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A Day In The Life of a Whale Researcher

Marine mammal field studies vary greatly depending on the project of the day, the weather, and the animals that happen to be present on any given day. Here’s a “typical” research day as recorded by Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard in the Skana’s logbook. On this particular day, Lance was on a killer whale and humpback whale monitoring trip and had been joined for a week by his colleague Doug Sandilands from the Straitwatch Program.


07:45 Departed our anchorage in the mouth of the Koeye River (B.C. Central Coast). Winds light, visibility good apart from scattered fog patches, forecast calling for increasing NW winds later in the day.

Photo: Doug Sandilands Pacific Sardines, ample food for humpback whales.


Killer whales spotted!


I64 or 'Kokish', a male in the I11 matriline, is easy to identify due to the notch out of the top of his fin.

The C10s in resting formation. 

Lance makes an acoustic recording to provide to colleagues.

This humpback shows evidence of a past killer whale attack. Note the tooth-rake scars on the left fluke.


Another day on the 'Skana'. 

09:00 Took identification photographs of four humpback whales in the east side of Fitzhugh Sound near Kwakume Inlet. The humpbacks are feeding very actively on large schools of Pacific sardines. We are interested in whether they have evidence of past skirmishes with killer whales (parallel teeth marks on their flukes), and/or scars just ahead of the flukes caused by previous entanglements in lines or nets. Two of the whales have healed teeth marks; none have net or line marks. We can see at least six more humpbacks blowing along the shoreline south of us.

09:45 Checked out two more humpbacks near Kelpie Pt on the west side of Fitzhugh Sound. Both dove before we were close enough for good photos. We did not attempt to re-approach them.
10:00 Entered Goldstream Harbour, just S of Kelpie Pt. to see if it was a suitable anchorage. Despite having spent part of six summers in the area in the past, I’d never explored that particular bay.
10:05 The entrance to Goldstream Hbr faces east, but there is also a smaller opening encumbered by rocks facing north into Hecate Strait. Doug spotted resident killer whales on the other side of the rocks, heading east!

10:15 As we came out of the E entrance of Goldstream Hbr we found that the whales had rounded Kelpie Pt into Fitzhugh Sound and were heading south.

10:30 We’ve recognized the whales as members of I11 and C1 pods and are taking ID photographs for verification by Graeme Ellis.

11:15 Stopped to listen to the whale’s calls.  Made an excellent recording (very little background boat noise).  We will provide these recordings to colleagues John Ford, Harald Yurk and/or Volker Deecke, who are studying killer whale vocal behaviour.


15:30 Have been following the whales at a distance to see if they would begin feeding, but they are moving slowly in resting formation.

15:48  Whale are spreading out…we’ve stopped to make a second sound recording.

17:25  Made a final recording in the middle of the southern entrance to Fitzhugh Sound. The whales are widely dispersed now, and we are hearing lots of echolocation sounds and relatively little calling. They are feeding now, likely on salmon.

17:37  The NW wind has come up significantly and we have decided to end the encounter. Just had a VHF radio call from the lighthouse keeper at Addenbroke Island (18 km to the north)  who would like to rendezvous briefly to discuss humpback whale entanglements in fishing gear. Rather than run straight upwind all the way, we decide to duck in behind Penrose Island and run up Klaquek Channel.

18:00 Stopped to photograph two humpback whales in Klaquek Channel. We recognize one with prominent killer whale scars and the tip of one fluke missing that we photographed about 5 miles away on July 16. As we proceed north we see six more humpbacks, but do not stop to take photographs so that we can make our rendezvous on time.

18:45  Passed up the east side of Addenbroke Island and saw two humpbacks in Fairmile Passage. This year’s abundance of humpbacks is greater than I’ve ever seen in the area before.  The increase is probably explained by increasing sardine populations, which are recovering at last from catastrophic over-fishing 70 years earlier.
19:05  Anchored in Green Isl. anchorage. A few minutes later, Paul Whalen from Addenbroke Island lighthouse showed up in a skiff and tied up alongside. Doug, who has experience disentangling whales  from fishing gear, described generally-accepted methods and Paul described sightings of entangled humpbacks in Fitzhugh Sound the previous year.

20:50 Hauled anchor and bounced our way back up Fitzhugh Sound towards Hakai Pass, eight miles away.

21:36 Anchored in Goldstream Harbour. Doug got out the beer and cooked a late dinner and while I worked on the day’s field notes. Another day in paradise.

Our route today: