From bubblenet feeding, to the return of Cassiopeia, here are a few of the top sighting stories from the Vancouver Aquarium B.C. Cetacean Sighting Networks’s (Sightings Network) past year.

Life and Loss for Killer Whales

In 2014, two new calves were born to the critically endangered southern resident killer whale community, L120 and J50. L120 was first spotted Sept. 6, 2014, next to mother L86.

Unfortunately, at only seven weeks old, L120 did not appear to be with L-pod after they were spotted in the Salish Sea. A few short months later J50 appeared. First seen on Dec. 30, 2014 and estimated to between four to 10 days old at that time, there is still debate as to who is the mother of this new calf. It was seen swimming alongside J16 and J36, who are mother and daughter and estimated to be 43 and 16 years old respectively.

In early January, 2015, J50 was spotted actively rolling at the water’s surface and a conveniently timed photograph revealed J50 is female. We wish J50 luck as she faces the many challenges that present themselves to young killer whales.

Killer Whale research Vancouver Aquarium.

The underside of a killer whale can reveal the sex of an individual, males have an elongated white pattern around their genital slit while females have a rounded pattern of white and possess visible mammary slits.

The Return of Cassiopeia

Cassiopeia, a humpback whale with a unique W-shaped marking on the right side of its fluke, was first identified by the researchers at the Marine Education and Research Society in 2008 near Northeastern Vancouver Island.  It has been seen most years since in that area and in 2013 was also spotted near Campbell River and in the Strait of Georgia. This year Cassiopeia was spotted in Howe Sound on two confirmed occasions in early autumn. Cassiopeia represents a unique citizen science success story. Due to diligent sightings reporting by coastal residents the Sightings Network has been able to paint a picture of where Cassiopeia has spent time over the past seven years, a great tool for conservation and research.

B.C. Sightings Network Vancouver Aquarium

Cassiopeia, a humpback whale with a distinct W-shaped marking on its fluke, was spotted several times in Howe Sound in 2014. Photo Credit: Andrew Klaver

Turtle Near Tofino

The Sightings Network continues to actively solicit sightings of sea turtles. We predicted 2014 was going to be an exciting year for sea turtle sightings, as many species often seen in association with them such as sunfish, sharks, and jellies were seen in number in B.C. waters. While we didn’t quite receive as many sightings as predicted, a few did arrive, including one made on August 20 off Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. The observer managed to take a photo, and sure enough, it was a leatherback sea turtle. Leatherbacks are B.C.’s most common species of sea turtle as they possess several characteristics that allow them to survive in our cool, temperate waters. Hard-shelled species that have been spotted in B.C. including green, olive ridley, and loggerhead sea turtles are much better suited to warmer waters, and sightings generally occur when individuals find their way up north by following a warm current.

Leatherback turtle

A leatherback turtle swims near Tofino, B.C. in August 2014. Photo Credit: Greg McKay

Risso’s Around Haida Gwaii

Risso’s dolphins again piqued the interest of the Sightings Network staff, when a sighting was made in early August off the southeast coast of Haida Gwaii, not far from where sightings of the species have occurred in the past. These appearances add more intrigue to these mysterious cetaceans – little is known about the groups that spend time in B.C. waters – as they occurred in waters that are much shallower than the offshore waters in which Risso’s dolphins are typically found.

Risso Dolphins Vancouver Aquarium

Risso’s dolphins, a rarely seen species in B.C. waters, were spotted a few times in 2014. Photo Credit: Christine Fordham

Predators and Prey on Display

Citizens of Squamish were treated to a thrilling multispecies sighting on Mar. 15, 2014. A group of approximately 15 Bigg’s (transient) killer whales were seen hunting a group of about 100 Pacific white-sided dolphins in a spectacular display in Mamquam Blind Channel, near the mouth of Squamish River. Several huge killer whale leaps were viewed as well as an incredible amount of active behavior from the dolphins.

Dolphins and whales near Squamish

A spectacular display of a predator-prey interaction. Photo Credit: Canessa Isnardy

Bubblenets up North

One of our favourite sightings this year was from the Vancouver Aquarium research vessel, Skana, of bubblenet feeding humpback whales in Dixon Entrance. While surveying this region as part of our new North Coast Initiative, the Skana was able to observe and record a group of 11 humpbacks working cooperatively to encircle forage fish using bubbles. This specialized feeding technique is most commonly observed in the northern reaches of the coast. Listening to the whales’ haunting feeding call and then watching them emerge dramatically with their mouths agape was an absolute thrill. Watch a bubblenetting video and learn more about the feeding strategy on our wild whales website.

Sightings Network spots Humpback whales in B.C.

Humpback whales cooperatively feed off the coast of B.C.

Our B.C. Cetaceans Sightings Network team is looking forward to hearing all about your cetacean and sea turtle sightings in 2015. You can report anytime by visiting www.wildwhales.org, emailing sightings@vanaqua.org, or by calling our toll-free reporting hotline at 1.866.I.SAW.ONE (472.9663).

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