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.


Vancouver Aquarium Cetacean Research Blog- Leg 2: The search continues

The Vancouver Aquarium’s Cetacean Research Program spends the summer surveying the coast of British Columbia investigating the distribution and ecology of cetaceans, especially killer whales.  2013 will mark our fifth season using our generously-donated research vessel, “Skana”, and focusing our research on the Central Coast area.

Sometimes there are not enough hours in a day, or in our case enough sunlight, to accomplish what we want to do. It was a stunning evening: little to no wind, warm thanks to a sundrenched afternoon, and a pink sky produced by the setting sun. The scenery wasn’t totally lost on us as we frantically tried to take ID photos of a mixed group of northern resident killer whales near Caamano Sound, but it certainly was secondary to the task at hand. We had just come across a pair of adult male killer whales at the northern end of Beauchemin Channel as we were getting ready to anchor for the evening. It had been already been a long day and we had covered a lot of ground searching for killer whales as part of the annual population survey.  Up until this point, the day had been emblematic of the 2nd leg of the Cetacean Research Lab’s field season in that we’d crossed paths with a wide variety of marine mammals but had yet to encounter any orcas.

Our luck had finally changed! Dinner plans were abandoned as the pair of whales led us south where they rejoined a larger group actively feeding on salmon.  The killer whales were spread out along the channel and we moved from group to group, trying to keep track of who’d been photographed and where they were headed. Time was passing, light was fading, and more whales kept appearing at each turn. The small islands roughly forming the channel made it challenging to keep track of the whales as they split-up and took different paths through the maze. Nonetheless, we adjusted our camera settings for the falling light and continued to snap away. We knew there was little chance we could capture the subtle details in their saddlepatches (the light grey patch behind a killer whales dorsal fin that help in individual identification), but we we’re hoping there were enough distinct fins that the silhouettes would suffice to ID a few whales and hence give us an idea of which families were present.

When even the highest ISO settings began to deliver poor images we set the cameras down and deployed the hydrophone to record any vocalizations. We heard echolocation clicks and buzzes but the whales were mostly silent. A few chirps and trills were all we heard as they were clearly focused on the hunt. We later confirmed our findings with colleagues who monitor a fixed hydrophone nearby and they had not heard the whales either. We left the group well after sundown and motored to a new anchorage where we identified a handful of individuals from the collection of images. It turns out we had spent time with a mixed group of whales including the R4’s, R5’s, and a smattering of individuals from the various ‘I’ families. There were certainly more whales out there that we didn’t get to and some of the photos we did manage were not unique enough by silhouette to conclusively ID an individual. However, we were pleased with the outcome, particularly as it came so late in the day.  

The brief, somewhat frantic, encounter was to be our only killer whale sighting during the cruise. If we can extrapolate our experience in the early part of the summer, it would seem the whales are following the pattern observed last year when even the normally vocal residents keep the chatter to a minimum and become primarily focused on acquiring prey.  When whales vocalize less often, the hydrophone becomes less useful as a tool to locate them over long distances and encounters can unfortunately become less frequent.  Hopefully, our timing was just off for sighting killer whales and the next phase of our summer field work will yield more encounters.

That said, we sighted a dizzying diversity of marine mammal and seabird species during this survey that spanned the middle part of July along the central coast. Seals, sea lions, sea otters, and a lone fur seal were spotted, as were grey whales, humpbacks, and even a trio of fin whales. Eagles, cormorants, murres, and rhinoceros auklets patrolled the skies overhead while Dall’s porpoise, harbour porpoise, and Pacific white-sided dolphins flashed through the cold waters around us.  The BC coast is incredibly productive and we hope killer whales are taking full advantage of the summer salmon peak, wherever they happen to be.