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Whale Update....

Northern Residents


I11 Strawberry Isles
On January 15th the A8 matriline with Surge A61 was seen in Johnstone Strait heading east past Robson Bight.  On February 3rd members of the I11 matrilne were spotted by the Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society (photo to left) in Clayoquot Sound, and on the same day A4 and A5 pods were heard in Johnstone Strait.  


Southern Residents

D Ellifrit J34
Photo: Center for Whale Research, J34

Part of J pod, including the adult male Blackberry J27, was seen up the Sunshine Coast, near Powell River on January 11th.  On the 23rd they were observed heading north up Haro Strait in choppy seas.  Four K pod members and nine L’s were spotted on February 7th, 9th, and 10th in Puget Sound and off Bainbridge Island, and J pod was seen in Haro Strait on February 12th.      




D Ellifrit T68
Photo: Center for Whale Research, T68 lunging

On December 19th, a group of 5 transients were seen near Bella Bella and Lama Passage on the remote BC central coast.  T58 was identified in the group, a female whale born around 1976.   The second week of January brought T68, T68A, T75B and T75B1 into Spieden Channel where they killed a stellar sea lion, and on February 3 transients were again seen in Puget Sound, spending the afternoon in Admiralty Inlet.  On the morning of January 31st the T18/T19s were seen traveling south in Blackney Pass and on Feb 5th the T10 group was seen in Clio Channel off West Cracroft Island.  The mammal-eaters were also seen and heard in Haro Strait on February 11.  When dusk feel on February 14th, 6 to 9 whales were seen along the northeastern tip of Texada Island in Malaspina Strait. 


The “offshore” killer whales are generally considered a population based in BC, however it is not unusual for them to travel south in search of sharks and other prey.  On January 19, a large group of 20-40 offshore killer whales were spotted swimming north near Long Beach, CA.  The last time they were spotted near the California shore was in 2005.  

February 2012
In this issue

 Whale Update
 Field Notes
 In the News 




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Field Notes....

What do we do with all the data collected in the field?

Olga Filatova

Not a lot of field work happens over the wintertime, the days are short and the weather is too rough to get much work done.  However, the off-season is when much of the data collected during the summer months can be examined and analyzed.  And that is exactly what Dr Olga Filatova, a visiting researcher from the University of Moscow, Russia, has been doing.  Dr Filatova joined the Vancouver Aquarium’s Cetacean Research Lab in December for two months, and has been working with local killer whale scientists and analyzing hydrophone recordings from BC waters to study killer whale acoustic communication in the western North Pacific.  She is particularly interested in dialect evolution and plans to compare the variation of calls between different matrilines of Canadian killer whales with those of Russian (western North Pacific) killer whales.  Unfortunatley we had to say goodbye to Dr Filatova as she returned to Russia at the beginning of February to resume her research, assist graduate students and teach a marine mammal biology class at Moscow State University.  


Workshop on Ocean Noise 

When one considers the idea of “pollution” in the world’s oceans, things come to mind like toxic chemicals, oil spills, plastic and other marine debris, but there is something else that contributes greatly to the health of our oceans, and that is noise pollution.  It is now increasingly recognized that a healthy acoustic environment is a necessary condition for healthy ecosystems and the species that utilize sound to communicate with one another and locate their food.  However, when decisions are made around existing and future ocean uses in Canada’s waters, there is limited consideration to the impact of anthropogenic (human-caused) ocean noise.   In order to better understand the current picture of ocean noise, WWF-Canada convened a workshop entitled A Rapid Assessment of Ocean Noise in Canada’s Pacific Waters earlier this month, which Vancouver Aquarium Senior Marine Mammal Scientist Lance Barrett-Lennard and Research Associate Kathy Heise attended.  The goal was to bring together scientists and researchers of the ocean noise community and discuss how to incorporate anthropogenic noise into current decision making and planning. 

The workshop was designed with 4 basic objectives:

1.   To obtain a ‘picture’ of ocean noise and its sources in the region, as well as the existing monitoring, research and science capacity in Pacific Canada to understand this issue.

2.   To identify the potential effects of anthropogenic ocean noise and related conservation concerns relevant to this region.

3.   To identify the kinds of knowledge and information needs that are most useful and relevant for advancing management of noise in the region.

4.   To discuss the short to medium term work that can help fill gaps in knowledge in information products that would be useful for ‘noise management’.

The agenda was jam-packed with experts from Canada and the US, and included presentations and research findings from various areas such as Johnstone Strait, the Salish Sea, BC’s north and central coast, and even southern California. 



In the News....

