Currently Entangled Whales off the Coast of BC

The following will be updated as information becomes available. Last update: August 2nd at 15:30 PDT.

Whales known to be entangled as per July 31st at 4 pm PDT (detail on the whales and entanglements below):
1. Checkmate – entangled near Campbell River, has not be found. Now known that a member of the public removed rope at the surface. This was a terrible mistake. The gear at the surface would have allowed ease of recognizing this whale as entangled and would have allowed far better possibility of being able to remove the entangling gear below the surface. The prognosis for Checkmate is very poor. 
2. X-Ray – entangled near Campbell River, has not be found
3. Unknown whale #1 on Central Coast, has not been found, photo now available
4. Unknown whale #2  on the Central Coast, has not been found

See this link for our schedule for free webinars on our research and how to reduce threats to whales. 


There are currently 4 Humpback Whales known to be entangled off the coast of British Columbia. They may not be the only ones. These are just the whales who have been seen and reported. Note that it is the law that entanglements must be reported.

With the very fortunate increase in the number of Humpback Whales off our coast, comes this reality that there is a greater overlap between fishing gear and these giants feeding off our coast.

This page is to serve as: 
(1) The go-to for information on currently entangled whales so that there is a greater chance that they may be found so that rescue attempts can be undertaken / resumed;

(2) A resource for media and coastal British  Columbians regarding the severity / frequency of this threat and knowing what to do (and not to do).

(3) Increasing knowledge of why identifying whales as individuals is so important. Not only is it the foundation of all our research, if you want to find a whale in trouble, you need to be able to recognize the whale and know where it most often can be found.

How big a threat is entanglement to Humpbacks?
The preliminary results of our research, conducted in collaboration with DFO, shows that approximately half the Humpbacks off the coast of British Columbia have scarring that shows they have been entangled. This provides an indication of how much the following are needed: boater education, resources for disentanglement, and understanding of how to reduce the threat. But please know, that entangled whales so often escape detection and most dead whales sink.

How you can help:
You can help by being alert for the possibility of entangled whales and educating yourself about what to do with the information we have provided at
www.HowToSaveAWhale.org. This includes insight into how disentanglement are conducted and why it is not only extraordinarily dangerous to attempt disentanglement but were one to do so, you might be dooming the whale by removing the ability to see the the whale is entangled (because what is visible at the surface has been removed) and by removing the ability to attach a geo-tag to the gear so that the whale can be  found and the expertise and equipment can be used to attempt rescue.

Know that the whales are most often not in immediately danger of dying from entanglement. It is the longterm impacts of infection and not being able to feed and/or move properly that will kill them.

The biggest limiting factor in rescuing the whales is finding them back as the realities of the following four whales will make very clear. But know too we can never detect or find back all the entangled whales off our coast. The problem of entanglement must ultimately be dealt with at the source for the sake of the whales, the fishing community re. impacts due to lost gear; and for the sake of fisheries trade with the United States (see end fo the page for the court ruling in that regard). .


Entangled Humpback #1
Checkmate


Checkmate was documented as entangled due to the vigilance of a member of the whale watching community around Campbell River. It was immediately called in to the Incident Reporting Line at 1-800-465-4336. Expertise was dispatched to Campbell River with Straitwatch maintaining watch on the whale.

It is known that a member of the public removed rope at the surface. This was a terrible mistake, and also illegal. The gear at the surface would have allowed ease of recognizing this whale as entangled. It would have allowed for a tracking tag to be attached so that the whale could be relocated. And, it would have allowed far better possibility of being able to remove the entangling gear below the surface. The prognosis for Checkmate is very poor.

Because there is nothing at the surface, it was also not possible to attach a tracking tag to the rope so that Checkmate could be found whereby disentanglement attempts by DFO could continue.

