Gifts With Depth 2022

Dear Community,
It’s been another very busy year – from Naturalist Courses and government workshops, to dock walks; from Humpback Whale feeding strategy and entanglement scarring research, to coordinating the Canadian Pacific Humpback Collaboration; from boater education presentations and promotion of the Whale Warning Flag; to citizen science coordination for sightings of Mola / Ocean Sunfish; etc. Whew!

Please know that your support is essential to our work. The funds raised from donations and the Ocean Store help most with what we cannot cover with grant funding. That is – our office in Port McNeill and salaries.

So, when you are looking for meaningful, sustainable gifts, thank you so much for considering us.

Example of a sustainable gift from our Ocean Store.

Here are 4 ways you can help our efforts while giving loved ones gifts with depth. 💙

Honorary Donations (tax deductible)
Gifts From Our Ocean Store
Humpback Whale Sponsorships
Whale Warning Flags

1. Donations

MERS is a registered Canadian charity. Donations over $25 are tax deductible.

When you indicate the donation to MERS is a gift, your giftee will receive a message revealing your thoughtfulness and how your donation supports marine conservation.

Monthly donations are particularly helpful as they better allow us to budget and use the support as “matching funds” in grant applications.

Please click here to donate. Includes the option of gifting an honorary donation with e-card.

2. Gifts From Our Ocean Store

Our Ocean Store has a wide variety of marine-themed, sustainable, high-quality items. 
It’s the ideal place to find eco-friendly gifts that support our marine conservation efforts AND local artists and businesses with a strong environmental ethic. Please click here to see all the GOODS in the Ocean Store from clothing to books, jewelry and plush toys. You can also visit us in Port McNeill (#19, 1705 Campbell Way).

3. Humpback Whale Sponsorships

For just $60 you can sponsor a Humpback Whale and help support our work. Sponsorship packages includes a card featuring a photograph of the whale; a large, durable, eco-friendly sticker of the sponsored whale’s tail; and web access to the sponsor-exclusive MERS Humpback Whale Sponsorship Hub for a year.

The Sponsorship Hub includes a biography of your sponsored whale with lots of photos, updates on sightings, and more exclusive content such as Humpback Whale vocals recorded off northern Vancouver Island. 

When you purchase the sponsorship as a gift, both you AND the giftee receive access to the Sponsorship Hub. You will also be able to personalize the letter that accompanies the sponsorship package to your loved one.

Please click here for more information on whale sponsorship. If applicable, be sure to indicate if the sponsorship is a gift during checkout. Annual sponsorship renewals are $50.

Humpbacks available for sponsorship are: Twister, Argonaut, Slash, Moonstar, KC and Nick.

4. Whale Warning Flags

The Whale Warning Flag is an initiative of the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association and is used by those striving to help the whales along the coast of British Columbia and Washington.

The flags are raised on vessels when whales are within 400 m. The aim is to alert other boaters to the presence of whales, so they know to increase vigilance, adjust their vessel’s speed and alter course as needed, in accordance with the Marine Mammal Regulations.

It’s a perfect gift for any boater that spends time in these waters. Two flag sizes are available at our Ocean Store, at $40 or $45.  Please click here for Whale Warning Flags. 

Multiple Dead Humpback Whales – What you can do.

Last night, there was national reporting about the dead Humpback Whales found along BC’s coast.
See the link below.

With more Humpbacks along the coast, there is more overlap with fishing gear and vessel traffic and indeed: “Dead whales most often sink. So, as bad as the situation appears, it is likely worse.”

We are heartened that there has been this level of concern and have strived to speak about these whales as ambassadors.

See below for what you can do to increase whale and boater safety. Thank you.

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Summary of the known dead Humpback Whales:

1. October 12, 2022 – Dead Humpback #1. Floating near Lax Kw’alaams, northern BC.

2. October 15, 2022 – Dead Humpback seen floating from a distance near Wales Island. Presumed to be Whale #1. Colouration on the underside of the whale and location suggest this is likely.

3. October 23, 2022 – Dead Humpback #2 on the north side of Malcolm Island. We secured her body and identified her. She was Spike (BCX1847) a young female. Signs of blunt-force trauma.

4. November 5, 2022 – Dead Humpback #3 (male). Naikoon Provincial Park, Haida Gwaii To date we in the Canadian Pacific Humpback Collaboration have not been able to identify this individual. He is likely a previously undocumented Humpback. He has very distinctive markings allowing us to know this is not the same whale as dead Humpback #1. Signs of blunt-force trauma.

5. November 13, 2022 – Dead Humpback #4 (male). Naikoon Provincial Park, Haida Gwaii. This whale was in a further state of decay confounding the ability to ID who this might be. We were however able to conclude by comparing photos of a pectoral fin and underside of the body that this is not the same whale as dead Humpback #1.

6. November 20, 2022 – Dead Humpback #5 (3rd dead Humpback on East Beach, Haida Gwaii). Very decomposed but photos allowing us to compare the shape of the right pectoral fin to dead Humpback #1 lead us to believe this is an additional dead Humpback.

Note that there are currently at least 3 Humpback Whales known to be entangled along BC’s coast. This has been reported to the Incident Reporting Line 1-800-465-4336.

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What to do?

Know the laws and best practices to reduce the chance of collision, and what to do if you see entanglement, a dead marine mammal, violations or other incidents of concern. See www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org.

– If you are a coastal British Columbian, put the Incident Reporting Line number into your phone 1-800-465-4336.

– Model best boater behaviour including the use of the Whale Warning Flag in the waters of British Columbia and Washington State. See www.whaleflag.org.

– Use your voice for the other large whale species that is very vulnerable to vessel strike. Up to December 2nd you can weigh in that protection should not be reduced for Fin Whales when it is not known how many whales there are and threats are increasing. Please see our information at this link.

