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Posts tagged ‘marine education and research society’

And They Spread Their Giant Wing-Like Fins . . .

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And they spread their giant wing-like fins . . . and returned from the brink.

The whales remind us of our great capacity for positive change . . . when our value systems change and knowledge, connection and humility replace fear and misunderstanding.

The simple solution? Care More. Consume Less.

There are still so many ways to indirectly kill a whale and damage the life-sustaining seas upon which we all depend.

Image is of “Jigger” the mature female Humpback Whale who breached for 18 minutes. More images below.

You simply can’t be the same after seeing something like this, nor would I want to be.

What triggered this behaviour may have been an encounter with another Humpback (“Slash” BCX0177″) but we cannot know for sure.

For the work of our Marine Education and Research Society, please see here and yes, you can support our work by sponsoring a Humpback Whale!

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When a Giant Falls . . . and people care.

© 2012 Caitlin Birdsall

This photo is of the juvenile male humpback whale that died in the early morning hours of June 12th on a beach in White Rock (some 40 km south of Vancouver).

Fellow Marine Education Research Society (MERS) director, Caitlin Birdsall was on site in her capacity with the British Columbia Cetacean Sightings Network and I have been haunted by her photos ever since she shared them with me.

While the images stir deep despair, they are also achingly beautiful and fill me with a great depth of hope.

People cared enough to place flowers on the deceased little whale.

People cared enough to stand in awe and respect.

People  . . . cared.

With this little whale dying on a beach in an urban centre, great public concern and national media attention were attracted, creating a potent opportunity for education.

The death of this whale illuminates how little we know about marine life, even the ocean’s giants.

Had anyone seen the whale before?  To date, no one has been able to identify this whale as an individual and thereby determine where he might have come from. We at MERS were not able to find this whale in our catalogue nor in that of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

How did the whale die?  The whale had an excruciatingly slow death from starvation due to entanglement in fishing gear. The gear had lacerated into the whale’s skin and had cut deep into the whale’s mouth. Ultimately, the young emaciated humpback became stuck on the beach at low tide and died there.

What type of fishing gear killed the whale? Fishing gear that was unfamiliar to local experts. Scott Landry, from the Provincetown Centre for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts, is one of the world’s foremost experts on entanglement and he shared with MERS director Christie McMillan that the line was very likely from offshore longline fisheries and was more difficult to recognize because the hooks had been in the water so long, they had corroded off the lines. Let’s truly absorb that for a moment – the whale may have been entangled so long that he outlasted the hooks on the fishing line.

Do humpback whales get entangled often? Entanglement is identified as a threat in the Recovery Strategy for the North Pacific Humpback Whale in Canada but the threat is very poorly understood.  Therefore, we at the Marine Education and Research Society have undertaken an entanglement scar study to determine how often humpback whale entanglement might occur. British Columbia’s vast coastline and relatively new Marine Mammal Response Network unquestionably lead to many undetected and unreported entanglements. Even in the Gulf of Maine where there is a well-established reporting network, studies have determined that less than 10% of large whale entanglements are witnessed or reported and only a fraction of deaths are detected. Scar studies in Southeast Alaska suggest that up to 78% of humpbacks are entangled at some point in their lives.

Are there solutions?  Humpback whales of the North Pacific must continue to receive protection under the Species at Risk Act. They are currently listed as “Threatened” but a 2011 assessment suggests they could be down-listed to being of “Special Concern”.  This is premature. Not enough is known about the population structure of the North Pacific humpbacks, let alone about threats such as entanglement.  With a better understanding of the incidence of entanglement, fisheries regulations could be adapted including gear modifications that allow nets and lines to break-away.

But the lessons here go beyond those relating specifically to humpbacks and to entanglement.

This “case” of an unidentified juvenile humpback dying in on a beach in an urban centre after months of agony, undetected and unreported, testifies to how little we know about our oceans and how easy it is to kill a giant, even with a bit of stray human-made fishing line.

The key to saving whales and the ecosystems for which they are ambassadors, is to retain the humility and connectedness we feel when we see pictures like this, letting it impact our consumer and electoral choices and our value systems.  We too often act as if we know it all; that we will be able to “manage” even unknown human impacts; and therefore, we relentlessly assault the oceans in favour of short-term economies.

Thanks to the efforts of many volunteers, coordinated by Jim and Mary Borrowman, this little humpback’s skeleton will come to hang in Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre. Maybe the powerful photograph will hang life-size behind it, adding to the potential of this whale’s death leading to some sort of positive gain for the environment and therefore . . . for ourselves.



  • Neilson, J. L., J. M. Straley, C. M. Gabriele and S. Hills. 2009. Non-lethal entanglement of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in fishing gear in northern Southeast Alaska.Journal of Biogeography 36:452–464.
  • Robbins, J. and D.K. Mattila. 2001. Monitoring entanglements of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the Gulf of Maine on the basis of caudal peduncle scarring. Unpublished Report to the 53rd Scientific Committee Meeting of the International Whaling Commission. Hammersmith, London. Document number SC/53/NAH25.
  • Robbins, J. and D.K. Mattila. 2004. Estimating humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) entanglement rates on the basis of scar evidence. Report to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Order number 43ENNF030121. 22 pp.
  • Robbins, J. 2009 Scar-based inference into Gulf of Maine humpback whale entanglement: 2003-2006, pp. 40: Report to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Order Number EA133F04SE0998.
Blog item by Jake Etzkorn of the Living Ocean’s Society on the work on this whale’s body so that the skeleton and baleen can be used for conservation and education purposes in Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Center.
Article stating origin of the fishing gear has not been determined. The Province; July 13, 2012;” Origin of the fishing gear that killed White Rock humpback unknown.” 

Strand of the fishing line that led to the death of the whale. © 2012 Caitlin Birdsall. Click to enlarge.

The Vancouver Aquarium’s Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard takes questions from media. © 2012 Caitlin Birdsall. Click to enlarge.

© 2012 Caitlin Birdsall. Click to enlarge.

Of Angels and Argonauts?

T’is the season for reflection. It is the time of year where, the nebulous, undefinable but essential life forces of hope, love and spirituality may burn brightest.

So for you, I share the following story.

I emphasize that this is an atypical blog item for The Marine Detective and I have had to wrestle my left brain into submission to write it. I am very fearful too of feeding the monster of human need to get up close and personal to whales and claim a “piece” of them.

With that preamble and context – I give you this story for Christmas:

In the fall of 2011, while aboard with Orcella Expeditions and talking about my whale research with the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS), I explained how and why we nickname Humpback Whales.

In short, we nickname the whales for a feature on their flukes since the scientific alphanumeric names (e.g. BCZ0297)  are much more difficult to remember. [See my past blog item “What’s in a Name” for a more detailed explanation including photos of nicknamed Humpbacks.]

Where we can, we like to have local school children nickname the whales for reasons I am sure you understand.

BCY0729. Note the marking in the shape of an “A” on the left fluke. Photo: Hildering.

But that day, just after talking about the Humpbacks, I learned of the death of man who loved the sea – a man of depth and creativity who should still walk among us. I heard about Jason from his father Cliff, whose eyes of course told more about the pain, loss and love of his son than words could.  I had only recently met Cliff and never had the privilege of knowing Jason. 

Immediately, I thought of the Humpback Whale BCY0729 who has a marking on his left fluke that looks very much like the letter “A”. 

As an exception to having children name the whales, I decided we could nickname this whale “Argonaut” in honour of Jason. [if unclear about the association between “Jason” and “Argonauts”, please click here].

It was a simple thing to do. We had a good nickname for the whale and Cliff and his family had some comfort in the sentiment and symbolization of a whale being nicknamed for Jason. 

That was September 3rd, 2011. Below, email correspondence to Jason’s father on September 22nd.

“Cliff, I got goosebumps today and had tears in my eyes.
 And – you’re going to get the same.
I saw Argonaut today, for the first time since September 30th, 2010. He was very near Telegraph Cove feeding in the area with another juvenile whale that we have named “Guardian” because there is an angel-like marking on this whale’s tail (rimmed in a yellowish shade). 
You’ll see from the photos that it was a very wet and misty day . . . beautiful. I was on a school trip [for Stubbs Island Whale Watching] with a group of local First Nations school children . . . I shared the story of Argonaut with them and of course, it moved them.”

Argonaut on September 22nd, 2011. Photo: Hildering.

Guardian on September 22nd, 2011. Photo: Hildering.

Guardian on September 9th, 2011. The image shows the yellow angel-like shape around the centre of the fluke. Photo: Leah Thorpe, MERS. Leah also nicknamed Guardian.

I saw Argonaut and Guardian every other day I went out up to October 30th, 2011. They were not always right beside one another but they were within the same general area. 

Does this have any significance beyond two Humpback Whales with distinctly marked tails feeding together?  The beauty is, I’ll never know, no matter how much data I collect.

There is “something” about whales that I use almost daily to try to engage and motivate and frankly, plea with people to get their heads out of their bottoms and realize that their daily frivolous actions (and inactions) collectively cause such needless environmental damage.

Coincidence such as this story of “Angels and Argonauts” is the kind of thing that throws my structured-science-oriented left brain into discussion with my philosophical-reflective right brain about the undefinable and intangible.  But something both sides of my brain agree upon . . .  these giant sentient beings inspire marvel and wonder and hope and comfort and, so often . . . they inspire us gangly bipeds to understand connectedness and the truly important things in life.  

May the greatness we sense from whales inspire us to bigger things that benefit society and the environment. 

Merry Christmas readers.

I leave you with this sound clip of Jason singing “With or Without You” – a small indication of the depth of the man who loved the sea. Click here to listen.

Update December 2014: Since writing this blog in 2011, Argonaut has become one of the most predictably sighted whales in our area. Guardian too is seen very predictably but is rarely with Argonaut. When Cliff came back in 2013 hoping to see the whale named in honour of his son, we spotted Argonaut within minutes of being on the water.

Update July 2016: Argonaut is now part of our Marine Education and Research Society’s Humpback Sponsorship Program as a means of funding research and education to reduce threats to whales like Argonaut. Please see here.

Argonaut lunge feeding on September 28, 2011. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut at sunset on October 7th, 2011. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut tail-slapping August 2012. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut tail-slapping August 2012. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut breaching October 2013. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut breaching October 2013. Photo: Hildering

Argonaut October 2014. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut October 2014. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut on September 27, 2015. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut September 27, 2015. Photo: Hildering.

Go WILD This Christmas – Create Hope, Not Garbage

A39 aka “Blackney” from the A30 matriline of fish-eating “northern resident” killer whales. Photo: Hildering

Go WILD, really WILD this Christmas – but not in raging consumer gluttony; not in garbage-creating obscenity; not in a way that leaves you hollow; and not by extensively impacting both your and the earth’s resources.

I think few will disagree that ours is a society gone mad with consumerism. We are relentlessly and oh-so-cunningly pummeled with messaging that we will be happier, more loved, sexier and perceived to be more successful if we purchase this item, and this one, and . . . this one!

But, there are powerful rays of hope above the landfill. More and more of us recoil at the consumerism, realizing its true cost. There appears to be a powerful societal wave moving us back to simplicity, peace and quality of experience where it’s not about the having . . . it’s about the holding.

As part of this shift, if gifts are to be given, we strive for them to be meaningful; where value is not measured in dollars but in societal/ecological benefit.

Below, I share five WILD ideas for gifts that go deep, benefitting marine research and conservation in British Columbia.

Note that there are of course so many more good causes than those I list below. What has guided my selection is that I have a direct connection to (and resulting depth of knowledge about) the environmental non-governmental organizations listed below.

1.  OrcaLab
Click here to join the “OrcaLab 100” – one hundred people committing to a monthly donation (be it ever so small) so that the OrcaLab can count on a steady stream of support. You symbolically represent a “northern resident” A Clan whale and receive a personalized write-up of the whale with the whale’s photo; notification of when the whale is first sighted back in the area; and access to an exclusive FaceBook OL100 supporters’ page.
For more than 40 years, Dr. Paul Spong and Helena Symonds (recently joined by Leah Robinson) have served as the watch-keepers/guardians of the whales of the Blackfish Sound /Johnstone Strait area. From the remote Orca Lab, they acoustically monitor the area year-round, 24 hours a day. They record any whale calls, attempt to correlate whale vocals with behaviour and create public engagement and awareness by broadcasting these calls on-line. They also advocate so powerfully to end whaling and having killer whales in captivity. Their work has only become more intense over the last years since, in addition to recording killer whale calls, now humpbacks are vocalizing in the area! Click the image below for a sample of humpback song recorded by the OrcaLab on October 23, 2011.  Click here for a history of the OrcaLab. 

2.  The Wild Killer Whale Adoption Programme (KWAP)
Click here to symbolically adopt one of BC’s killer whales and support the wild killer whale research listed here. All 4 discrete populations of killer whales in British Columbia’s waters are in trouble and hence, there is an acute need for further research. Government funded research is, not surprisingly, very limited.
You can adopt a whale from the birth year of the recipient for an extra personal touch. The gift package includes:  A picture of the whale with its life story; a certificate that tells you’re wonderful; an annual research update; a CD with killer whale vocals and the commentary of leading acoustics researcher, Dr. John Ford and – a cloth bag that can be used over and over again, for further earth-friendly joy. 

3. The Marine Education and Research Society (MERS)
Click here to make a donation to MERS and you support the local humpback and minke whale research with which I am directly involved. Include the name and email address of the person you are honoring with the donation and they will be sent an email informing them of how you have helped MERS’ research and education efforts and how invalable this support is to us.

4. The Whale Interpretive Society (WIC)
Click here to adopt a transient killer whale bone so that T44’s skeleton can be put together  (articulated) for the purposes of education.

Beethoven the Humpback Whale! What’s in a Name?


We now have a Humpback that we’ll refer to as “Beethoven” thanks to the great creativity of Maureen and Dave Towers of Seasmoke Whale Watching.

Let me explain why we think this nickname is particularly clever.

The convention in assigning a British Columbian catalogue number to Humpback Whales is that it reflects the amount of black or white on the underside of the whale’s tail. 

The Humpbacks are determined to be an:

  • “X” if there is lots of black on the underside of the tail (less than 20% white)
  • “Y”  if there is an intermediate amount of white on the underside of the tail (20 to 80% white); or
  • “Z” if there is lots of white on the underside of the tail (more than 80% white)

For example, BCZ0004 is the 4th Humpback with a lot of white on his/her tail to be photographed in BC and catalogued. 

(Note: Up to 2010, these catalogue numbers would be assigned by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), to which we at the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) would contribute our ID photos. Since 2010, DFO has not catalogued Humpbacks whereby there are now also numbers such as BCZuk2012#3. Please see the end of this blog for an explanation of the “uk”).

BCZ0004?  It’s not such an easy name to remember is it?  So, years ago, we started assigning nicknames to the whales with the guideline that the name should somehow give a clue to the identification of the whale. The hope was that this would help people discern the whales as individuals. For example, I am responsible for giving BCZ004 the nickname “Stripe”.  See the ID page from our MERS Humpback catalogue below and determine if you think this name is fitting.

Click to enlarge. BCZ0004 aka “Stripe”. ID photos from DFO catalogue and Hildering.

Okay , so it’s not a creative name but – it worked!  People associated the stripe-like marking with the whale and could identify “Stripe” as an individual. 

Here you have the female “Chunky”, aka BCX0081.

Click to enlarge. BCX0081 aka “Chunky”. ID photos from DFO catalogue and Hildering.

Not to be confused with “Vader”, aka BCX0989, who also has a distinct v-shaped marking (may the force be with you for this one). 

Click to enlarge. BCX0989 aka “Vader”. ID photo contributed to MERS by Jacqueline McGill.

And then there are the more creative names, like “Niagara” for BCY0057 whose tail has a white spot shaped like a waterfall. 

Click to enlarge. BCY0057 aka “Niagara”. ID photos from DFO catalogue and Dr. Alexandra Morton.

“Pulteney”, aka BCZ0297, has been named with the Pulteney lighthouse in mind. See the lighthouse on BCZ0297’s tail?

Click to enlarge. BCZ0297 aka “Pultney”. ID photo contributed to MERS by Bruce Paterson.

Sometimes, the name may seem even more like taking a Rorschach Test (ink blotch test). For example, see the shape of a bear’s head on the left part of “Yogi’s” tail (aka BCY0409)? 

Click to enlarge. BCY0409 aka “Yogi”. ID photo by Jim Borrowman, Stubbs Island Whale Watching.

For the greater good, we often get local children involved in the naming and as a result have Humpbacks with highly creative nicknames like “Rocket”, “Sprinter”, “Hunter”, “Shark Tooth”, “Barracuda” and “Ashes”.

Otherwise, it is the person who first shares the sighting of the whale with MERS that has the joy of suggesting a fitting nickname. 

Such was the case with Dave and Maureen. They were the first to photograph the whale below on July 19th and relay the sighting to MERS. It is a Humpback that we had not previously sighted in the area. 

Click to enlarge. Photo by Dave Towers, Seasmoke Whale Watching.

See the dot-dot-dot-stripe on the tail?  

While “Dot-Dot-Dot-Stripe” is a very literal name, in musical notation for conductors “dot-dot-dot-stripe” signifies . . . da-da-da-dum. 

Da-da-da-dum!  Like in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony! 

Hence, there is now a Humpback whale nicknamed “Beethoven”.

Thank you Dave and Maureen – a gold star to you!

Note, regarding “uk” codes: Until 2010, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) ultimately assigned a catalogue number to Humpbacks in British Columbia. We at MERS contributed our data for this centralizing cataloguing and would assign a temporary “uk” (unknown) designation for whales not already in the DFO catalogue e.g. BCZuk2012#2 has a mostly black fluke, is not in the 2010 DFO catalogue, and was first documented by MERS in 2012. We are currently (2018) collaborating with colleagues to achieve an updated province-wide catalogue for Humpback Whales sighted off British Columbia’s coast.

The MERS Humpback catalogue can be downloaded via this link.