What a Fluke!

Written by Marissa Morison, MERS Research Assistant (thank you Canada Summer Jobs for making the position possible).

On a chilly Tuesday morning we prepare to depart from a quaint little dock in Telegraph Cove. I eagerly await a day on the ocean with Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) Humpback Whale researchers Jackie Hildering and Christie McMillan.

I am here as a summer Research Assistant for MERS, expecting mostly to be fulfilling small daily tasks and computing data into entry. But today, today is different . . . Today will be my first time out on the west coast ocean since being a young girl, a long anticipated moment. I’ve bundled myself in multiple layers of clothing (I’ll admit I came rather ill-prepared for the weather) and take a seat near the bow.

Yes this happened! Please read on for explanation. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Yes this happened! Please read on for explanation. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

I brace myself as we coast out of Telegraph Cove. Moving from the prairies the landscape seems foreign to me, but strangely familiar in the same breath. The view is amazing. Actually, the view is greater than amazing. It is awe-inspiring! There is a distinct calm that falls over everything, and my senses heighten to adapt to the overwhelming array of new sensations. The air is crisp, clean, and cool as it wisps through my hair and nibbles at my cheeks. A fine mist is spraying up from the water, settling on my face, and leaving a salty taste on my lips. This place is as close to perfect as perfect comes.

Today’s objectives include documenting a female Humpback and her new calf. In order to be able to identify the calf in the future, it is essential to get photos of the calf’s dorsal fin from both sides and a photo of the underside of the tail (the fluke) that clearly shows the trailing edge. I learn that the pigmentation of Humpback calves’ flukes can change quite a bit over time whereby it is so important to get a photo of the fluke’s trailing edge.

The mother Humpback (BCY0177) has been nicknamed “Slash”, and I know that she unfortunately earned this nickname as a result of being struck by a vessel prior to 2006. She now bears distinctive scarring from the boat’s propeller.

Slash breaching (while emptying water from her mouth). Note the vessel strike scars along her back? Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Slash breaching (while emptying water from her mouth). Note the vessel strike scars along her back? Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

With the help of a report from a Stubbs Island Whale Watching vessel, we are able to quickly locate the pair.

That moment, that moment the calf surfaces, it is remarkable! I feel an excitement so great I can’t speak. I sit, just trying to comprehend the immense flood of emotion rushing through my mind, body, and soul. A stinging sensation develops above my nose and between my eyes as I fight the tears trying to escape. It is just that beautiful. But, it doesn’t stop there. Slash suddenly emerges next to her calf, and my breath is taken away, once again. The sheer size of her is something incomprehensible until witnessed by oneself. She is massive! I see the scars she wears and feel deeply saddened that we can so negatively affect these beautiful beings through carelessness or lack of awareness.

But, this is only the beginning of the excitement. Now as we are idling along having photographed the calf’s dorsal fin but still hoping for the fluke to be fully lifted, something ignites a change in behaviour in the twosome and they catapult up, out of the water, and then smash back down. They are breaching!  Again and again! I must admit it was slightly terrifying to witness such enormous animals rising from the water, but my fear soon turns to admiration and awe.

Mother and calf breaching and pectoral fin slapping. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Mother and calf breaching and pectoral fin slapping. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

As I watch in fascination time seemingly stands still. I’m informed this is not something seen on every journey out on the water, that such acrobatic behaviour is largely unpredictable. Knowing this makes my appreciation of the experience grow even deeper.
And, during the repeated breaching and pectoral fin slapping, the calf lifts his/her tail. Bingo! The photograph of the fluke is obtained that will allow the calf to be identified in the future.

The calf's fluke which will allow re-identification in the future. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

The calf’s fluke which will allow re-identification in the future. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

What a fluke! All of it. To be present when these giants happened to erupt out of the water, to see the interaction between mother and calf, to be there when the ID photos were obtained . . . I am deeply grateful that I was there in those moments, to experience the wild. Since then, I have had the opportunity to experience and share in a growing number of equally remarkable moments. This place is full of surprises and I find enjoyment in simply being here for the ride.

More photos of the remarkable encounter: 

Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Mother - Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Mother – Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Mother - Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Mother – Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Mother - Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Mother – Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Posted in Humpback whales | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Leatherbacks in BC!

Leatherback Turtle sighted off Langara Island in 2004. ©S. Skorupinski. Click to enlarge.

Leatherback Turtle sighted off Langara Island in 2004. Photo: ©S. Skorupinski. Click to enlarge.

Yes, there are Leatherback Turtles off British Columbia’s coast!

In fact, the cold ocean off BC is extremely important to this endangered sea turtle species. Leatherbacks migrate all the way from Indonesian to feed on the jellyfish here.

See our two-minute animation below about the presence of these endangered awe-inspiring giants and how we can all help their survival.

Please help raise awareness:

Photo credit for image of Leatherback’s head: Kara Dodge (NMFS Permit #1557-03)

Giants off BC’s Coast

There are Leatherback Turtles in almost every ocean of the world and all are at risk. Only about 5% of the Pacific population is left. Even though so few of us know of their existence, there have been around 130 Leatherbacks documented off the coast of BC from 1931 to 2015. Very likely there have been more but their presence is often undetected or unreported. Raising awareness of #leatherbacksinbc is very valuable to to the research being done to reduce threats to Leatherbacks. Please report sightings to 1-866-I-SAW-ONE and see below for further positive actions.

Leatherback turtle sightings

Map: Sightings of live Leatherback Turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in BC waters to 2009. Shows the wide range and depths where Leatherbacks have been sighted – from inshore to offshore marine waters all along BC’s coast. They have most often been sighted between June and October when jellyfish populations are likely to be greatest.  Source: DFO: Advice relevant to the identification of critical habitat for Leatherback Sea Turtles ).

Threats and Solutions 

Plastics pollute and balloons blow!

Plastics pollute and balloons blow! Leatherback Turtles accidentally eat them.

Leatherback Turtles spend the vast majority of their lives at sea. Off British Columbia’s coast, threats to the survival of these endangered giants include entanglement in fishing gear and debris; collision with boats;  contamination; and . . . plastic pollution. 

In a global study of 408 dead Leatherback Turtles, more than 30% had plastics in their intestines (Mrosovsky et al, 2009). Sea turtles accidentally eat plastics because they cannot discern them from their jellyfish prey. The ingested plastics can cause death due to internal injury and/or by blocking the intestines which can cause malnutrition or starvation. Ingested plastics also increase buoyancy which further decreases Leatherbacks’ chances of reproduction and survival.

The impacts of climate change are also a concern to Leatherback survival due to impacts on prey availability, beach erosion, toxic algae blooms and more females being born when beach temperatures are warmer.

The loss of these top-level predators can have far-reaching impacts on marine ecosystems.

Leatherbacks in BC screen grab.

A global study of 408 dead Leatherback Turtles, more than 30% had plastic in their intestines.
Screen grab from animation above. ©MERS.

What YOU can do! 

  1. Reduce your use of plastics, especially plastic bags.
  2. Never release balloons into the air.
  3. Remove litter e.g. the Great Canadian Shoreline Clean-Up
  4. Know if your seafood is sustainable through Ocean Wise and SeaChoice.
  5. Help increase knowledge of #leatherbacksinbc and the threats they face.
  6. Report sightings to 1-866-I-SAW-ONE or by clicking here.
  7. Reduce the impacts of climate change by reducing your carbon footprint.
Leatherback being saved from entanglement by Canada's Coast Guard in 1982 (Arrow Post). Photo: ©Laurie Gordon, DFO. Click to enlarge.

Leatherback being saved from entanglement by Canada’s Coast Guard in 1982 (Arrow Post) near Skidegate. Photo: ©Laurie Gordon, DFO. 

In other parts of the world, additional threats include egg and turtle poaching and habitat loss for nesting due to beach development and erosion. In the United States and other parts of the world, Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) are being used on shrimp trawler nets to reduce the number of sea turtles that die due to entanglement / bycatch.

Amazing Leatherback Facts

  • They have survived since the time of dinosaurs, for more than 100 million years.
  • Leatherbacks are one of the biggest reptiles in the world and likely the fastest growing. In the Pacific they are up to 2 m long and over 650 kg. That’s about the size of a Smart Car! Males and females are about the same size but, in males, the tail is longer, usually extending beyond the rear flippers. (Leatherbacks in the Atlantic are bigger on average, with the largest recorded mass being 915 kg.)
  • They are known to dive to depths of 1,270 m and can stay underwater for up to 85 minutes before surfacing to breathe (dives are more often ~30 minutes).
Unfortunate Leatherback Turtle at Nootka Packers. 1931. Click to enlarge.

Unfortunate Leatherback Turtle at the Nootka Packing Co. in 1931. 
Source: Nicholson, G. 1963. Vancouver Island’s West Coast 1762-1962.