United States approves controversial satellite tagging of southern resident killer whales

The endangered southern resident killer whale population are some of the most intensely studied marine mammal species in the world, but their winter distribution and winter feeding habits still remain somewhat of a mystery.  They have been spotted as far north as Haida Gwaii and as far south as Monterey, California.  In order to better understand where these whales go in the cold winter months when salmon runs are not as plentiful in the Salish Sea, the American government has approved wildlife biologist Brad Hanson at the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to attach satellite tags to the dorsal fins of six southern resident killer whales per season.

The chance to gain information about the whales during the winter is something all researchers strive for; however, the problem is that researchers have mixed feelings about the use of satellite tagging.  The satellite tags are about the size of a nine-volt battery with two spikes and barbs that hold onto the whale’s flesh.  The tags are shot from a cross bow or pneumatic gun into the dorsal fin and remain on the whale anywhere from three to nine weeks until they fall out, leaving the wound to heal on its own.  But when the tag falls out, it tears away flesh and the wound can easily become infected.  Adding to the concern is that the southern resident whales are a very vulnerable group - the number of individuals sits at a precarious 88 and each animal is important to the survival of the population.  Southern residents also live in an urban environment with a lot of toxins proven to interfere with their immune and reproductive systems, making them susceptible to further injury and infection from a satellite tag.

However, Mr Hanson has tagged more that 250 whales from 15 different species and says there have been no adverse impacts connected to their survival.  While it is a valid concern, he feels that the damage from a satellite tag is within the naturally occurring range of tissue impact.  And indeed, no one can dispute that killer whales often have many cuts, scars, and scrapes on their skin. 

None of the resident whales have been tagged yet, and unless the weather cooperates, Hanson’s team may not be able to tag the animals.  Yet if they manage a successful tag, the researcher team hopes to follow the whales and collect both prey and fecal samples to help determine their winter food source.  Mr Hanson hopes that his tags will help shed light on winter dietary needs and identify specific areas of winter habitat to help refine critical habitat.  Scientists can then target those areas in the future to find out if the usage pattern of the southern residents continues. 

News article: Vancouver Sun 

S Davies SRKW
Photo: Susanne Davies


When it comes to dinner, Eastern Arctic killer whales aren't picky!

Studying killer whales in the Arctic can be tricky, the field season is short, the whales are widely dispersed, and boats are not always readily available.  So Steven Ferguson of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and a colleague turned to local Inuit hunters in order to find out the secrets behind what these Arctic whales are eating.  Using an Inuktitut-speaking interpreter they interviewed 105 hunters ranging in age from 30-90 from 11 different communities in coastal Nunavut.  This collaboration turned out to be extremely successful.  The researchers were able to gather decade’s worth of field notes through interviews, information that essentially that wouldn’t have been available otherwise. 
Killer whales are one of the most widely-dispersed mammals in the world and have adapted their hunting strategies to prey on specific food sources available in their given environment.  Here in BC we have killer whales that specialize on Chinook salmon and others that eat only marine mammals.  In Alaska a population of transients prey on migrating gray whale calves and in Norway another population that feeds on herring.  In Antarctica five different types of killer whales have been identified, each with different prey preference.  However, there was a large knowledge gap in the ecology of whales living in Arctic Canada, until this study that is.  Since the Arctic sea ice is melting, killer whales are moving into new regions, where even the Inuit have not seen them before, and scientists want to know more about their prey preferences and hunting behaviors.    According to the Inuit knowledge, the Arctic killer whales eat primarily other mammals and none of the hunters who were interviewed had seen them eating fish.  Seventy-three of the hunters had observed killer whales hunting ringed seals; 24 had witnessed them hunting and feasting on narwhal; and 17 had watched them ramming and drowning adult bowhead whales – animals that are more than twice their size.
The killer whales seem to time their visit to the eastern Canadian Arctic as the ice begins to recede in July, which also happens to correspond with when other marine mammals give birth to their young. According to the Inuit hunters, the killer whales work in highly coordinated groups similar to wolves, sometimes herding narwhals and belugas into deep water and circling them to keep them from escaping.  Their prey may also try to escape by fleeing into shallower water where the killer whales are not as comfortable.  The Inuit even have a word for this phenomenon: "aalirijuk," which translates to “the fear of killer whales”.  However from time to time it is the prey with the upper hand; in fact the Inuit have seen narwhal skewering killer whales with their tusks, sometimes killing their tormentors.
Although the data in this study are anecdotes, the information provided by the Inuit is still valuable and very interesting.  Not only does this study shed light on the ecological adaptations of Eastern Arctic killer whales, but it also demonstrates the role that traditional knowledge can play in informing traditional science and contributing to marine conservation and management.  
New Article: Science Magazine


Arctic KW Gretchen Freund
Photo: Gretchen Freund