*Note: this summer, we had the fortunate opportunity to share live updates on research being conducted by Vancouver Aquarium’s Cetacean Research Lab, whose team traveled along the coast of British Columbia to gain additional insights to support its groundbreaking cetacean research. This post summarizes observations made from all three research trips that took place this summer, and is authored by Lance Barrett-Lennard, the Aquarium’s senior marine mammal scientist and head of the cetacean research lab.
This summer, I once again had the fortunate opportunity to embark on a series of research expeditions to explore marine life off the coast of central British Columbia. The first trip took place from June 19 – July 4, and included both myself and cetacean research assistant Meghan McKillop. The second leg took place from July 15 – July 26, and included myself and cetacean research assistant Caitlin Birdsall. The third took place from August 1 – August 10, and included me and my family, including my wife Kathy Heise, who is a Vancouver Aquarium research associate with over two decades of research experience studying killer whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins. Meghan joined me again for the fourth and final trip, from August 27 – September 5.
These trips were filled with sightings of various marine animals, ranging from sea otters to resident killer whales to humpback whales, gray whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins. In two decades of field-based whale research, I’ve seen huge variability in the distribution and behaviour of marine mammals from time to time – it seems that as soon as one detects a pattern, it changes. Our field season so far this year is no exception – what is most notable is how different our observations are from the last three years.
For one, we noticed changes in the resident killer whales off the central B.C. coast. In a “typical” year, if there is such a thing, it is common by the middle of the summer to find them in large, vocal groups – highly social and by all appearances well-fed. This time however, we found their behaviour to be more typical of what we usually see in the winter, such as traveling in smaller groups and calling less often. The lower-than-usual stock of Chinook (or spring) salmon may be a contributing factor to this change.
This doesn’t mean that resident killer whales are starving, or are even close to it, but the fact that one of their primary food sources is in shorter supply than usual this year likely means that the killer whales are working harder to find their prey. They can’t afford to spend time being social, and – I think – may be calling less often because they don’t want to invite their neighbours over to share their limited prey. The lower Chinook salmon stocks this season could be a cyclical development, as stocks were also low four summers ago.
In contrast, Pacific white-sided dolphins were more abundant than usual in offshore waters this season. As you can see from the following photos, they exhibited energetic, frisky behaviors that may have been perceived as a bit “pesky” by other cetaceans, including resident killer whales.
So, what does all of this mean? It means that killer whales, as intelligent and capable as they are, are only as healthy as their food supply. And it demonstrates the value of ongoing research to monitor the health and well-being of these marine animal populations, and over time, help us identify patterns that enable us to better understand how to conserve them and preserve their ecosystem.
For all of you citizen scientists out there, there are ways that you can help support our research efforts. One way is by reporting any sightings of cetaceans to the Vancouver Aquarium B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network (which is a Vancouver Aquarium program in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada) by calling 1-866-I-SAW-ONE, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or reporting online here.
You can also adopt a killer whale through the Vancouver Aquarium Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program – more information can be found here. By adopting a wild killer whale, you help to support our cetacean research and conservation efforts.
To read full accounts of each research expedition that took place this summer, click here. Have a great fall and winter, and stay tuned for future updates on the cetacean research front!