  • Leatherbacks are the only sea turtle species that doesn’t have a hard shell. As their name suggests, their backs are covered with rubbery, leather-like skin. It is blue-black and this soft pad covers small bones (osteoderms) that fit together like a puzzle, making the shell (carapace) flexible and able to compress when Leatherbacks go for deep dives.
  • They are also the only sea turtle that does not have scales on their head or flippers.
  • Every Leatherback Turtle has unique pink markings on the top of their heads.  It is believed that this patch (the “pineal spot”) may allow Leatherbacks to sense light and/or navigate. Because they are distinct, these markings help scientists identify Leatherbacks as individuals.

    Each Leatherback has a unique pink path on the top of their heads that allows them to be identified as individuals. Photo @DFO - 2005, SW Moresby Island.

    Leatherbacks have a pink patch on the top of their heads that is uniquely shaped in every individual. Photo: @DFO; Leatherback near SW Moresby Island in 2005. 

  • Because of their fast growth, large size, and long migrations to cold water, Leatherbacks need to eat a lot of their gelatinous prey. They are “zooplanktivores” – also eating some other gelatinous zooplankton like salps. It is estimated that a single Leatherback Turtle will eat more than a 1,000 metric tonnes of jellyfish in their lifetime. They have amazing adaptations to do so. They have cusps in their mouths to grab the slippery jellies and their entire esophagus (which is very long) has spiny downward-pointing prongs made of cartilage (papillae). These projections ensure that the jellies don’t escape when the Leatherback contracts its throat to expel water; they shred the jellies; and likely protect the turtle from the jellyfishes’ stinging cells.
  • But, Leatherbacks cannot discern plastics from jellyfish making plastic pollution a very large risk to their survival (especially plastic bags and balloons). Please see “Threats and Solutions” for what you can do.
Awe-inspiring! Papillae in the Leatherback's very long esophagus that are designed for a life of eating jellies. Source:

Awe-inspiring! Papillae in the Leatherback’s very long esophagus that are designed for a life of eating jellies. Source: MuseumVictoria

  • Leatherbacks are unlike any other living reptile because they have a thick layer of fat that allows them to deal with cold water. Leatherback Turtles are “gigantotherms” – they can stay warm when in cold waters like those off BC, while not overheating in the warm waters like those in Indonesia due to the combination of having fat for insulation; being able to change blood flow to release or conserve heat; varying their swimming speed; and having a large body mass. They do not go into “cold shock” like other sea turtle species, maintaining a body temperature of ~25°C despite encountering temperatures from 0.4 to 15°C. The biggest Leatherbacks are more likely to be the ones seen off Canada’s Pacific coast because the larger individuals are better able to retain body heat.
1997 Kyuquot _A Weissenborn _02 – Kyuquot school children

Dead Leatherback being studied by school children in Kyuquot in 1997. Dr. Brian Bostrom as a youth on the right. Photo: ©A. Weissenborn. 

  • They spend their lives at sea. Leatherback Turtles mate at sea and males never return to shore after they hatch. Only females go to shore every 2 to 3 years to lay eggs, returning to the nesting beaches where they were born.
  • No one knows how they navigate over such long distances. Despite ocean currents, they find their way to and from their natal nesting beaches to cold jellyfish rich waters.
  • Leatherbacks are the fastest sea turtle species. They can swim up to 95 km/day at speeds of up to 9.3 km/hour (average ~38 km/day and ~2.5 km/hour).  In addition to their long, powerful front flippers, it is believed that the their tear-drop shaped carapace with its 7 distinct ridges makes them such fast swimming turtles.
  • They can’t swim backwards which contributes to the risk of getting entangled in fishing gear and is why they cannot be in aquariums. They injure themselves by swimming forward against the sides of the tank and can develop lethal fungal infections are a result.
Leatherback tracking data

Leatherback tracking data for the East and West Pacific populations. Source: Bailey et al. 

  • Lifecycle – so little is known! Estimates for the age of sexual maturity vary from 2 to 14 years. If females succeed in making the great migration back to the beaches where they were born, they dig a hole with their rear flippers (most often at night), lay about 100 eggs, compact the nest and return to sea (takes 80 to 120 minutes in total). Each clutch also contains around 50 yolkless eggs. The purpose of these infertile eggs is unknown. Females lay 4 to 6 clutches per season, at 8 to 12 day intervals. The babies hatch after 60 to 65 days and go straight to sea. They stay in warm waters until they have a carapace length of about 100 cm. In addition to the many human-created threats, the eggs and hatchlings face the risk of nest disturbance and predation by animals such as rats, birds, snakes, crabs, dogs, cats and pigs. Also unknown are the life expectancy of Leatherbacks and how long they can reproduce.
  • Nest temperature determines the sex of the hatchlings. When the temperature is between 29.25 to 29.5°C, equal number of males and females hatch. If the temperature is lower, the hatchlings are male and if the temperature is higher, the hatchlings are female. This is a climate change related concern because warmer beaches would lead to fewer males being born.
  • Leatherback Turtles may have the largest distribution of any vertebrate on Earth. In addition to being in the Pacific Ocean, there are populations of Leatherbacks in the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. All are at risk.
Leatherback Turtle colour sheet by Romney McPhie. Click to enlarge and download.

Leatherback Turtle colour sheet by Romney McPhie. Click here to enlarge and download.


Another perspective on the papillae that allow Leatherbacks to retain jellyfish. Source:

Another perspective on the papillae that allow Leatherbacks to retain jellyfish.
Source: Geographic Consulting. 

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Job Posting: MERS Research Assistant 2016

Summer Student Position

The Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) is a registered Canadian charity dedicated to promoting conservation and understanding of marine ecosystems through scientific research, environmental education, and marine wildlife response. For information about MERS’ research, education and wildlife response efforts, see www.mersociety.org.

The Research Assistant (RA) will provide data entry, analysis, administrative and other support to the Marine Education and Research Society’s efforts to understand and mitigate the threats to marine species around northern Vancouver Island.

Primary duty: Entering and performing preliminary analyses of humpback and minke whale sighting, photo identification, and acoustic data.

Additional duties:

  • Providing further administrative support as needed including development of promotional / educational materials; website updating; social media input and assistance with the humpback sponsorship program.
  • Planning, preparing and attending outreach events.
  • Supervising volunteers during data entry and analysis in order to maintain the quality of the MERS databases.
  • Assisting with photo identification and sightings data collection. (Please note that this position will be primarily office-based with occasional opportunities for fieldwork).

Time permitting, there may be an opportunity for the RA to use MERS data to work on an independent project of interest to him/her.

Successful candidates:

  • Are Canadian citizens, permanent residents, or have refugee protection under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and are legally entitled to work in Canada in accordance with relevant provincial or territorial legislation and regulations (funding requirement).
  • Are students currently enrolled in a full-time post-secondary program, returning to school in the fall of 2016 (funding requirement).
  • Are between 15-30 years of age (funding requirement).
  • Have strong computer skills. Previous experience with some or all of the following programs an asset: Microsoft Excel, Photo Mechanic, Filemaker Pro, Adobe Lightroom and InDesign, QGIS, and Raven.
  • Work well independently and with minimal supervision.
  • Have exceptional organizational skills.
  • Have knowledge of the biology and ecology of marine mammals in British Columbia.
  • Are able to demonstrate strong abilities in matching whale flukes and fins for identification.

Salary: $12/hour

Work term: 10 weeks – anticipated start date June 27, 2016

Position location: Port McNeill, BC

Application deadline: May 24, 2016 (midnight PST)

Application format: Applications should include a cover letter specifically addressing position requirements, resume, and 3 references (name, position and email address) with a minimum of 2 being employment contacts.  Applications should be emailed to mersociety@gmail.com.

Selection procedure:

  1. References of short-listed candidates contacted.
  2. Short-listed candidates interviewed via SKYPE.
  3. Final interviews held in person in Vancouver or Port McNeill. Candidates will be asked to complete an exercise to assess their ability to match whales IDs.

Please note that only short-listed applicants will be contacted and that this will happen before May 30th, 2016.

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Which Whale Will it Be?

[Update April 11, 2016: It’s Argonaut! Argonaut will be the next whale in our Humpback Sponsorship Program! Great thanks to all who provided their input. We will have Argonaut sponsorship packages available by mid-May.]

Which whale will it be? You decide!

We’re adding a Humpback Whale to our Marine Education and Research Society sponsorship program. Conger? Guardian? Freckles? Argonaut? All four of these Humpbacks are very regularly seen around NE Vancouver Island. Please see their photos and details below and provide your choice via a comment on this blog.

The whale that gets the most blog comments and “likes” on the related post on Facebook by April 11th will be the one added to the choices at  www.mersociety.org/sponsorship.htm.

(Psst MERS Humpback Whale sponsorship packages are just $43, benefitting so many Humpbacks since the funds support our work to reduce the threats of entanglement and vessel strike to whales in BC.)
which whale MERS sponsorship program.002

Conger (BCY0728) has been sighted around NE Vancouver Island every year since 2009. The nickname is due to what was perceived to be an eel-like shape on the right side of his/her fluke (fainter now). Conger is the first whale we documented “trap feeding”. This is a novel feeding technique being studies by MERS that appears to be used to efficiently feed on small, diffuse schools of juvenile herring. Conger is unique in that he often flukes his tail on every dive where most Humpback Whales will only fluke every 5 to 8 dives when they go on a longer dive. Conger has also been documented pursuing mammal-hunting Killer Whales (known as “Transients” or “Bigg’s Killer Whales)! Yes, that’s right PURSUING Killer Whales.
which whale MERS sponsorship program.001Guardian (BCZuk2011#4) is easily identified by her very white fluke with distinct black pattern and her hooked dorsal fin. If lucky enough to see her lunge feeding at the surface, it’s spectacular! She most often rockets out of the water vertically where most Humpbacks have more of a horizontal lunge through herring. And yes, we know Guardian is female from having seen her underside while she was tail lobbing. She’s been known to us at MERS since 2011 and who knows, this year she could return with her first known calf. Guardian had a very scary encounter with a log barge in 2015. See the video at this link. 
which whale MERS sponsorship program.003We’ve known Argonaut (BCY0729) since 2009 and s/he may be the Humpback Whale seen most predictably around NE Vancouver Island. We documented over 150 sightings of Argonaut in 2015 alone, most often within 1 km of Telegraph Cove. This makes this Humpback quite the ambassador for his/her kind, having been observed by thousands of whale watchers from around the world. You’ll note the distinct black A-shaped marking on the left side of fluke that is, in part, what inspired Argonaut’s nickname. There is also a connection to someone named Jason i.e. the association is with “Jason and the Argonauts” of Greek mythology.
which whale MERS sponsorship program.004

Freckles (BCY0727) was first documented in BC waters in 2009 when she appeared just outside Telegraph Cove. She certainly got our attention as she had such distinct white coloured, freckle-like markings. These pigmentation spots have faded since then but still make Freckles very easy to identify even when she doesn’t lift her tail for a dive. While Freckles is not yet known to have had a calf, we know she is female because we saw her “hemispherical lobe” when she was tail-lobbing. Only females have this mound on the underside of their bodies. In addition to lunge feeding, we have seen her use a bubble-net to concentrate small fish and she also knows how to trap feed. We know of at least two cases when she has been harassed by mammal-hunting Killer Whales.

Be sure to leave a comment indicating your choice for which whale will be added to the MERS Humpback Whale Sponsorship Program! Deadline is April 11th. 

Posted in Humpback Sponsorship Program, Humpback whales | Tagged | 22 Comments

Terrestrial Predators Feeding on Marine Mammals?

Ivan Dubinsky - wolf photo

Coastal wolf after feeding on what was likely a Pacific white-sided dolphin. See below. © Ivan Dubinsky; telephoto lens and cropped.

By Jackie Hildering
MERS Education & Communications Director.

Do terrestrial predators like wolves and bears feed on marine mammals?

Why yes they do. They not only scavenge on the energy rich carcasses of dead marine mammals when they wash ashore but, there are cases of terrestrial predators hunting marine mammals!


Imagine the calories and further nutrition available from a dead marine mammal. When whales die and sink to the depths, they are referenced as “whale fall” and feed communities of organisms for decades.


What? Wolves feeding on sea otters? (Juvenile bald eagle and raven above them). Discussed below. Photo ©2014 Meredith Lewis; telephoto lens and cropped.

What would be a good term for when a dead marine mammal washes ashore and delivers a bounty of nutrients  . . . an “all-you-can-eat-buffet”? Why, with the smell that exudes from a decaying marine mammal, there’s even the equivalent of a dinner bell.  Or, in considering how many calories are made available so easily, maybe a better label would be “a free lunch”?

I’ll never forget watching black bears lunching on a dead whale, their noses white from the whale’s blubber, reminiscent of how a child’s face gets covered when enthusiastically eating ice cream. I regret that I did not have a camera with me that day.

Very thankfully, others have generously shared their images to make this blog possible. No words can have the same impact as the following images in communicating examples of how terrestrial predators feed on marine mammals; and, how nutrients do not go wasted in nature.


The above photo may already be familiar to you. It has been widely used in news stories related to the “Unusual Mortality Event” of humpback and fin whales in 2015. Taken by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it shows seven brown bears (aka grizzly bears) feeding on a dead fin whale. (Please see the end of the blog for the hypothesis of what may have caused the death of the whales).

Alaskan wildlife photographer Brad Josephs reports observing twelve brown bears and several coastal wolves in the area of another dead fin whale in Alaska in 2015.

Brad Josephs

A brown bear and coastal wolf feeding on a fin whale carcass. Photo ©Brad Josephs. Click here for his blog on the predator interactions around the carcass; includes video of fighting between brown bears.

Studies on the interactions of wolves and bears when feeding on a dead whale include the work of Tania M. Lewis and Diana J.R. Lafferty using remote cameras around a dead humpback whale in Glacier Bay, Alaska in 2010.  In their research, they found little evidence of interspecies aggression between the wolves and bears in the four month long “Blubber Bonanza” provided by the humpback whale carcass. There are, however, likely to be dominance displays between brown bears.

Ivan Dubinsky recently documented coastal wolves in British Columbia scavenging on what appears to be a Pacific white-sided dolphin carcass.

Ivan Dubinsky_Wolves-2

©2016 Ivan Dubinsky. Photo taken with telephoto lens and cropped.

Ivan Dubinsky_Wolves-1

©2016 Ivan Dubinsky. Photo taken with telephoto lens and cropped.

Ivan Dubinsky_Wolves-3

©2016 Ivan Dubinsky. Photo taken with telephoto lens and cropped.

April Bencze’s photos from the Central Coast of BC provide an example of coastal wolves scavenging on a dead Steller sea lion.

April Bencze scavenging_DSC0763

©2014 April Bencze; www.AprilBencze.com.  Photo taken with telephoto lens and cropped.

April Bencze scavenging_DSC0883

©2014 April Bencze; www.AprilBencze.com.  Photo taken with telephoto lens and cropped.

April Bencze scavenging_DSC0955

©2014 April Bencze; www.AprilBencze.com.  Photo taken with telephoto lens and cropped.

And here you have Black Bears feeding on a sea lion carcass, photo by Erica Beauchamp.

©2007 Erica Beauchamp

©2007 Erica Beauchamp. Photo taken with telephoto lens and cropped.

The remains found in wolf scat by Stacey Hrushowy, reveal that the wolf ate a Pacific harbour seal. Was this the result of scavenging or  . . . predation?!

Stacy Hrushowy_20140114_200121

Remains found in Coastal Wolf scat ©Stacey Hrushowy.


Cougar scat has also been found to contain remains of Pacific harbour seals and California seal lions. But, no matter how stealthy, wily and fleet-footed the predator, it is impossible to conclude from a scat sample alone if marine mammals were predated upon or scavenged.  Observations are needed.

Wolves have been observed hunting seals, California sea lions and even a juvenile Steller sea lion on our coast. Notably, there is one wolf on a small, rocky island that has been repeatedly documented making a living by eating Pacific harbour seals hauled out on the rocks. I will not share further details of the location for fear of the wolf being disturbed (or worse) and am grateful that others who are aware of the location have the same sensitivity and concern.

And, THEN, there’s the case of coastal wolves possibly predating on sea otters! This is being studied by Dr. Chris Neufeld of Quest University who has shared his research in presentations entitled: “Life and Death on a Small Island: Novel Interactions Between Wolves, Sea Otters, and People in Kyuquot Sound, BC“.

The hypothesis is that this is predation rather than scavenging; that the wolves ambush the otters when they briefly are on land. It is anticipated that documentation, including Dr. Neufield’s use of trail cameras, will soon lead to conclusions about whether this is truly predation and, if it is, what strategies this wolf pack has learned whereby the succeed in hunting sea otters.

See below for Meredith Lewis’ remarkable photos of the wolves feeding on sea otters.

Meredith Lewis_IMG_7824

©2014 Meredith Lewis.  Photo taken with telephoto lens and cropped.

Meredith Lewis_IMG_7745

©2014 Meredith Lewis.  Photo taken with telephoto lens and cropped.

An unfortunate but necessary footnote:

With regard to the Unusual Mortality Event of humpback and fin whales referenced above, a hypothesis about how they died is that warmer waters led to increased algae growth, including species like red tide that produce biotoxins (in the case of red tide, it is the neurotoxin domoic acid and there is also saxitoxin produced by another harmful algae bloom). These biotoxins bioaccumulate up the food chain, impacting top level predators like the whales. More information about the hypothesis at this link.

Whales too can have high loads of human created persistent bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals like PCBs, DDTs and PBDEs (brominated fire retardants).

Thereby, if marine mammals have toxins in their systems, terrestrial predators feeding on them could further bioaccumulate the chemicals. This is certainly the case with the bioaccumulative toxins of human origin. In the case of demoic acid from red tide algae, it appears that this chemical dissipates quickly from the body whereby terrestrial predators would not be at risk of further bioaccumulation through scavenging on marine mammal remains. This is why it has been so difficult to confirm if indeed harmful levels of demoic acid are responsible for the whale deaths; the chemical quickly dissipates from the dead whales’ bodies.  (With thanks to Dr. Andrew Trities for this information).




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A (spectacular!) day of MERS research

Posted by Christie McMillan (MERS President and humpback whale research director):

Even though it has been 10 years since my first summer working with whales off northeastern Vancouver Island, there are still days that leave me stunned at how incredible this area really is in terms of the numbers, diversity, and behaviours of marine mammals found here.

Humpback whale "Zorro" (BCX0380) breaching in Blackfish Sound

Humpback whale “Zorro” (BCX0380) breaching in Blackfish Sound. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS. Taken with a telephoto lens and cropped)

Just over a week ago, I was on the Merlin (MERS’ research and response vessel), monitoring the behaviour of whales around the commercial fishery for chum salmon, collecting data on the numbers and locations of fishing nets and whales, and standing by in case of an entanglement. Together with Marie Fournier, who was helping MERS out with these efforts, I was sitting in the fog and light rain in Queen Charlotte Strait when we heard a loud whale blow, and looked toward Malcolm Island to see a whale with a long body and small, curved dorsal fin surfacing close to the shoreline. We were amazed and excited to see that this was a fin whale, part of a threatened population that is only very occasionally seen off northeastern Vancouver Island. While two fin whales were seen in the area in 2011 and two more in 2012, this was my first time seeing the world’s second-largest whale species here. We collected identification photographs of the fin whale for our colleagues at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and based on the shape of the dorsal fin and scarring on the whale’s body, we were able to confirm that this was a different individual from the fin whales seen in 2011 and 2012.

A rare sighting of a fin whale in Queen Charlotte Strait. (Photo: Christie McMillan, MERS)

A rare sighting of a fin whale in Queen Charlotte Strait. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

After leaving the fin whale, we headed into Blackfish Sound and came across two very surface-active humpback whales. The behaviour of humpbacks at this time of year is quite different than during the summer. When humpback whales return to Vancouver Island after their winter migrations to Hawaii or Mexico where there is little to no food for them, they appear to be very focused on feeding. In the fall, however, they tend to spend more time socializing. On Saturday, “Claw”, a whale that was first seen in the area in 2011 and “Zorro”, a whale new to the area this year, were very surface active, interacting with one another. They were “head-lobbing” (bringing their heads out of the water and slapping them down on the water’s surface), breaching, and tail-slapping. Almost every time the whales surfaced, Zorro was behind Claw and appeared to be posturing, exhibiting behaviours similar to humpback whale males in competitive groups in the breeding grounds. We are unsure of whether this behaviour around northern Vancouver Island is related to mating, but we do know that it happens more frequently as the breeding season approaches.

Humpback whales "Claw" and "Zorro" spyhopping

Humpback whales “Claw” and “Zorro” exhibiting a surface-active social behaviour called head-lobbing. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Humpback whale "Claw" breaching

Humpback whale “Claw” breaching. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS. Taken with a telephoto lens and cropped)

As we headed down to the bottom of Blackfish Sound, we saw some splashing up ahead of us, and found a group of Bigg’s (mammal-eating) killer whales chasing a Steller sea lion. The killer whales were leaping out of the water, attempting to ram the sea lion. Several hundred other Steller sea lions were in the water by the shoreline behind the killer whales.

Bigg's killer whale attacking a Steller sea lion. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Bigg’s killer whale attacking a Steller sea lion. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Partway through the sea lion chase, two humpback whales (“Domino” and “Backsplash”) came swimming rapidly over from the other side of Blackney Pass. They immediately began interacting with the killer whales, surfacing right next to them. Shortly after, they were joined by a third humpback whale, “Quartz”. The two species of whales continued to follow and interact with one another for over half an hour. We are unsure of why these species were in such close proximity to one another… it may have been territorial behaviour, it may be that humpback whales are keeping an eye on potential danger, or there may be another reason for this behaviour. Regardless, it was a reminder of how much we have yet to understand about these two species.

Humpback whales "Quartz", "Domino", and "Backsplash" interacting with Bigg's killer whales. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Humpback whales “Quartz”, “Domino”, and “Backsplash” interacting with Bigg’s killer whales, with Steller sea lions watching. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Humpback whale "Backsplash" interacting with T__ , a mammal-eating killer whale. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Humpback whale “Backsplash” interacting with T141 , an adult female mammal-eating killer whale. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Eventually, the killer whales went on a long dive, and we found ourselves surrounded by a sheen of oily water from the blubber of a marine mammal – it appeared that the killer whales had finally killed a seal or sea lion and were feeding on it underwater. We collected samples of tissue in the water so that genetic analyses could be conducted to determine the species that the killer whales had eaten, and collected identification photos of the whales, using Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Bigg’s killer whale catalogue (Towers et al. 2012) to identify the killer whales as the T055 group, along with T139 and the T141s.

Our 2015 field season is now drawing to a close… my 10th year of collecting humpback whale data off northeastern Vancouver Island. A day as remarkable as this one has me looking forward to the next field season, when we can continue to address some of the many questions regarding the humpback whales in this area and the threats they face.

Posted in Humpback whales, Killer whales | 6 Comments

It’s a Girl!!!

Freckles is a "she"!!!  Read on to find out how we know...

Freckles (BCY0727) is a “she”!!! Read on to find out how we know (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

This time of year, when most humpback and minke whales that spend the summers feeding in BC are down in their winter breeding grounds, MERS researchers and educators  are spending more time at our computers and less time out on the water. One of our focuses this winter has been to share the results of MERS research with people who spend time on and near the water with the goal of discussing how we can work together to better understand humpback whales and the threats that they face, for the sake of boater and whale safety. In addition, we have been working on humpback and minke whale publications for scientific journals (see our latest publication on minke whales).

See a blow? Go slow!

MERS Director Jackie Hildering has been traveling around Vancouver Island to talk about the return of humpback whales and how we can work together to reduce the threats that they face. See our Facebook page for information about upcoming presentations











With the help of one of our experienced and dedicated volunteers, Alison Ogilvie, we have also been reviewing some older humpback whale data, getting our photo and sightings databases up to date. One of these older humpback whale photos has allowed us to learn something new about one of our best-known whales, “Freckles” (BCY0727). Freckles was first seen in 2009, and was named for the white, speckled markings on its body. Since then, Freckles has lost some of these markings, but has become one of the whales that shows very strong site fidelity to northern Vancouver Island, coming back to the same area to feed each year.

Freckles in 2009 (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

Freckles in 2009 (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

Freckles in 2014 (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Freckles in 2014 (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

The photo in question allowed us to determine that Freckles is a female. Determining the sex of humpback whales is not as easy as it is for many other animals… there are no obvious physical characteristics that are reliably visible at the surface to distinguish males from females. MERS has documented several of the humpback whales that spend time off northeastern Vancouver Island come to the area with a calf, so we know that these whales – including Chunky (BCX0081), Ripple (BCX1063), and Slash (BCY0177) are females. However, the sex of the vast majority of the humpback whales in our catalogue is unknown. We were therefore very excited to see photos of Freckles tail-lobbing repeatedly, which made the underside of her body visible. In this photo, I was able to see a small feature on Freckles’ body, the hemispherical lobe, that allowed me to determine that she is female.

Freckles tail-lobbing, with her hemispherical lobe visible

Freckles tail-lobbing, with her hemispherical lobe visible (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

Only female humpback whales have a hemispherical lobe, a small round lobe between the whale’s umbilicus (belly button) and fluke. These diagrams from Glockner (1983) demonstrate the different features of male and female humpback whales.


Diagram from: Glockner. A. 1983. Determining the sex of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in their natural environment. In Behavior and communication of whales. Edited by R. Payne. AAAS Sel. Symp. No. 76. pp. 447-464.

Now that we know that Freckles is a female, we are very curious to see when she might bring her first calf to the northern Vancouver Island area. Knowing Freckles’ sex is also very valuable for better understanding humpback whale behaviour.

~ Christie

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