Use the Whale Report Alert System. See https://wildwhales.org/wras

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Please note that the source of the Humpback Whale population estimate used in last night’s news report is not known to BC’s Humpback Whale researchers. There have not been multi-year surveys to allow for an accurate / reliable population estimate.

There is one study (SPLASH) that led to the estimate that in 2006, the number of Humpback Whales along BC’s coast was 2,145 whales. This estimate did not include 1st-year calves nor Humpbacks in BC’s non-coastal waters.

A survey was done in 2018 (PRISMM) that will lead to another estimate for all of BC’s waters. But that will be based on one year of data and this was a year where whale presence / absence is likely to have been impacted by a marine heat wave.

CBC “The National” news coverage – www.cbc.ca/player/play/2122714691987

Great thanks to all who have helped raise awareness, especially the journalists who have reported with such understanding.

Protection Should Not Be Reduced for Fin Whales

Please see below regarding the action needed for Fin Whales.
This includes a listing of our concerns to help members of the public provide input into the decision-making. The public consultation period ends December 2nd and involves only a few questions.
Click here for the direct link to the survey.


Protection should not be reduced for Fin Whales in BC waters 
Threats increasing, species particularly vulnerable to collision with large vessels

Fin Whales are the second largest animals that have ever lived (Balaenoptera physalus to 25 metres long). Fin Whales were heavily impacted by industrial whaling in Canadian waters and received protection under Canada’s Species at Risk Act as a Threatened population in 2006. Of all whale species, Fin Whales are reported to be hit by large vessels more than any other. 

The latest assessment report by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) makes recommendations that would reduce the  protection of Fin Whales in British Columbian waters. The Government of Canada is considering this recommendation through a public consultation process, happening now. 

We, representatives of the North Coast Cetacean Society and Marine Education and Research Society, hereby express our significant concerns. We call upon others to provide feedback via this consultation process that the protection of Fin Whales under Canada’ Species at Risk Act should not be reduced. Deadline for comment is December 2nd, 2022. 

Recent discoveries of whales killed by ship strike, should act as an impetus for why increased action for Fin Whales is needed. Among the dead is the young male Fin Whale who died from being hit by a large vessel and was found on a beach on the Sunshine Coast in March 2022.  

Our concerns include: 

  • Population size for Fin Whales in British Columbian waters is not known to have recovered to what it was before industrial whaling and it is not known if the Fin Whale population is increasing in British Columbian waters. This is acknowledged in the COSEWIC report.  
  • The threats Fin Whales face are likely to increase, rather than decrease
    • Fin Whales are particularly susceptible to ship strike. In addition to a general increase in global shipping, LNG projects in British Columbia will increase the number of tankers and tugs transiting through Fin Whale habitat, amplifying risk of collision and impacts of underwater noise. From the COSEWIC report: “Vessel strikes are a significant source of human-caused mortality to Fin Whales in areas of intense shipping activity on both coasts. Multiple cases of Fin Whale carcasses being carried into ports on the bows of ships have been documented along both east and west coasts, although the actual rate of mortality is uncertain. Many fatal vessel strikes may be unreported as animals struck and killed are likely to sink and go undetected.” 
    • Climate change is anticipated to impact the food supply of Fin Whales. Extreme climate variability already appears to have had an impact. It was implicated in the Unusual Mortality Event of Fin and Humpback Whales along the coast of BC and Alaska from 2015 to 2016.      
  • Not enough is known about the population structure of the Fin Whales. 

    The COSEWIC assessment: 
    • Presumes that all Fin Whales sighted in British Columbian waters belong to the same population. However, there is some evidence that there may be multiple populations in these waters. It is not even known where these Fin Whales breed. 
    • Relies on the assumption that Fin Whales in British Columbian waters belong to the same population as Fin Whales in the waters of Washington, Oregon, California and Alaska and that these whales would immigrate into Canadian Pacific waters if the number of Fin Whales in BC waters decreased. This is known as the “rescue effect”. This is problematic because:

      • There is very little evidence to support that these Fin Whales all belong to the same population nor that there is interchange between these areas. To the contrary, there is research supporting that Fin Whales have strong site fidelity, returning to the same specific feeding areas in Canadian Pacific waters year-after-year. Fin Whales in these American waters are protected as Endangered under the US Endangered Species Act.

Were Fin Whales to be downlisted to a species of Special Concern, the reduced protection under Canada’s Species at Risk Act would mean: 
No Recovery Strategy nor Action Plan to reduce threats. 
No prohibitions against killing, harming and harassing. 
No identification nor protection of critical habitat. 

Click here to provide comment through the public consultation period.

Quotes:
Eric Keen, whale researcher and Science Director with the North Coast Cetacean Society said: “This is a crucial time for Fin Whale recovery in BC. The combination of climate change, shipping noise, and ship strikes poses an unprecedented threat. We do not yet know enough about this threat, or about the BC Fin Whale’s status in general, to take away the federal mechanism for protecting this species’ habitat. Now is the time for caution, collaboration, and research.”

Jackie Hildering, Communications and Education Director of the Marine Education and Research Society, said: “It is the antithesis of precaution to reduce protection of Fin Whales when there is so much that is not known about their population and when threats are increasing due to climate change, noise, and risk of collision.” 

Janie Wray, CEO and Co-founder of the North Coast Cetacean Society said: “It is extremely alarming that, when a species begins to display signs of recovery, the response is to decrease actions necessary to ensure that this positive trend is in fact real and will continue.” 

For media inquiries and access to the media pack: 

  • info@mersociety.org  / 250-230-7136 
  • Interviews would be with: 
    Dr. Eric Keen – North Coast Cetacean Society 
  • Jackie Hildering / Caitlin Birdsall – Marine Education and Research Society 

Background: 

The Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) studies threats to cetaceans and educates to reduce these threats, with a focus on entanglement and vessel strike. Research efforts include tracking the occurrence of Fin Whales in our study area. MERS works and learns in the Territory of the Kwakwala-speaking people, northeastern Vancouver Island. www.mersociety.org

The North Coast Cetacean Society (NCCS) has dedicated the last 24 years towards research, education, and the protection of whales along the north and central coast of British Columbia. In partnership with the Gitga’at First Nation, we have documented the return of Fin Whales to the northern waters of BC, combining acoustics, marine and land-based surveys to better understand their seasonal distribution, abundance, social dynamics and habitat use.  www.BCWhales.org

Links: 
Fin Whale, Pacific Population: Consultations on listing under the Species at Risk Act

Sources: 

Media Coverage: 

Deep Dive – Inukshuk the Humpback

Inukshuk is back. We saw him back for the first time this year in the feeding grounds near northeastern Vancouver Island on May 23, 2022. We know he migrated to the breeding grounds of Mexico because he was photographed there by CaboTrek on February 19th (known thanks to Happywhale).

Of all the male Humpbacks in our study area, he is the one where it has been the easiest to know HE is the one singing. Why? Because most other male Humpbacks in our study area sing at night when we can’t identify the singer in the dark. But Inukshuk, he often sings during the day. So, if you put in a hydrophone into the water to listen below the surface, you can then identify it is him making the amazing repertoire of sounds. [See below for samples of him singing.]

Why is he different in this regard? We think it is because he more often feeds on krill at night where the other Humpbacks, specifically in our study area around NE Vancouver Island, often feed on juvenile herring during the day.

ID photos from our public catalogue.

To put to pieces together between feeding and when a male Humpback might sing.

  • – If you are Humpback who likes to snack on krill, it’s often the case that you will be feeding at night because that’s when the krill is often closer to the surface (unless there are big upwellings of current during the day). Birds are active during the day and krill moves deeper to avoid being eaten by them.
  • – If you are a Humpback Whale feeding on herring, it often helps that the birds are also going after that prey. The herring goes into a dense mass to try to get away from the birds which makes for a big mouthful of herring for Humpbacks. Because birds roost at night, Humpbacks feeding on herring near the surface is more likely to happen during the day.

    So, if Inukshuk is more often feeding on krill. He is likely to be feeding at night, and resting, socializing and singing during the day. For the Humpbacks feeding on herring near the surface, they are more likely to be feeding during the day and resting, socializing and singing at night.

Do we have anything other than his daytime singing to support our hypothesis? Why yes we do!

  • 1) We have often documented Inukshuk pooing and it’s pink = krill diet. In fact, people have even mistaken the krill poo as blood. Humpbacks feeding on fish have silvery poo.
  • 2) Where we rarely see other Humpbacks resting during the day, we have repeatedly found Inukshuk doing so. We’ve even had people report him to us as a whale that might be dead because he was just lying at the surface and, once, we even mistook him for a log in the tideline where he was resting.
Inukshuk pooing at the surface. The red colour indicates he has been feeding on krill.


Nickname:
We nicknamed Inukshuk for the black markings in the lower center part of his tail, which – to us – look like an inukshuk, the rock figures traditionally built in northern Canada by the Inuit as “helpers” in communication. His catalogue designation is BCZ0339.

More on Humpback Whale song:
Humpback males sing more in the breeding grounds and the songs are unique to each area. All males humpbacks in the same area sing the same song (not in unison), and if the song changes, all the singers will adopt the change together. The leading hypothesis is that they are establishing acoustic territory through song. While both male and females Humpbacks can vocalize at any time of the year and for many reasons, the males may feel a greater urge to practice fragments of song toward the fall in the Northern Hemisphere. This is when their energy budget shifts from being largely about feeding to include mating related behaviours.

Samples of Inukshuk singing:

Recording by Scott Turton.

More on whale poo:
Know that whales pooping at the surface is not only important to researchers (and whales). It’s important to all of us! As whales feed at depth and poop at the surface, they transport nutrients up the water column and help fertilize the phytoplankton. This process is literally termed the “whale pump”. Just like plants on land, phytoplankton need sunlight to photosynthesize so they need to be at the surface. Whale poop fertilizes them there so they pull more carbon out of the atmosphere, helping regulate our climate. They also produce the oxygen we breathe and food to fuel the marine food web. At least half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean.

The Minke Whale Named Volcano

What follows the timeline and details for a dead minke whale found near the Sointula breakwater.
Written by MERS team member, Jared Towers.

The minke whale is the smallest baleen whale in the North Pacific Ocean. It is grey in colour, has a low surfacing profile and is usually quiet and solitary. They are relatively uncommon along the west coast of North America but, can reliably be found in very specific feeding areas in summer. These areas are typically shallow with deep water nearby, have sand and gravel substrates and strong currents. The waters surrounding Cormorant and Haddington Islands between Vancouver and Malcolm Islands have these unique characteristics and therefore provide excellent habitat for minke whales. Photo-identification studies I have conducted here since 2007 have verified that six individuals migrate from warm waters at low latitudes each spring to forage on herring and sandlance in this region before returning south in fall. 

To my knowledge there are no confirmed records of minke whales off northeastern Vancouver Island between December and February. However, this changed on February 3rd 2022 when Callyn Holder and Scott Turton saw and photographed a small minke whale surfacing near the Sointula ferry terminal (Figure 1). Four days later (February 7th) the Transport Canada pollution surveillance plane filmed a whale-like shape motionless in shallow water inside the Sointula breakwater in Rough Bay. It was filmed from the air again on February 23rd (Figure 2) and I was able to verify with an underwater camera that it was a minke whale on February 27th. The skin had deteriorated along most of its body and the tips of both lower mandibles were exposed, but otherwise, it was fully intact. However, it also had a bloody gash about 60 cm long running perpendicular across the top of the head (Figure 3). 

Figures 1 to 3.

Three days later (March 2nd), Jackie Hildering dove on the carcass and tied a rope around the peduncle. I secured six scotchman to the line to act as an inverted catenary and then towed the carcass (Figure 4) to a remote beach nearby for sampling, decomposition and deboning. At low tide later in the day, I returned to find several bald eagles and ravens (Figures 5 & 6) picking at it. They had focused their efforts mostly around the head but, had also been ripping strips of flesh off all other accessible areas. Nevertheless, Elysanne Durand, Celine van Weelden and I could see that there was pre-existing damage to the tip of the skull (Figure 7) and that the dorsal fin had already lost much of its natural shape ruling out any hope for a match to any individual in the coastwide photo-identification database (Figure 8). Two well-healed cookie-cutter shark scars (Figure 9) were visible on the left posterior flank of the whale and its overall length was measured at 5.95 metres indicating that it was a juvenile and therefore not any of the six seasonal residents known to northeast Vancouver Island who are all adults and likely in the 7-9 metre range. 

Figures 4 to 6.
Figures 5 to 7.

The next day (March 3rd) I went back to Sointula to meet with Jim McDougall and Bridgette (Bridie) McDonald. Interestingly, on January 21st 2022, Bridie had discovered several broken planks on L finger of the dock inside the Sointula harbour. They had been broken from underneath and some of them as well as parts of the frame of the dock had layers of smooth dark grey and light grey skin on them (Figure 10). Jim pried up one replacement plank and I was able to find some leftover bits of skin to put in a sample vial with ethanol. I sent this sample alongside another taken from the carcass (Figure 11) for DNA analysis to determine if it was indeed this minke that had busted up the dock. Considering the timing, location, gash across the head and broken skull tip it seems rather likely, but this kind of event is so unusual that we will leave the conclusion to the geneticists. In fact, the most similar incident I’ve dug up so far came from Graeme Ellis who years ago heard of a report of a whale busting up through the planks of a wooden sailboat. It seemed like the kind of bad excuse a careless navigator might make after hitting a rock, but they had whale baleen broken off in the boat to prove it. 

On March 5th Elysanne and I went back to the carcass to check on the state of decomposition and collect any phalanges that may have been falling off. The rate at which the scavengers had been consuming flesh was phenomenal. Directly next to the carcass I found a tooth that may have belonged to a bear (Figure 12). They had ripped a small hole in the abdominal cavity and exposed the flesh around the penis for the first time. This made everything about this minke even more anomalous than it already was because these whales are usually sexually segregated on the feeding grounds and all records of those that have died or been biopsied along the BC coast were female. Keeping in line with the naming criteria I developed for minke whales years ago I chose to call this one Volcano due to the nature and timing of its occurrence here soon after the eruption of a deep ocean volcano in the South Pacific which sent a strong but small tsunami all the way to the BC coast. 

Figures 10 to 12.

The following afternoon (March 6th), a small group of people from the ‘Namgis First Nation, Bay Cetology and OrcaLab in Alert Bay gathered for a ceremony to pay our respect to Volcano and release its spirit (Video 1). Standing alongside friends and colleagues to honour this whale was a beautiful experience. Thank you Amber Alfred, Andrea Cranmer, Ernest Alfred, K’odi Nelson, Kelsey Nelson, Shannon Alfred, Shelley Cook, Kara Souch, Paul Spong, Helena Symonds, Elysanne Durand, Tasli Shaw and Celine van Weelden.  Over the coming weeks I will make regular visits to Volcano’s carcass to monitor scavenger activity and collect all bones for later rearticulation. My hope is that his skeleton can eventually be displayed for educational purposes somewhere in Alert Bay, Sointula, Telegraph Cove or Port McNeill considering how uniquely important the waters between these communities are for this species. 

  JT



References:

The Return of Giants- Why Humpback Whales are a game changer for boaters

This article also appeared in the Canadian Power Squadron members’ magazine, The Port Hole, in December 2021.

Humpback Whales were heavily targeted by whaling. The last whaling station in BC only closed in 1967. Humpbacks remained an uncommon sight off our coast for many decades. 

As an indication of how quickly the numbers of Humpbacks have increased, in 2003, when we began research in our core study area around north eastern Vancouver Island, we documented only seven Humpbacks in the whole year. Come 2019, we documented 95 in the same area with the same amount of research effort.

With the return of these giants, there is an increased overlap with human activities. Therefore, it is essential that coastal British Columbians know about large whales like Humpbacks, for the sake of whale AND boater safety. Not only have whales died as a result of collision and entanglement, there has been significant human injury (one boater is paralyzed as the result of collision), kayaks have been flipped, and motorized vessels have been disabled.

One of the most common misconceptions about Humpbacks is that they know where boats are and will get out of the way. Unlike toothed whales, such as Orca, Humpback Whales do not have the same bio-sonar capabilities. These giants are very unpredictable. They can be oblivious of boats especially when feeding or socializing. They can be resting just below the surface; unexpectedly surface after long dives; or suddenly become acrobatic.

A further dangerous misconception is that Humpbacks are migrating through BC waters, travelling in a predictable direction. Reality is that many of these whales return from the breeding grounds to feed in the same, specific areas of our coast year-after-year. They are seasonal neighbours who have preferred feeding areas and strategies. Thereby, they are often travelling in unpredictable patterns in the same area NOT travelling in a straight line.

What can you do to reduce your risk of collision? 

  • Give whales space. It is the law to stay 100 metres away from Humpbacks and this becomes 200 metres when the whales are resting or with a calf. Since it is difficult to determine if a whale is resting or when is a mother with a  calf, we recommend always staying at least 200 metres away from Humpback Whales. For Orca in the area south from Campbell River to Ucluelet, the minimum approach distance is 400 metres.
  • Always be on the lookout for blows and other indicators of whale presence such as large aggregation of birds. Humpbacks and some bird species share the same food sources, such as krill and small schooling fish. More birds therefore signal an increased chance of whale presence. 
  • If despite your vigilance, a whale surfaces within 100m, shut off the boat engine until the whale is beyond 100m.
  • Watch for vessels flying the “Whale Warning Flag”. This signals that whales are in the area.
  • Familiarize yourself with areas known to have a greater likelihood of whale presence and be extra vigilant in these areas. See link below.  
  • Know the laws and further best practices. Including your legal responsibility to report any collisions and entanglements to the DFO Incident Reporting Line. See www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org

Bird Bricks

Morbidly fascinating but . . . this is pure marine biology gold when reflecting on 2020.

It’s our final gift to you for this year, made possible thanks to our dear Alaskan research colleagues.



These are “bird bricks”. They used to be tiny birds. 



Bigger birds like gulls and diving birds who feed on herring, are too big to fit down a Humpback Whale’s throat. Their fate, if they end up in the mouth of a Humpback feeding on the same prey, would be to drown or, to have a lucky escape if the whale opened its mouth at the surface. 

 We’ve blogged about that previously at this link. 

The narrow throats of baleen whales are an adaptation whereby only small prey with large surface area get into the whales’ stomachs . . . usually.

These 3 smaller birds were likely feeding on krill and, Humpbacks were too. 

 They DID fit down the throat of a Humpback.

They accidentally became engulfed, went down a Humpback’s throat, and came out the other side. With there being no way for baleen whales to mechanically break down such large “items”, their digestive enzymes would not be sufficient for chemical digestion.

And yes, “bird brick” is the official scientific term. We know this is life-enhancing information for you.

DNA analysis confirmed that these birds were an Ancient Murrelet and two Marbled Murrelets.



Please see the great research paper:
*Source: Haynes, Trevor & Campbell, Matthew & Neilson, Janet & López, J.. (2014). Molecular identification of seabird remains found in humpback whale feces. Marine Ornithology. 41. 161-166.

There you go dear community. We will continue to be here for you, and the whales. Working hard, and like you, striving to find our way out of crappy situations. 



With huge chunks of gratitude to our colleagues who gave us permission to use these photos more than a year ago.

Share this with someone who feels like they’ve experienced the equivalent of what happened to these birds? 



Consider us in your year-end giving? 

We have wonderful marine-themed masks as an incentive. Please see this link. 



Happy Better Year to you. 

Photo credits:
Left: National Park Service photo/Chris Gabriel
Right: National Park Service photo/Janet Neilson Janet Neilson

 

Work Achieved in 2020 – MERS Report

What a year it’s been!

Below we report on what we have achieved to date in 2020 despite you-know-what. We want you to know how far your contributions go to reduce threats to marine life and that we could not have succeeded without the support of those united in knowing the value of this work.

Jigger lunge-feeding, October 22nd, 2020

We’re very grateful for what you have done to make this possible, be it by contributing data; sharing our educational messaging; making tax-deductible donations; sponsoring whales; helping with signage to reduce threats to whales and boaters; flying the Whale Warning Flag; educating yourself about reducing threats to marine life; and/or purchasing sustainable goods from our online Ocean Store.

Hoping it is of use, we have summarized how meaningful end-of-year giving supports our work at this link. Candidly, we have a budget shortfall due to not being able to have our Courses nor our annual fund-raising trip. 

Wishing you health, happiness and a world of whales,

The MERS Team

Neptune trap-feeding, October 22nd, 2020


MERS Report
Highlights of work achieved in 2020 

Educational and Outreach

  • Adapting to the necessity for online, virtual education, including:
  • Strategic positioning of 102 additional “See a Blow? Go Slow!” signs to educate boaters on how to reduce risk to whales for a total of more than 350 signs now posted on British Columbia’s coast (see map at this link);  
  • Coordinating an initiative focused on incorporating Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations into both Transport Canada’s and the Canadian Power Squadron’s boater courses;
  • Promoting and distributing Whale Warning Flags;
  • Creating an educational member-only online resource for our Humpback Whale sponsors; and
  • In development: animations to raise awareness of, and reduce, marine debris.

Research

  • Over 1,400 database entries for sightings of Humpbacks in 2020 with an additional 1,000+ entries for sightings from previous years;
  • Further data collection and analysis of scars on Humpback Whales that indicate they have survived entanglement(s) and drafting a manuscript focused on the scope of this threat to Humpbacks in BC waters for publication (work conducted in collaboration with DFO);
  • Continued data collection for Humpback Whale population studies and feeding strategy research;
  • Coordinating the efforts of those studying Humpback Whales off the coast of British Columbia to consolidate data sets and develop a Province-wide Humpback Whale catalogue to enable further research collaboration;
  • Conducting multi-species marine mammal surveys to inform seasonal and annual changes in distribution;
  • Compiling Mola / Ocean Sunfish sightings to support a study into species distribution off the coast of British Columbia; and
  •  Addition of Humpback Whale mouth ID photos to our cataloguing efforts, to allow identification of trap-feeding whales by their distinctive mouth markings.

Marine Mammal Rescue and Response

  • 9.5 days of monitoring commercial fisheries overlapping with areas of high whale density, to improve reporting of incidents and to respond, or provide support to rescue efforts, when needed;
  • 5.5 days of support for whale entanglement response by coordinating and undertaking search efforts for known entangled Humpback Whales; and
  • Communication / coordination for 23 marine mammal incidents, ranging from violations of the Marine Mammal Regulations to marine mammal entanglement.

