The best perk of my job as the Vancouver’s Aquarium’s senior marine mammal research scientist is spending two or three months every year studying killer whales in remote areas along the BC and Alaska coastlines. For the past three years, my study area has been British Columbia’s beautiful and wild central coast—from the north end of Vancouver Island the First Nations village of Bella Bella and beyond. I use the Aquarium’s research boat Skana, and work for two to three week stints at a time with one or two research assistants. We spend 12-13 hours a day searching for killer whales and other cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises).
Reflecting back on our central coast research observations in 2010 and 2011, I’m struck by how dynamic and variable our marine environment is. Months after the 2010 season I was still telling anyone who would listen about the huge schools of Pacific sardines we had seen all summer. Their presence was particularly exciting because the species was almost wiped out in the 1940s and 50s, and as far as anyone knows was completely absent from our coast for almost five decades. The sardines attracted hundreds of humpback whales and thousands of dolphins and seabirds—the air and water were teeming with life. In contrast, I didn’t see a single sardine in 2011—perhaps because of colder water temperatures—but herring were abundant, and for the first time in many years I watched minke whales and rhinoceros auklets feeding on huge schools of small, eel-like fish called sand lance. The previous year’s abundant humpback whales had moved off to some other feeding area, and transient killer whales, which seemed unusually sociable this year, broke their normal silence and chatted up a storm on our underwater microphones.
This variation from one year to another is not unusual and indeed, it seems to me that the only certainty in the marine world is uncertainty. This is where the value of long-term research comes in. With a long enough view, we can identify long-term trends, and begin to distinguish human induced change from natural variation. I love spending summers on the boat, but I have to say that I also look forward to spending winters searching for patterns in the data we’ve collected and turning those patterns into a better understanding of the natural world.