Studying killer whales in the wild is expensive work. Transportation, equipment costs, boat maintenance and fuel are just some of the many daily costs faced by researchers in the field. By taking out a membership in the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program, you’ll help defray these costs and become a key partner in the killer whale research effort.

 

A Year in Review

 

A Look Back at 2018

A Successful Field Season

This year marked the fifth season of our photogrammetry project monitoring the health of B.C.’s killer whales. As in other years, we started fieldwork on the southern resident population in May, working alongside colleagues Drs. John Durban and Holly Fearnbach to take aerial photographs using a drone. While no southern residents were present during the month, the team was able to photograph 28 Bigg’s (transient) killer whales and 5 humpback whales. This was our final field season in the Salish Sea, and from this point forward, our team will conduct the northern resident photogrammetry fieldwork while Durban and Fearnbach focus on the southern residents. In August, our new northern resident team – including Brittany Visona as camera operator, Dylan Smyth as vessel operator, and myself as the drone pilot – successfully conducted 88 flights and acquired high-quality overhead images of 63 northern residents, 11 Bigg’s, and 11 humpback whales.

Photographs weren’t the only things we collected this summer. Working alongside Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) researchers, our team was out on the water for July and August collecting fecal samples (poop) from both southern and northern residents. This study, led by our MSc student Kaitlin Yehle, will assess the health of resident killer whales by determining concentrations of steroid and thyroid hormones present in their feces as indicators of nutritional and disturbance-related stress.

Updates from the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network

We hosted two scientific workshops this year, addressing issues that appear to be increasing in B.C. – whale depredation (whales removing fish from fishing gear) and entanglement (the wrapping of fishing gear around a whale’s body). By bringing together fishermen, fisheries managers, and scientists, the Whale Depredation Workshop helped establish the best protocol to formally record depredation events to better understand the issue along our coast. The Entanglement Response Workshop aimed to educate mariners about proper reporting and documentation methods should they encounter a whale wrapped in fishing line or other material. This workshop was intended to improve communication between the marine industry and entanglement response teams to gain more information about the extent of this issue and gain further understanding of the type of gear involved in order to prevent future entanglements.

Our team also worked with the marine industry to develop the WhaleReport Alert System (WRAS), which alerts commercial mariners of the presence of whales in their vicinity. Vessel strikes can cause serious injury and the noise they create can disrupt foraging, impede communication, and increase stress. By relaying real-time whale sightings reported via the BCCSN’s WhaleReport app, WRAS allows mariners to undertake adaptive mitigation measures, such as slowing down or diverting course, to reduce the risk of collision and disturbance.

Updates from the Conservation Genetics Lab

In the Conservation Genetics Lab, our team has been busy conducting paternity tests and identifying prey samples collected in the field. Starting in 2019, we will be working on a new study that examines how gene diversity and human-caused stressors may impact the immune system of southern and northern resident killer whales. By analyzing MHC class-I genes, which are involved in immune function, we can better understand genetic diversity within the two populations and how this may affect their ability to fight disease.

Looking into the Future

We will spend much of the winter analyzing the photographs and fecal samples collected over the summer, creating a northern resident ID catalogue that includes left, right, and overhead images of each individual, writing scientific papers, and working in the genetics lab. If you are interested in our scientific publications, please visit the Coastal Ocean Research Institute’s website, https://research.ocean.org/research/cori.

Additionally, in 2019, responsibility for running the Adoption Program will transfer to the Ocean Wise Development Department, as our team takes a step back and focuses on what we do best – research. Our loyal supporters will still be able to support our research by renewing their adoptions, and will still continue to receive news and updates on the animals they care so much about.