If you think you have found Checkmate, please see this link to send the photos (taken outside 200m) so that we can confirm and not overtax DFO. If you are certain it is Checkmate, or another entangled whale, call 1-800-465-4336. To send photos: https://www.mersociety.org/data


Entangled Humpback #2
X-Ray

X-Ray was last seen near Kelsey Bay with an adult whale, Slits on July 26. May no longer be traveling together. DFO has been able to remove some of the entangling gear. Whale needs to be found back  in the hopes of removing the remaining gear. 


Entangled Humpback #3

The photo below was taken on the late afternoon of July 29th near Ashdown Island. This Humpback has netting over its head which is unlikely to be evident at the surface. Colleague Humpback researchers have also reviewed this photo and we do not know this individual. This suggests the whale is more often in an area where we do not get ID photos. The whale has not been relocated since July 29th. It is know that there were multiple interactions between Humpbacks and netting during this seine fishery. These entanglements are of course also a problem for the human fishers striving to make their living. 

It is the law that entanglements must be reported. Exact language from Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations is included below.  Click to enlarge. 


Entangled Humpback #4 

There are currently no photos known to us that would allow confirmation of the identities of this whales. The entanglement was not reported until well after it happened whereby it will be far more challenging to find the whale. If there are no photos to aid the identification of the whales, this further confounds chances of finding them, especially if there is not evidence of entanglement at the surface.


With regard to entanglement of whales impacting the economics of fisheries trade with the USA:

The Marine Mammal Import Provisions Rule, went into effect on January 1st, 2017 (with a 5-year grace period). To comply with this regulation by January 1st, 2022, countries importing seafood into the United States must be able to prove their fisheries monitor and limit marine mammal bycatch with the same standards as U.S. fisheries are required to do under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

Humpback 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:

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:

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)


Remember check in every week up  to August 27th.

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.

Max the Humpback – Documented 32 Years

Here’s the kind of thing that makes Humpback researchers’ hearts go pitter pat and AGAIN makes the point of how many humans it takes to study giants.

We think you’ll love the story of “Max” too.

Max is a Humpback Whale first documented by Alexandra Morton around NE Vancouver Island in 1987, then already at least a juvenile. Alex is the one who so diligently began documenting Humpbacks around NE Vancouver Island and whose data we inherited. We learned that Alex only got one chance to photograph this whale and nicknamed him/her in honour of fellow Echo Bay resident, Yvonne Maximchuk who was caring for her son during the sighting.


Max was assigned the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) catalogue number BCX0929. Sightings of Max were reported to DFO for 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2007. All known sightings were for the area around Prince Rupert. (Note DFO cataloguing of Humpbacks off the coast of BC ended in 2010 and has continued through the efforts of not-for-profits).

THEN, thanks to the research of Pacific Whale Foundation, Max was documented near Maui in 2019!


These puzzle pieces came together because of our collective contribution and collaboration with Happywhale to document Humpback Whales across the North Pacific.


What can be learned by studying Humpbacks as individuals in this way includes: migration range for individuals, , site fidelity / habitat use, life history (e.g. age of calving and life expectancy), associations between individuals, etc!

What can also be gained for conservation? By sharing the stories of whales like Max, we strive for a greater appreciation that the whales are individuals and for a greater understanding of their importance as ambassadors of ocean health. We believe such stories provide insight into how much we humans have to learn even about the biggest animals in the ocean and what the reveals about the need for humility and precaution. But, ultimately, we hope for greater connection and action for the ocean upon which all our lives depend. 💙

Note: We (all scientists involved) have not confirmed Max is male but s/he has never been documented with a calf.

See here for the Happywhale information for Max https://happywhale.com/individual/33185.

Know that some Humpbacks who feed off the coast of BC migrate to Hawaii (like Max) while others migrate to Mexico.

How Many Humpbacks? (Around northern Vancouver Island in 2019)

[Updated: March 12, 2020]

Here’s our report on Humpback Whale numbers in our study area in 2019 and yes, our updated catalogue is ready to go too. 🙂 

Humpback Whale Ripple (BCX1063) – documented since 2005 (then already adult) and known to have had 3 calves. She’s a trap-feeder.

But first, for clarity, please know that we are not reporting on the entire number of Humpback Whales estimated to feed in British Columbia marine waters.

The estimate for that dates back to research by Ford et al  which concluded:  in 2006, the  abundance for Humpback Whales in British Columbia waters was 2,145 whales.  This estimate did not include 1st year calves.

In is anticipated that soon there will be an updated estimate for the number of Humpbacks in BC waters as a result of the 2018 Pacific Region International Survey of Marine Megafauna (PRISMM). It is important to note that the results of the PRISMM  line-transect survey will be for a much larger area than that which led to the 2006 estimate. 

How many Humpbacks did there used to be off our coast? As you can imagine, there is poor data for this as no one was studying whales as individuals prior to the early 1970s. The estimate is that a minimum of 4,000 Humpback Whales existed just off the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1905. Legal whaling for Humpbacks ended by international agreement in 1966 and it is estimated that, by the 1970s, there were only ~1,400 Humpbacks in the WHOLE North Pacific Ocean i.e. not just off our coast.


Now that that’s all been emphasized, the area for which we are reporting is from the upper Strait of Georgia to northern Vancouver Island and around to northwest Vancouver Island. We identified 161 individuals who were in that area at some time in 2019. There are now over 380 whales in the MERS catalogue for the area. 

Updated catalogue. All those who have previously purchased a catalogue will receive a link via email to download the update. Available for purchase at this link for $25.

 


The sub-area for which we have the longest dataset is northeastern Vancouver Island (upper Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait and the inlets of the Broughton Archipelago). The graph below shows how sudden the increase in Humpbacks has been. Numbers have increased from just 7 individuals documented in this area in all of 2003, to identifying 93 in 2019 Note too how many of the whales are returnees to the area each year (compare the blue bar in the graph to the red bar). This indicates how strong the site fidelity of Humpbacks is. They generally return to the same area(s) to feed year upon year. 

Number of photo-identified Humpback Whales sighted off Northeastern Vancouver Island – specifically for upper Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait and the inlets of the Broughton Archipelago. Data pre 2000 via Alexandra Morton. Note that we use both dorsal fins and the underside of the whales’ tails to determine ID. 


For the Campbell River / Comox / Hornby Island area, we catalogued 88 individuals that were there at some point in 2019.  Of this number, 
35 were also sighted around 
northeastern Vancouver Island.


Note that the size of this increase in Humpbacks off the coast of BC cannot be population growth alone (post whaling). There must also be a shift from somewhere else. That mystery is something we and our colleague researchers, have not solved, nor what the shift may indicate about changing ocean conditions.



We emphasize how this work would not be possible were it not for the
contribution of photos from naturalists, boaters and others who care
. The photos, together with the location of sightings, not only aid our Humpback Whale population studies but also help in understanding how the whales use the area. 

With the number of Humpbacks so predictably being around central to northern Vancouver Island, it is essential that boaters are aware of how to avoid collision and what to do (and not to do) if entanglement is witnessed. Humpback Whales are much more unpredictable than the Orca many boaters are accustomed too. Please see www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org.

We also have a national teaching resource on boaters and marine mammals at www.BoatBlue.ca. This was developed in collaboration with the Canadian Power and Sail Squadron.

For further highlights of our work in 2019, please see this link. 


Note that our research, conducted in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, shows that approximately 50% of the Humpbacks in BC waters have scarring from an entanglement. This indicates how widespread a risk entanglement is but does of course not allow us to know how many whales become entangled and die since dead whales usually sink to the bottom of the ocean.

It is even more difficult therefore to know how often whales die from injuries related to boat collision. It is now thankfully the law that collisions and entanglements must be reported.


Click here for examples of the severity of  human injuries and material damage resulting from collisions with Humpback Whales. 


