the date that was the initial deadline for comment to this agency.]
  2. By December 2nd, regarding the license of occupation, click this link and email your comment to Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Operations. You could use the same text as you did for the above.

If you can, come to the Port McNeill “community information session” given by the proponent, SRM Projects Ltd of Nanaimo, on November 20th in Room 4 of the Old School from 6:30 to 7:45 PM. There will also be an information session in Campbell River on November 22nd but this will focus on SRM’s proposals for the Discovery Passage and Seymour Narrows. It will be in the Rivercorp Boardroom, 900 Alder Street from 7:00 to 8:30 PM.

  • Sample text for both of the above. “With regard to Land File Number 1412946, the application for SRM Project Ltd’s “Investigative License of Occupation – Ocean Power” in the Blackney Passage / Johnstone Strait area, I write you to express that this application must not be granted. This is scientifically confirmed critical habitat for northern resident killer whales and it has been legally ruled that this must be protected as per Canada’s Species at Risk Act. In addition, the area is of great importance to humpback whales and many other marine species. No matter how advanced the turbine technology, no amount of mitigation could compensate for the noise, prey reduction, and other disturbance to the whales.”  You may even want to reference this blog and provide the link e.g. “For further details of the reasons for my great objection to this application see the rationale and resources provided at http://wp.me/pPW6V-LE.”

With this application being so ludicrous, I can’t help but wonder if I am missing something. Is this just part of a staking frenzy or is it some sort of distractor so that attention is taken away from something else?

SRM LTD’s projects are listed here. Again, reductions to our voracious fossil fuel consumption are very much needed but, at the cost of having turbines in whale critical habitat? Unequivocally – no. 

So much insanity  . . . so little time.  Sigh.

Huge gratitude and respect to Angela Smith for being the one to take note of the notification of this application and to Leah Robinson for ensuring I had many of the details I needed for this blog.

Media items:

References:

This posting on my FaceBook page has had success in creating further awareness. Feel free to share! Whale on right is Tsitika (A30). She is 65 years old. She loves Chinook salmon and is always within calling range of her sons, daughters and grand-calves. Most often, as is the case here, she is right beside her eldest surviving son, Blackney (A38) who is 42. Tsitka has lived through the human impacts of being shot at when that was our way; our use of toxins that bioaccumulate in the flesh of her kind reducing their immunity and ability to reproduce; our practices that have reduced the availability of salmon and . . . the noise! The next assault – turbines in the very area where her family most often fishes? The same area that is the namesake of her son i.e. “Blackney Pass” and where this photo was taken? The area that is designated as critical habitat for her population?

Fins Verses Feathers – Transient Killer Whales Harass Rhinoceros Auklets

Transient killer whale grabs rhinoceros auklet. See slide show below. Photo: Hildering. All photos taken with telephoto and cropped.

From the evidence I deliver in the slideshow below, you’ll see that August 31st, 2011 was not a good day for some rhinoceros auklets (Cerorhinca monocerata) in Johnstone Strait, British Columbia, Canada. 

That day, I witnessed a very socially active group of “transient” (marine mammal-hunting) killer whales repeatedly harassing these birds – mouthing them and slapping them. At least 3  juvenile rhinoceros auklets had a bad day and, since these are diving birds, they cannot “alight” and escape the teeth and fins below them. Yet, I believe they survived.

I interpret the transient killer whales’ interaction with the birds to be “text book” play behaviour largely involving the juvenile killer whales. In this case, the text book is Dr. John Ford’s and Graeme Ellis’ Transients: Mammal-Hunting Killer Whales of British Columbia, Washington, and Southeastern Alaska. I provide their  expert interpretation of the behaviour below, entitled “Seabirds: Playthings and Practice, or Between-Seal Snacks?” 

Transient killer whale surfaces right beside rhinoceros auklet. See slideshow below. Photo: Hildering. All photos taken with telephoto lens and cropped.

“It is not unusual to see transients chasing and harassing seabirds. During most of these incidents, the whales do not seem intent on eating the birds. Rather, they let the bird escape or they abandon it after it has been injured or killed. Seabird harassment appears to be a favourite activity of juvenile transients. They young whales will sometimes swim upside down and on their sides, looking for birds paddling at the surface above. Once a victim is sighted, they will try to slap it with their tail flukes, jump on it, or seize it in their mouth. This interaction may continue for several minutes, before the bird is eaten, incapacitated, or left dead in the whale’s wake. We and others have recorded at least 10 seabird species that have become casualties of transients. Frequent victims are common murres, which are flightless for several weeks during the late summer and are like “sitting ducks” for transients.  Other species include black brant, common loon, white-winged scoter, surf scoter, cormorant (species uncertain), western grebe, marbled murrelet, rhinoceros aucklet, and red-breasted merganser.  Seabirds seem to be more important as objects of play or harassment than as a dietary item. Juveniles playing with seabirds no doubt learn useful skills in prey capture and handling that may enhance their success in hunting harbour seals and other wily prey.”  Source: Ford, J.K.B., and Ellis, G.M. 1999. Transients: Mammal-Hunting Killer Whales of British Columbia, Washington, and Southeastern Alaska. UBC Press, Vancouver, and U. of Washington Press, Seattle. 96 pp

Transient killer whale tail-slapping a rhinoceros auklet. See slideshow below. Photo: Hildering. All photos taken with telephoto lens and cropped.

I personally had never seen such a prolonged display of this transient killer whale play behaviour before. In fact, I had never seen transient killer whales socialize quite so rambunctiously!

 In the Northeast Pacific, “transient” killer whales (or “Bigg’s killer whales” – after the late Dr. Michael Bigg) are believed to have diverged from the “resident”  (inshore fish-eating) and “offshore” (offshore fish-eating) killer whales some 700,000 years ago (Morin et al, 2010), to refine a culture of stealth and unpredictability in order to hunt their marine mammal prey.

But clearly, when their bellies are full and social needs dominate, this type of killer whale is anything but stealthy. On August 31st, this incredibly socially active group of 20+ transients took about 1.5 hours to travel only +/- 4.5 km (2.5 nautical miles) – slapping birds, rolling over one another, tail slapping, vocalizing and breaching along the way. The whales would go on to bound past the community of Alert Bay, Cormorant Island. I have have previously written about this in the blog item “Might As Well Jump.” 

Jared Towers of the Department of Fisheries and Ocean has confirmed the IDs of the transient killer whales in the August 31, 2011 encounter to be:  T010s, T034s, T035s, T037s, T046Bs, and T146s.


Photos taken while on board with Orcella Expeditions. 

Additional source:

See “surplus killing” pp. 167 Barrett-Lennard, Lance. Heise, Kathy A. The Natural History and Ecology of Killer Whales – Whales and Whaling 

Might As Well Jump

When serving as a marine naturalist, one of the questions I am most often asked about whales is “Why do they jump?”

When whales jump it is called “breaching” and the answer to why they do it is not a simple one. Why whales do something depends on context; there is not just one trigger for breaching. This is no different than interpreting human behaviour. For example, if someone is tapping their foot, it could indicate irritation, having an itch, impatience or hearing a good tune!

The breaching of whales can be related to socializing, feeding, mating, communication and/or defence. Of course, when whale calves breach, it  is often related to “play” behaviour which leads to good brain development and coordination. Ultimately,  I believe that the high energy behaviour of breaching must somehow lead to a gain in food and/or increased success in passing on DNA.

Let me share two very specific and recent “cases” of breaching with you; one of which was witnessed by many residents of Alert Bay.

While out in our area with Orcella Expeditions last week, we saw an adult humpback whale breach some 30 times and also witnessed a mature male mammal-eating killer whale (“transient” or “Biggs killer whale”) breach within 30 meters of Alert Bay’s shoreline.

I have never seen anything quite like these two awe-inspiring events.

Humpback whale, ‘KC” on August 30th, 2011. One of the some 30 times he breached in less than 2 hours. Photo: Hildering

The humpback that breached so often was “KC” (BCY0291) who was born in 2002. Initially, I believe the breaching was triggered by the presence of highly vocal fish-eating killer whales (“residents”). Humpbacks do not have teeth with which to defend themselves  but they do have whale barnacle studded fins and a whole helluva lot of heft to throw around so even the mammal-eating type of killer whales very rarely interact with adult humpbacks.

My interpretation is that KC was not habituated to the killer whale dialect he heard that day (I15 and I31 calls) and was making sure he made clear “do NOT mess with me!”. He was posturing to the killer whales. After his killer whale encounter,  he turned around and came upon another humpback whale and again started breaching and making very forceful exhalations called “trumpeting”. Was this communication to the other whale about the presence of the killer whales?  Was it related to a dominance display that may have to do with mating?  I may never know for sure but it is very interesting that KC’s incredible bout of breaching seemed to lead to other humpbacks breaching as well.

Mature male mammal-eating killer whale “Siwash” breaching in front of Alert Bay on August 31, 2011. Photo: Hildering.

And then . .  there was the mind-blowing, highly witnessed breaching of the 27 year-old killer whale “Siwash” (aka T10B ) in front of Alert Bay. Siwash was travelling with a group of 20+ other mammal-eating killer whales. As mammal-eaters, this type of killer whale has to be stealthy and unpredictable and therefore, they are most often far less vocal and surface active than the fish-eating killer whales. This certainly wasn’t the case as they bounded past Alert Bay last Wednesday evening! They were swimming on their backs; fin slapping and travelling right past the shore; calves were “cat and mousing” small diving birds – whacking them around; and there were even male sex organs to be seen at the surface!

