If you had the opportunity to relocate to a small, rainy, fishing town to work and learn from one of the most renowned research organizations in your field of interest, would you take it? A few months ago I asked myself the same thing, and before I knew it I had stuffed all my belongings into my tiny hatchback, completed employee orientation at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre and hit the road for a 17-hour road trip to the unlikeliest of summer destinations: Prince Rupert, British Columbia. I did not have any accommodations lined up, nor did I have any idea what life in Prince Rupert would be like. Yet I was certain of how excited I was to be a marine biology student working for the Vancouver Aquarium’s North Coast Initiative and B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network.

Vancouver Aquarium North Coast Office

Killer whale beacon sign just outside the doors of the North Coast Field Office

The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network is a citizen science project where participants submit reports of whale, dolphin, porpoise, and sea turtle sightings in B.C. waters. Tracking cetaceans can be logistically tricky for researchers alone, so having a collaborative network of observers who live, work, and travel on our waters gives us a far more comprehensive understanding of cetacean abundance and habitat use.

In previous years it was found that many sightings were submitted from Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland, but there were fewer from the North Coast, showing a gap in the data that needed to be filled.

So in December of 2013, Sightings Network coordinator Caitlin Birdsall, made the same road trip herself. Prince Rupert is the northernmost major coastal community in B.C., and a major marine hub for its container port, fisheries, and major ferry crossings. Locals certainly have a wealth of knowledge about marine life in the area, and Caitlin sought to learn more about the North Coast from them, as well as gain their support in reporting to the Sightings Network. She has since been running a one-woman show up here, and I had the privilege of being her sidekick for the summer.

One of the North Coast Initiative’s main goals is to provide observers with the skills and resources necessary to confidently identify and report cetacean sightings. This summer we hosted identification workshops for Coast Guard and fisheries officers, outreach days for youth in school groups and summer camps, and connected with residents at community events in the region and the neighbouring northern communities of Terrace, Kitimat, and Haida Gwaii to expand the Sightings Network’s reach.

Vancouver Aquarium Killer Whale Research

Keila bringing the Vancouver Aquarium to Prince Rupert’s Seafest.

The North Coast Initiative, supported by BG Canada, also conducts data collection on cetacean distribution throughout the year. We have partnerships with local First Nations groups and ecotourism companies who graciously allow us to use their vessels for monthly surveys of the local waters. My first experience following killer whales, humpback whales, and Dall’s porpoises (to name a few) around Chatham Sound and Hecate Strait was thrilling to say the least. Regardless of how familiar one is with watching whales, there is something truly awe-inspiring about witnessing their grandeur.

While there were several opportunities for outreach and field research, many days were spent in the office responding to sightings e-mails and entering information into the Sightings Network database, which holds more than 85,000 citizen-submitted cetacean sightings to date. One thing that astonished me was the sheer magnitude of citizen participation that we receive on a day-to-day basis. Seven days a week, we receive up to 50 individual sightings a day from ecotourism operators, mariners, and coastal residents. We continue to see new names reporting to us, who hear about the Sightings Network from a friend, a visit to the Vancouver Aquarium, or an outreach presentation by one of us. Seeing the number of individuals who are aware of the Sightings Network and take the time out of their day to submit this valuable data gives me hope; for conservation is a group effort. Luckily the launch of the new Whale Report app has made cetaceans sightings easier than ever to report.

Vancouver Aquarium Cetacean Research

Keila collects humpback whale ID photos during a distribution survey of Chatham Sound.

Scientists alone do not have the capacity to save endangered species; it is the responsibility of everyone to concern themselves with protecting our wildlife whether it is by contributing to science as with the Sightings Network, or making lifestyle choices to help mitigate threats that these animals face in the wild, such as employing responsible boating practices and purchasing Ocean Wise™ sustainable seafood.

As I prepare to head back to Vancouver for the school year, I toast the North Coast and the Vancouver Aquarium as it continues to gain ever-increasing support for Sightings Network in northern B.C., and mobilizes the community up there to concern themselves with the conservation of cetaceans.

Vancouver Aquarium Community Outreach

Using alternative approaches to engage and educate youth about whales .

Blog post by Keila Stark, North Coast Initiative program assistant at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre’s field office in Prince Rupert, and marine biology student at the University of British Columbia.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre’s North Coast Initiative brings aquatic conservation, research, and education programs to the northern tip of British Columbia’s coast. Supported by BG Canada, the North Coast Initiative monitors cetacean population through field work and citizen science, facilitates collaborative regional marine research and brings marine education opportunities to youth and the community. 

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