Sources:

Ford J.K.B., Rambeau A.L., Abernethy R.M., Boogaards M.D., Nichol L.M., and Spaven L.D. 2009. An Assessment of the Potential for Recovery of Humpback Whales off the Pacific Coast of Canada. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2009/015. iv + 33 p.

The Good You Gave – highlights of MERS work in 2019

This is for all of you who helped our efforts in 2019: 

  • Donors;
  • Data contributors;
  • “See a Blow? Go Slow!” sign sponsors and those who help position the signs; 
  • Humpback Whale sponsors 
  • Auction sponsors and supporters; 
  • Fundraising trip sponsors and participants; 
  • Ocean Store customers; and/or
  • All those who help amplify our education / conservation messaging. 

Thank you for being part of our community and investing in the work of the Marine Education and Research Society. We take this trust and support very seriously and, with 2019 winding to a close, we are therefore reporting back on what your contributions have help make possible.

Please see below and  . . . . for 2020 and beyond, we wish you a world of whales and wellness. 


Highlights of what has been achieved by MERS in 2019:

Educational and Outreach

  • Development of the guide “Marine Mammals and Boaters” for use nation-wide with the Canadian Power Squadron in the #BoatBlue campaign; 
  • 106 additional See a Blow? Go Slow!” signs for strategic positioning on British Columbia’s coast to educate boaters on how to reduce risk to whales; 
  • 21 presentations aimed at reducing risks to whales, reaching 1,200+ people from coastal BC; 
  • 95 people trained through two Marine Mammal Naturalist Courses with information including actions to reduce risk to marine mammal and what do to in case of incidences of disturbance / injury / entanglement; and
  • For the first time, having an office space (in Port McNeill), which allowed for educating boaters through window displays and by directly engaging with the more than 750 people who visited the office. 

Research

  • Over 1,200 data entries for sightings of Humpbacks in 2019 (please note that sightings are not only obtained through our survey efforts; we are highly reliant on a community of data contributors many of whom are whale watch naturalists);
  • Further data collection and analysis of scarring in Humpbacks Whales indicative of a previous entanglement (study conducted in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada);
  • Data collection for research into Humpback Whale feeding strategies;
  • Continued collaboration with colleagues also documenting Humpbacks off the coast of British Columbia to update the BC province-wide Humpback catalogue (for completion in spring 2020); and
  • Publication of research on sightings rates of Minke Whales.  

Marine Mammal Rescue and Response

  • Ongoing data collection to inform areas of high entanglement risk off northern Vancouver Island and the central coast of BC; 
  • Monitored whales during 6 days when commercial fisheries overlapped with areas of high whale density, to improve reporting of incidents, and to respond or support responses when needed; and 
  • Communication / coordination for 17 incidents. 

Awards

  • Winner of the 2019 ECOSTAR Awards for Ecological Stewardship (non-profit) and Educational Leadership (individual). 

Gifts With Depth

 Please see this link for a summary of what we have been able to achieve in 2019  in our work to reduce risks to whales.  

We could not have achieved this without the support of those who believe in us and the value of the work.  It’s that simple.

With this being a time of year when, in particular, gifts and donations are being considered, below we provide 4 ways through which your support also leads to meaningful gifts for loved ones. 

  1. Honorary donation
  2. Sponsor a Humpback Whale
  3. Sponsor a sign to reduce risk to whales
  4. Select gifts from our Ocean Store

1. Honorary Donation

MERS is a registered Canadian charity whereby donations are tax deductible. When you indicate your donation to MERS is  a gift, we’ll send your giftee a message revealing your thoughtfulness and what work the donation supports. 

Please know that monthly donations (click here) are especially valuable. These reoccurring donations are reliable income thereby allowing more effective planning and budgeting and being able to indicate in-kind support when applying for grants. 

All contributions directly support our research, education, and marine wildlife response activities.