What was going on?  Let me state the obvious – they were socializing. Their bellies must have been full enough to allow them to throw stealth to the wind. These particular whales would most often not travel together so the socializing might even be related to mating.

But ultimately . . . in trying to understand the behaviour of these sentient beings, we have to have the humility to accept that we  may only ever have hypotheses for why they do what they do. It is the stuff of awe and wonder that the mighty Max̱’inux̱ were so visible to the very people that have such a strong cultural connection to them, as they swam by Alert Bay  . . . . “Home of the Killer Whale.” 

Mysterious Killer Whales Come Inshore

Mature male offshore killer whale photographed on March 27, 2011 for research purposes by J. Hildering (telephoto lens). Note ragged edge to the dorsal fin – damage from sharks?


Many Port McNeill (N. Vancouver Island, BC) residents were whale watching on the evening of March 30th and they didn’t have to leave their homes to do so!

A group of 12 offshore killer whales was extremely active right in front of the community; even repeatedly spyhopping (popping their heads out of the water). To have whales this visible near your home is a great gift but, all the more remarkable is that these were very mysterious, threatened whales.

“Offshores” are a distinct type of killer whale that does not mate with the killer whales that eat marine mammals (“transients”) nor with those that feed on fish, mostly salmon (“residents”).

About 300 individual northeastern Pacific offshores have been photographed but studying them is usually very difficult. As their name suggests, they are most often near the continental shelf and they are very wide-ranging. Offshores weren’t even identified till 1979 and weren’t confirmed to be a distinct population until 1989.

So little is known about them. Only very recently did the research of Dr. John Ford et al illuminate what the whales might be doing around the continental shelf and why their teeth are worn down so much more than the teeth of other killer whales. DNA analysis of prey samples confirmed that the diet of offshores includes Pacific sleeper sharks (4m+), a species with very abrasive skin that are found around the continental shelf.  In some cases the offshore killer whales’ teeth are so worn down by the the sharks’ skin that it is believed they become dependent on the help of other offshore killer whales to catch and eat this prey. The offshores’ scarred bodies served as a further hint that they may do battle with sharks.

Their diet is believed to also include other shark species (e.g. salmon sharks, blue sharks) and halibut.

Inshore sightings of these whales provide a very unique opportunity to learn more about them e.g. what they are eating when inshore and why they are so full of toxins.  It is puzzling that offshores killer whales appear to becoming inshore more often and this may be due to a shift in diet or range in their prey.

Luckily one of the world’s leading killer whale researchers, Graeme Ellis of the Pacific Biological Station, was able to join the offshores in front of Port McNeill for this research opportunity.  He was alerted to their presence by the superstars at the Orca Lab (Leah Robinson and Marie Fournier) who first heard these whales’ unique vocals in the Robson Bight area on March 25th.

I too was extraordinarily privileged to be able to contribute some ID photographs from sightings on March 27th and . . . I don’t think I’ll ever quite be the same after watching these mystery whales surfing in 3’ waves.

It all just goes to show that you never know who you’ll meet on Northern Vancouver Island!

[Great thanks to residents of Port McNeill and Angela Smith of Ocean Rose Adventures for helping get photos of a lone male offshore killer whale in Port McNeill Bay on March 27].

For more information on offshore killer whales see:


Invasive and Indiscriminate Tagging of Whales?

Update: October 2016 – Confirmed that endangered Southern Resident L95 died due to an infection resulting from limpet tagging. Read news item here.

Update: January 22, 2012 update to the December 10, 2010 blog item below:  Approval granted to limpet tag the endangered southern resident killer whales. See news items at the end of the blog. 

The American “Northwest Fisheries Science Center” (NWFSC) has applied for expansion of their permit to satellite tag endangered and threatened whales with airguns, including the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population and the threatened Northern Residents and Transient populations (the range of all these whales very much includes British Columbian waters).

It is the opinion of many involved in whale research and conservation that the impact of the airgun tagging far out weighs any benefit to the whales. There are other ways to get data on the movement of killer whales e.g. acoustic tracking and collaboration with researchers who have been studying these whales more extensively than NWFSC.

It is my opinion that the tagging cannot provide data that will help reduce the threats of toxin accumulation, prey availability, disturbance or noise so – why do it?  The photos here indicate just how invasive these types of tags are.

Below, I also include a letter from the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association (NIMMSA) in which they powerfully express their concerns about the tagging.

If you too are concerned about the merit of this tagging program, please help in creating awareness. Share this blog on Facebook; do what you want with the images (help them go viral) and provide coment via this link before December 23rd, 2010.

Close up of the tag.

News items and further resources regarding limpet tagging of killer whales: