Local Marine Life in the News

British Columbia's Whales

British Columbia’s Whales

Scientists admit that despite extensive research on marine mammals, relatively little is known.

The most startling fact about the whales that swim in the waters around Vancouver Island is the lack of facts.

They’re big, beautiful and infinitely appealing, but, even scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying marine mammals, readily admit they know remarkably little about them.

Out there, somewhere in the depths, are killer, grey, sperm, minke, blue, fin, sei, North Pacific right, beaked and humpback whales.

At least, we think they’re out there, but, for many species, population numbers are simply guesstimates.

Some types of beaked whales have never been seen alive in B.C.waters and the only clue to their existence are the washed-up carcasses, said John Ford, Department of Fisheries and Oceans marine mammal scientist at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo, one of Canada’s top whale authorities.

The seis are supposed to be out there, but there have been no confirmed sightings in B.C. waters since whaling ended in 1967.

The last North Pacific right whale seen off the coast of B.C. was killed in 1951 at the Coal Harbour whaling station on northern Vancouver Island and, although they have been seen in the Bering Sea in late summer, the total population is believed to be fewer than 100.

There were celebrations last summer when a DFO deep sea survey saw five blue whales, including a calf and the sightings spurred hopes that they might recolonize B.C. waters. But, with threats ranging from pollution and noise to food shortages and climate change — who knows?

Exceptions to the knowledge void are the four populations of killer whales which have been the subject of intense study since the early 1970s, largely because of the foresight of researchers such as Ford, Michael Bigg, Graeme Ellis and Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, who compiled a photographic record of every whale.

“As soon as you know any animal species on an individual level, it’s extremely powerful,” said Ellis, research technician with the marine mammal group at the Pacific Biological Station.

“We have known 85 per cent of the population of [resident] killer whales since birth.”

But, even with the endangered southern resident killer whales, there are gaping holes in knowledge, such as where the whales spend their winters.

“We have studied orcas for 30 years and still have a really basic level of knowledge,” said whale researcher Helena Symonds of OrcaLab on Hanson Island.

After whaling ended, live captures in the late 1960s and 1970s sent killer whale populations into a nosedive, and no one took responsibility for whale research.

“Little effort was put into managing or assessing populations of large whales until the Species at Risk Act (SARA) came along,” Ford said.

In 2002, the Pacific Biological Station was given the mandate to do whale research on the B.C. coast.

Out of the 25 known cetacean species, eight are listed under SARA — with four sub-listings for killer whales — meaning recovery strategies are in the works.

The endangered cetaceans are sei, North Pacific right, blue and southern resident killer whales.

The humpback, fin, northern resident and transient killer whales are all threatened.

Under the special concern label are harbour porpoises, greys and offshore killer whales.

Progress in whale research moves at a glacial rate and there’s a tremendous amount of water in the Pacific Ocean which needs to be scoured — at great expense — to come up with adequate population estimates or trends, Ellis said.

But fallout from climate change is already being seen in some whale populations.

“Climate change is enough to make me nervous. We are apprehensive about what the future holds,” Ellis said.

Changes in ocean temperatures can wipe out salmon runs and, as the ocean becomes more acidic, it affects animals with exoskeletons such as shrimp that are a major source of food for baleen whales like humpbacks and greys.

At OrcaLab, Symonds and renowned whale researcher Paul Spong believe lack of salmon affected the movement of some pods last year.

“It brings up the questions of what has happened to the salmon and are the whales flexible enough to change species,” Symonds said. But, it’s not all doom and gloom. As research starts to tell whale tales, there are signs of hope in some populations and acoustic monitoring might produce more accurate figures.

Humpbacks, which are being identified with photos of their tails, are being studied by international researchers through the SPLASH project (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks) and it appears they are making a strong comeback along the coast.

“They are seen very predictably off Victoria and that has changed in the last 10 years or so,” Ford said.

In addition to krill, humpbacks prey on small fish and the return of sardines to the west coast of Vancouver Island may be one reason the population is rebounding.

But without historical data, it is difficult to know what the recovery target should be, Ford said. The biggest success story is the greys, which were reduced to about 4,000 by whaling.

Today, there are about 24,000 grey whales, which make the trek every year from the coastal lagoons in Baja California to the Bering Sea and back again.

But a blip about eight years ago, when one-quarter of the population died, demonstrated again the vulnerability of whales and how little we know.

“There was a problem that developed in the Bering Sea, where the ice cover prevented them from getting adequate nutrition,” Ford said.

Since then, the greys have recovered, but last year, after several skinny greys died during the migration, there were fears their food supply — amphipod crustaceans, herring eggs and shrimp larvae — could be threatened.

Following necropsies, Ford believes the deaths were isolated events.

“Generally, they are getting adequate nutrition,” he said.

However, problems such as entanglement in fishing equipment and ship collisions are becoming more common with greys and humpbacks.

“It may not be sufficient to impede recovery, but it is the kind of thing we’re trying to assess,” Ford said.

The effect of military sonar on some populations is also a growing concern.

Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, researcher with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash., likes to balance good news stories of greys and humpbacks with the gloomier prognosis for other species.

Carcasses of the deep-diving beaked whales usually wash up because navy sonar rips them apart, he said.

The beaked whales are elusive Loch Ness monster type creatures, Balcomb-Bartok said.

“Some have spiked teeth jutting through their bottom jaw.”

When it comes to North Pacific right whales, Balcomb-Bartok gets emotional as he imagines the loneliness of a right whale’s life and the slim possibility of finding a mate.

“It’s one of the saddest things,” he said.

In 2002, the Pacific Biological Station was given the mandate to do whale research on the B.C. coast.

Out of the 25 known cetacean species, eight are listed under SARA — with four sub-listings for killer whales — meaning recovery strategies are in the works.

The endangered cetaceans are sei, North Pacific right, blue and southern resident killer whales.

The humpback, fin, northern resident and transient killer whales are all threatened.

Under the special concern label are harbour porpoises, greys and offshore killer whales.

Progress in whale research moves at a glacial rate and there’s a tremendous amount of water in the Pacific Ocean which needs to be scoured — at great expense — to come up with adequate population estimates or trends, Ellis said.

But fallout from climate change is already being seen in some whale populations.

“Climate change is enough to make me nervous. We are apprehensive about what the future holds,” Ellis said.

Changes in ocean temperatures can wipe out salmon runs and, as the ocean becomes more acidic, it affects animals with exoskeletons such as shrimp that are a major source of food for baleen whales like humpbacks and greys.

At OrcaLab, Symonds and renowned whale researcher Paul Spong believe lack of salmon affected the movement of some pods last year.

“It brings up the questions of what has happened to the salmon and are the whales flexible enough to change species,” Symonds said. But, it’s not all doom and gloom. As research starts to tell whale tales, there are signs of hope in some populations and acoustic monitoring might produce more accurate figures.

Humpbacks, which are being identified with photos of their tails, are being studied by international researchers through the SPLASH project (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks) and it appears they are making a strong comeback along the coast.

“They are seen very predictably off Victoria and that has changed in the last 10 years or so,” Ford said.

In addition to krill, humpbacks prey on small fish and the return of sardines to the west coast of Vancouver Island may be one reason the population is rebounding.

But without historical data, it is difficult to know what the recovery target should be, Ford said. The biggest success story is the greys, which were reduced to about 4,000 by whaling.

Today, there are about 24,000 grey whales, which make the trek every year from the coastal lagoons in Baja California to the Bering Sea and back again. But a blip about eight years ago, when one-quarter of the population died, demonstrated again the vulnerability of whales and how little we know.

“There was a problem that developed in the Bering Sea, where the ice cover prevented them from getting adequate nutrition,” Ford said.

Since then, the greys have recovered, but last year, after several skinny greys died during the migration, there were fears their food supply — amphipod crustaceans, herring eggs and shrimp larvae — could be threatened.

Following necropsies, Ford believes the deaths were isolated events.

“Generally, they are getting adequate nutrition,” he said.

However, problems such as entanglement in fishing equipment and ship collisions are becoming more common with greys and humpbacks.

“It may not be sufficient to impede recovery, but it is the kind of thing we’re trying to assess,” Ford said.

The effect of military sonar on some populations is also a growing concern.

Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, researcher with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash., likes to balance good news stories of greys and humpbacks with the gloomier prognosis for other species.

Carcasses of the deep-diving beaked whales usually wash up because navy sonar rips them apart, he said.

The beaked whales are elusive Loch Ness monster type creatures, Balcomb-Bartok said.

“Some have spiked teeth jutting through their bottom jaw.”

When it comes to North Pacific right whales, Balcomb-Bartok gets emotional as he imagines the loneliness of a right whale’s life and the slim possibility of finding a mate.

“It’s one of the saddest things,” he said.

© 2007 Times Colonist


Orca calf born J42 is a girl

New baby spotted west of Whidbey is J Pod’s second birth this year. A tiny head protectively flanked by two adult killer whales was the first sign of a new addition to a pod of endangered southern resident killer whales this week.

The calf, believed to have been born Monday night or Tuesday morning, is the second birth this year for J Pod, one of three pods of southern residents.

“It’s really good news — it has put a smile on our faces,” said Kelley BalcombBartok, researcher with the Center for Whale Research in Friday Harbor, Wash.

The new baby, nestled next to its mother, was spotted west of Whidbey Island, where the pod has been for several days. “There’s lots of chum [salmon] in Puget Sound and that’s their favourite food after chinook,” Balcomb-Bartok said.

The mother of the calf is J14, or Samish, which bodes well for the baby’s survival, as four out of five of her calves are still alive. It’s the fourth calf born to southern residents this year and, so far, there have been no deaths, Balcomb-Bartok said.

The birth brings the number of southern residents up to 88, not counting Lolita, an L Pod whale who has been at Miami Seaquarium since her capture in 1972.

The northern residents, with about 230 whales in 16 pods, are listed as threatened.A draft recovery strategy for resident killer whales released this summer by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans fingers environmental contamination, dwindling supplies of salmon and physical and noise disturbances as threats to the whales.

This year, a few members of L Pod have already been spotted off the coast of California, Balcomb-Bartok said. That’s earlier than any of the whales have been known to swim south in previous years, although, last year, L and K Pods were seen off the coast of California between January and March.

“It’s a mix of science and personal feelings and anthropomorphism, but maybe they’re sending a small group down to see how the fishing is,” Balcomb-Bartok said.

The attraction last year appeared to be newly restored chinook runs in the Sacramento River delta, he said.

© 2007 Times Colonist

More information and photos at: Centre for Whale Research

Thanks for a lovely holiday

We had a wonderful 5 day stay at the Birds of a Feather. We enjoyed all that this area had to offer, from the beautiful sunrise, the abundant wildlife and amazing scenery, the lazy sunsets. The advice that Dieter gave us was invaluable. Had we not taken this advice we would have missed a most exciting whale watching trip. We were lucky enough to encounter a super pod. Everywhere you looked, you saw whales performing all sorts of acrobatics. It was perfect. The gardens at Hatley Castle also provided us with photo opportunities. We saw peacock families as well as hummingbirds. Well worth a visit. Thanks for a lovely holiday.