Staffing

 

Whale Matching Games

By Chloé Warren, 2nd season MERS Summer Team 

For those of you coming here via a matching challenge we posted on our social media, please scroll to the end  of the blog for the answers to the #ChloesWhaleMatchingGame challenges. Each week the answers to the present week’s game will be added to the list. But first, read on if you’d like to learn a little bit more about what we do as Data Analysts for MERS and how we process the data sent to us.

This was the first weekly challenge. Try matching the Humpback Whales on the left with one of the whales on the right. 

 


Background on the work of matching whales:

As a summer team member for MERS, one of my main duties is to review both the Humpback pictures collected by our team and those sent to us by our wonderful data contributors, be it pleasure boaters or whale watching operators.

The first thing we do when we receive a picture of a Humpback Whale is to try to identify the individual (and believe me, this very quickly become a reflex; I can’t look at a video or photo of a whale anymore without wondering if I may be able to identify the individual). Being able to determine the ID of the individual whale and relay who the whale is to our data contributors adds to connection and care for the whales.

It is also the foundation of all our work from population studies to feeding strategies and entanglement rates,. When we recognize them as individuals, we can better follow their movements, area use, behaviours, associations, feeding strategies, diet, family ties, survival rates, injuries, and so much more.

The trailing edge of the whale’s tail (the edge at the extremity of the tail), with all its bumps and ridges, is arguably the most consistent feature of a Humpback.Unless the whale suffers some sort of injury, in which case a new nick can appear or a piece of the tail can go missing, the trailing edge will barely change, even when the whale grows bigger. By using the trailing edge, one can also identify a Humpback from a “reverse fluke shot” which is a photo of the topside of the tail. However, it can be quite tedious to scrutinize the trailing edge of a fluke.

It is much easier to identify a Humpback Whale through colouration and markings on the underside of their fluke / tail. The pigmentation there can vary greatly between whales, and tends to change relatively slowly over time (although it still does change, especially in younger whales, and scars can obviously appear and change with time).

However, Humpbacks do not always lift their tails and/or contributed photos show just the side of the whale. Thus, it is very useful to catalogue the dorsal fins of Humpbacks as well (the fins on their backs).

 

Again, the overall shape of a dorsal tends not to change, but severe transformations of individual dorsal fins do regularly happen as the result of injuries e.g. from vessel strikes or male competitive behaviour. Scars will appear, change, and disappear quite frequently there too, so it can be quite tricky to identify whales that way. Plus, much like human noses, there’s not that much variation in  the shape of dorsal fins, and several individuals will have dorsal fins that look extremely similar. At MERS, we’ve all spent way too many hours looking at dorsal fins, looking for any type of clue that may indicate which whale we are looking at.

Identifying the whale is only the first step in the data processing process though. After we’ve determined the ID, in the photo’s metadata, we’ll add the ID of the whale, the photographer, the date, the time and the location. We’ll also rate the quality of the picture.

But wait, there’s more!  Not only does all the information for EVERY sighting get entered into our database, there is further processing needed for pictures that suggest entanglement scaring, that may allow for determination of gender, or pictures of previously undocumented whales.

Needless to say, this can be a very time-consuming job: every single picture needs to be analyzed and processed. We quite often run into whale mysteries, where we can’t quite figure out which dorsal goes with which fluke or that the quality of the photo makes ID more difficult.

It sometimes takes 5 pairs of eyes, and a couple more encounters with the whale for us to figure out who they are. Last summer, about a month went by before the puzzle pieces came together and I was able to ID a whale. And check out this blog post to see how much work was put into identifying the Humpback Whale seen in Vancouver this past May (I was not involved in that mystery). It’s the story of Halfpipe at this link. 

While it can be frustrating, the satisfaction of finally solving a whale puzzle always leaves me wanting more. How did you make out with the challenges?

For more information on how the whales receive catalogue numbers and nicknames, please see our Education Coordinator’s blog “Beethoven the Humpback Whale! What’s in a name?” at this link.

To obtain the MERS Humpback Catalogue for Northern Vancouver Island, please click here. 


Here are the answers to Chloe’s Whale Matching Games:

Week 1 – July  23, 2020:

 

Answers for Week 1:

A is Guardian (BCYuk2011#4),

B  is Argonaut (BCY0729)

C  is Bumpy (BCYuk2016#11)

D is Inukshuk (BCZ0339, Inukshuk)


Week 2 – July  30, 2020:

Flukes:

Flanks:

Answers Week 2:

Flukes:

A is Sponge Bob (BCYuk2019#8)

B  is Whiskers (BCZ0200)

C  is Poseidon (BCZ0200 calf 2019)

D is Terry (BCX1100)

E is Hammerhead (BCYuk2019#4)

Flanks:

A is Sponge Bob (BCYuk2019#8)

B  is Whiskers (BCZ0200)

C  is Poseidon (BCZ0200 calf 2019)


Week 3 – August 6th, 2020

This week we’re exploring the art of nicknaming Humpback Whales. You might have noticed that we often reference Humpbacks by 2 names: their alphanumeric ID & their nickname.

The alphanumerical ID is relatively straightforward:

  • BC = British-Columbia
  • X, Y or Z = % of white on the underside of the tail (fluke)
    X = mostly black
    Y = intermediate amount of white
    Z = mostly white
  • A 4 digit number = the order in which the whales are documented.

    Thus, BCZ0200 is the 200th Humpback documented off BC whose tail is mostly white.

Until the whales are assigned a provincial ID, there is a temporary designation. We use a system whereby BCYuk2019#8 is the 8th whale with an intermediate amount of white on their fluke, documented in 2019. Not a new paragraph. Calves get the ID of their mother, followed by “calf” and the year they were born, so “BCZ0200 calf 2019” is BCZ0200’s 2019 calf.

We assign nicknames for 2 reasons: to provide greater potential for public engagement & they’re easier to remember! They are based on distinguishing features & allow for more efficient IDing.

When a new whale is documented, MERS often invites the data contributor to suggest nicknames. Sometimes, school groups or participants in MERS’ courses are invited to do so for whales who have yet to be nicknamed. MERS ultimately selects the name, to avoid confusion with other names & because we’re the ones who most often use them for identification!

This all requires a keen eye, lots of creativity & a good dose of imagination. Can you do it? 8 of the whales here were named for a distinguishing feature on their flukes & 6 for something on their flanks. Can you guess which nickname corresponds to which whale? 

Answers for the Week 3 Fluke Challenge:
:
A is #5 = Double Drop
See how the left trailing edge had two large jags?

B is #6= Loophole
See the hole on the right?

C is #3 = K-One
See the K1 marking on the right?

D is #4.= ‘Makwala
See the moon-like marking on the left?

E is # 7 = Notcho
See the notch in the trailing edge top left?

F is #2 = Yogi
See the large white shape on the left? We think it looks like a bear’s head, facing left. Yes, it is like an ink blotch test!

G is #8 = Stripe
See the stripe on the left?

H is 1 = Lefty
See that the left part of the fluke is missing?

Answers for the Week 3 dorsal fin challenge:

A is #5 = Freckles
See all the white dots?

B is #4 = Claw
See how the shape of her dorsal fin is like a claw?

C is # 1 = Bumpy
See the bump in front of the dorsal fin?

D is #3 = Nick
See the nick in her dorsal fin?

E is #2 = Slash
See the lack of dorsal, and the propeller scars over her back?

F  is #6 = Hook
See how the shape of her dorsal fin is really hooked?


Week 4 – August 13th, 2020

This week, we will focus on an incredibly useful skill in any Humpback Whale data analyst’s toolkit: being able to match the trailing edge of a whale’s tail (the edge at the extremity of the tail). Just this week, I’ve relied on this skill to identify about a dozen whales, having nothing else to go off off it is challenging to scrutinize the bumps and ridges that define the trailing edge of a fluke. It’s usually much easier to recognize a whale when you can see the the markings and pigmentation on the underside of the tail (the fluke). But sometimes, one has to rely on the trailing edge to identify a whale. This can be due to the photo being of the front of the tail (reverse fluke) or of only a segment of the underside of the tail, poor lighting, or simply because it’s an all-black tail. The trailing edge of a fluke is a very consistent feature of a Humpback, so even when fluke markings seem to match, it is always good to check the trailing edge to confirm a match. So this week, I’m setting you up for a challenging but amusing exercise: on the left you have a picture of the topside of the tail of 4 different whales (reverse flukes), and on the right you have the flukes of those whales as they would appear in our catalogue. Can you match each reverse fluke to a whale? Good luck! 

Answers for Week 4 Reverse Fluke Challenge

A is Cutter
B is Tempest
C is Bumpy
D is Argonaut


Week 5 – August 20th, 2020

This week, for our second to last episode of #chloeswhalematchingame, we are honoring another part of MERS’s research: Minke Whales!

Minke Whales are the second smallest of the baleen whales. Their small size and limited surface activity make for a very cryptic species.

MERS co-founder Jared initiated Minke Whale research in the area over a decade ago. As with Humpbacks, the basis for understanding this species is to be able to identify them as individuals. The resulting very interesting discoveries from his efforts to recognize them include that it is now known that 6 individuals return to our core study area on NE Vancouver Island year upon year and, most likely, they are all females. See Jared and colleagues’ research on Minke Whales here www.mersociety.org/publications.

If you enjoy dorsal fin matching then you are in for a treat: Minke Whales do not lift their tails whereby they must be identified by their flanks. Make sure you put on your glasses because you’ll be looking for slight differences in scars, shapes, and dents to make the matches here!

The pictures on the left are those to ID, and the ones on the right are the Minkes as they are catalogued by Jared Towers in MERS’s “Minke Whales of the straits off northeastern Vancouver Island” (catalogue available via the link above). Good luck!


Answers Week 5 Minke Whale Challenge:


Week 6 – August 27th, 2020

Here you have the flanks & flukes of 3 Humpback Whales (whale A, B and C), all of which were featured in a matching game at some point this summer. Can you identify them? You may know them already, or you can put the pieces together by searching our previous games above. Also, remember nicknames can help. For the biggest challenge: look through the MERS catalogue to try & find them! If you don’t have it already, you can purchase at our #oceanstore. I hope this series of games may have enhanced how you observe the world around you; maybe thinking about animals more as individuals which opens the door further to learning about the life surrounding us!

 

 

Answers Week 6:

Who’s That Humpback? One-year-old “Halfpipe” near Vancouver.

Here’s a Humpback Whale identification mystery that became fully solved as a result of this happening on May 22nd . . .  

With this young Humpback being so near Vancouver and in the media like this, we hope that by sharing his/her story, more coastal British Columbians may become engaged and better aware of the extreme necessity to know that Humpbacks are a game changer on our coast. 

We are so fortunate to have a second chance with these giants. They were whaled up to 1966 in British Columbia and now have increased in number to the extent that boaters need to know that a Humpback could unexpectedly surface almost anywhere along our coast (note that the increased number is due to population growth as well as  whales moving into these waters from other areas).  

Many boaters are under the assumption that Humpbacks know where vessels are but baleen whales like Humpbacks do not have the biosonar of species like Orca. They can be oblivious of boats, especially when feeding and they are particularly hungry at this time of the year. They have recently come back from the breeding grounds of Mexico or Hawaii* where there is little to no food for them. Too often boaters assume Humpbacks are “in transit”, travelling in a straight line, rather than understanding that the whales are often on long, unpredictable dives when feeding or searching for food. 

Humpbacks’ size and unpredictability makes the threat of collision dangerous for boaters and for whales. So please dear reader, inform yourself of the Marine Mammal Regulations and best practices at www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org.

See examples of human injury resulting from collision with Humpbacks
at this link. 

[*Halfpipe very likely migrated from Mexico. This assumption is based on knowing that calves learn migration routes from their mothers and Halfpipe’s mother, older sibling and an aunt/uncle have been documented near Baja California – respectively Split Fluke, Valiant and Dalmatian.]

So who is this Humpback and how do we know? 

This is Halfpipe, nicknamed for a distinctive shape on the trailing edge of the tail. Halfpipe is one-year-old. We do not know gender but do know who Halfpipe’s mother and grandmother are. 

We now know that s/he is the whale that has been feeding near Bowen Island since at least May 11th.  

We’ll lay out how the mystery of this whale’s ID was solved as it gives a sense of how important citizen science is, and also, how much a whale’s appearance can change over time. 

This whale ID mystery began on May 11th by receiving a series of images of a Humpback Whale lunge-feeding near Bowen Island from resident artist Di Izdebski (the whale was likely feeding on concentrations of Northern Anchovy as these small schooling fish have recently been noted in large numbers by Bowen Island residents). Di is a significant supporter of our work and knew the importance of identifying the whale – for public engagement as well as for research. We humans do better when we think of whales are individuals and not as “look there’s another Humpback” feeding in the bay. We do better when we know if it is the same Humpback and know some detail about the whale’s life .In many areas of our coast too it is the same Humpbacks coming back to the same specific areas year-after-year. Like any good fisherman or woman, they have preferences for locations and strategies. 

We catalogue Humpbacks, not only by the underside of their tails, but also by their dorsal fins (the fin on their backs). This Humpback did not lift his/her tail. You’ll note that Di did get photos of both the whale’s flanks BUT there were no distinctive markings to be seen. The shape of the dorsal fin provided a shortlist of who this might be but we could not definitively ID the whale (note that Tasli Shaw of Humpbacks of the Salish Sea was also a  partner in trying solve this mystery). 

On May 16th, Di saw a Humpback exhale near her home and ran down to the beach to get photos (with 5-year-old child in tow). She again documented a Humpback Whale feeding. She got an even better photo of the dorsal fin (cropped image below) which allowed us to know that it was the same whale as on May 11th but we could still not provide a solid ID. Who was this mystery whale? 

Then came May 22nd, when Di relayed photos resulting from AGAIN running to the beach packing child and camera. These photos led to our sending Di the following email. 

“Based on the new photos, this may be a much younger whale than first thought. Also, to have this site fidelity, it is maybe more likely that this is a known whale i.e. a whale that has been previously documented off the coast of BC. This shaped our thinking in again tying to solve this ID mystery. The angle, lighting and resolution of these latest photos also reveals some additional  detail . We think this is Halfpipe who was born last year to Split Fluke (BCX1068) who was born in 2006 to Heather (BCY0160). These are the first known sightings of Halfpipe back off the coast of BC in 2020.” 


The photos above reveal that THIS is how much a whale’s appearance can change in one year. First year Humpback calves often have a lot of mottling (little white dots and patches) on their flanks. You’ll see above that those are gone but the dorsal fins shape and some very small markings made this match possible. 

And then came the additional May 22nd photo that made the news, taken by Robert Grant of the Vancouver Port Authority. Di immediately suspected this was the same whale that had been feeding near Bowen (only about 30 km away). . 

That’s Halfpipe alright! 

Halfpipe was tail-lobbing so we could now see the distinctive markings including that circular jag on the right of the tail that inspired the nickname (suggested by Kaitlin Paquette). We most often nickname Humpbacks for features that helps us recognize who they are. Thereby, the nickname serves as a hint or clue to the identity of the whale. This also allows for others to more easily connect to the whales as individuals. 

The following video is from the perspective of the sailboat in the above image, taken by Keanna Rink of Venture BC sailing school.


Considering that Halfpipe has repeatedly been documented near Bowen Island and now near Vancouver , it could be that s/he is the whale in this video from May 13th that ended up in the media, showing a Humpback breaching in Burrard Inlet  posted by anything kinder on Reddit). And no we cannot ID a whale at that distance so cannot know for sure! 🙂 


May Halpipe’s story inspire greater understanding that these whales are individuals. The Humpback Whales are giants with who we have a second chance, who need space AND a whole lot of humans who care. 


See the MERS catalogue photos of Halfpipe’s grandmother and mother below. Humpback Whale calves only stay with their mothers for one year, migrating up and, likely, back down to the breeding grounds with their mother. 
For the Humpbacks who do not group-bubble-net feed, it is the norm that they are most often on their own when in the feeding grounds. Group-bubble-net-feeding is a strategy used by some Humpbacks from BC’s central coast into Alaska. It is not a feeding strategy that works well in high current areas. Humpbacks who feed in high current areas lunge-feed” and some have learned to “trap-feed”. Sometimes, in a back eddy or when it is slack tide, some will also solo-bubble-net feed.  

 

 


Great thanks to ALL* who contribute to the citizen science and education that helps increase understanding and, thereby, decrease risk to the whales. 

*With a special shout out to Bowen Islanders in this case.  


Photo below: Baby breach! Halfpipe on August 14, 2019 near Campbell River / Quadra (west side of Mitlenatch Island). With very big gratitude to Kaitlin Paquette of Discovery Marine Safaris whose photos allowed us to ultimately recognize Halfpipe in these latest sightings.