2. Sponsor a Humpback Whale 

For just $48 we will send a Humpback Whale sponsorship package with a personalized message to the gift recipient. The package includes a card featuring a photo of your chosen whale; a USB stick with a biography of your whale with photos and recordings of Humpback vocals; AND you and the giftee will receive at least two email updates every year about the sponsored whale.
Click here for details and during checkout indicate that the sponsorship is a gift. We will then contact you about personalizing the letter that accompanies the sponsorship package.

Sponsorship whales are KC, Twister, Slash, Moonstar and Argonaut.



3. Sponsor a Sign

“See a Blow? Go Slow!” signs are needed all along BC’s coast. Over 100 signs have already been positioned but many more are needed. The signs are essential for both whale and boater safety.  Please see the example below. 

Signs costs approximately $70 each  (price depends on shipping costs) and the sign would include dedication text for your gift recipient (or the logo of your choosing). 

For signs with dedications, a donation can be given in the amount of the sign’s value leading to your getting a tax receipt. See below and contact info@mersociety.org to discuss dedication and confirm price. Signs are made of durable dibond with dimensions 18.5″ x 24″ (~47 cm x 61 cm).



4. Select Gifts from Our Ocean Store

The Ocean Store also serves as our office space in Port McNeill, BC. The sustainable, local and marine-themed goods are also available at our online store at this link. 

It’s the ideal place for gifts that support local marine research, education and conservation (and local artists and businesses). 

Examples of items available at the online store.


With great thanks to you for any consideration you
can give these gifts with depth. 
 

Any questions? Please contact us via this link. 

A Humpback With 11 Birds in His Mouth?

A Humpback With 11 Birds in His Mouth?
Humpback Whales and Their Bycatch

Over the years we at MERS have documented several cases of Humpback Whale bycatch; that is other animals that inadvertently end up in their mouths. This often occurs because Humpback Whales approach dense schools of Pacific Herring at great speed while other species are also feeding on them.

Juvenile Pacific Herring being pushed to the surface by Common Murres (diving birds) feeding on them from below. Gulls feeding on the Herring from above.

The other animals can thereby end up engulfed with the Herring. Then what happens? Consider that anything the size of a Gull or larger cannot be swallowed since the throats of Humpbacks are narrow and because, as baleen whales, they do not have teeth for chewing prey into smaller pieces.

We’ve previously shared the footage below of a Pacific Harbour Seal escaping from the mouth of a trap-feeding Humpback Whale. 

Video by Gord Thompson and Dennis and Stephanie Parsons.

We’ve also documented Humpback Whales opening their mouths to release birds like Common Murres. See photos below of a Common Murre escaping from Guardian the Humpback Whale’s mouth.

On many occasions, we have also documented bycaught Gulls. The afternoon of October 18th was no exception. 

From our research vessel Merlin we noticed in the distance an adult Humpback we know as Backsplash lunge feed at the surface on a large school of Herring that was being fed on from below the surface by Common Murres and from above by Herring and California Gulls.

When we arrived about three minutes later Backsplash was slowly circling the remains of the school of Herring and then lunged on it again, effectively capturing all or most of the remaining fish that were left over from the first lunge. Seconds later Backsplash opened his mouth at the surface, vigorously shook his upper jaw and 11 Gulls came floating up to the surface.

By-caught Gulls discarded from Backsplash’s mouth. Note the Herring scales on the surface. Photo ©Jared Towers, MERS. 

We approached the scene and could see all Gulls were completely saturated – 9 appeared dead (from impact or drowning), and 2 were clinging to what appeared to be their last moments alive. We immediately grabbed the two survivors, both immature Herring Gulls, and wrapped them in a dry towel that I happened to have aboard.

Elysanne Durand drying and warming the two immature Herring Gulls. ©Jared Towers, MERS.

We then noticed that one of the birds we previously thought was dead was resting itself on the floating body or another. There was no room in the towel for this bird, a young California Gull, so I texted our colleagues at nearby OrcaLab on Hanson Island and we raced over for some support.

Gulls that had been in Backsplash’s mouth. Photo ©Jared Towers, MERS.

Moments later we were met on shore with towels and over the next little while dried off the birds while sitting next to the wood stove. We ended up leaving one of the Herring Gulls and the California Gull with our friends at OrcaLab and took the other Herring Gull back home to Alert Bay.

John Totterdel picking up the immature California Gull. Photo ©Jared Towers, MERS..

Once completely dry all birds were released at the shoreline. They each took to the water and then the sky, although the final fate of the poor California Gull is apparently unknown because it subsequently escaped attack by a Bald Eagle but then moved out of sight while the hunt was still in progress, as if being captured by a Humpback Whale wasn’t already enough!

I’m a strong believer that we should always be conscious of our impact on the environment and its inhabitants and this often means not interfering in interactions between predators and prey. However, in a case such as this where the by-product of a feeding predator happens to be some incidentally captured Gulls I have always felt compelled to help out, even though the Gulls typically appear resentful and aggressive as soon as they are warm and dry again.

JT


Read more:

Photo used with permission – Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images. Read about this Humpback Whale and sea lion encounter at this link.

A Whale Named Terry

Blog written by MERS team member – Jackie Hildering
Education and Communications Director, Humpback Researcher, MERS Co-Founder 


Try to stop the tears from welling up in your eyes.
I couldn’t.
Because this is where hope, whales, and children intersect. 

Terry Fox during the “Marathon of Hope” 1980. Photo from © Gail Harvey, United Press Canada from the Royal BC Museum website.

Hope

If you were in Canada in 1980 and of an age to understand the magnitude of what Terry Fox was striving to do, just an image of him will already make you emotional. 

Terry Fox was a beacon of hope, courage, integrity, positivity, strength and defiance of cancer. He was only 18 when he lost most of his right leg to bone cancer. 

He was 21 when he dipped his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean and began his “Marathon of Hope” on April 12, 1980. He planned to run across Canada, from Newfoundland back to his home in British Columbia, to raise money for cancer research

He ran for 143 days, covering 5,373 kilometres and then Terry had to stop. The cancer had spread to his lung. He had run as far as Thunder Bay, Ontario. 

He was one month short of turning 23 when he died on June 28th, 1981.

Whales

BCX1100 is a Humpback Whale. This is one of the Humpbacks that has been seen this year near Port Alice on NW Vancouver Island.  The whale was documented travelling with Humpback “Whiskers” and her 2019 calf by photographer Darrell McIntosh. As is the case for so many areas off British Columbia’s coast, we have a second chance with these giants. The whales off Port Alice are part of a Humpback comeback to where they used to be whaled (up to 1966). 

BCX1100 with damaged right fluke. Photo by Darrell McIntosh, September 2, 2019.

Note in the photo above that Humpback BCX100 has an injured fluke. The right side is limped over. We do not know the cause. The injury dates back to before 2010 and possible causes include vessel strike and entanglement. 

“Whiskers” is the nickname for Humpback BCZ0200 (photo below). Catalogue designations like “BCZ0200” are difficult to remember so we nickname the Humpbacks for distinctive features. See what looks like a cat face on Whiskers’ tail?

Sure you do!

Marine Education and Research Society catalogue photo for Whiskers, BCX0200 by Jared Towers, MERS, MML-42. For more on the cataloguing and nicknaming of Humpbacks please see this link.

These nicknames allow for the potential for greater public engagement and thereby, conservation. The nicknames also really, really help us recognize the whales which is the foundation of all our other research. 

Children

When we learned that Whiskers had a calf this year and had been sighted outside Port Alice, we of course wanted local children to suggest nicknames. Then Darrell also documented the other whale with mom and calf, whereby we asked the children to suggest a nickname for both Whiskers’ calf and BCX1100.

Students of Sea View School, Port Alice. They can see often see the Humpbacks from the school playground. Photo: Natalie Stewart.

There are just 37 students at Sea View School in Port Alice. I had a video call with them while we were on the water on the other side of Vancouver Island doing Humpback research. In the call I helped explain how the nicknames were like a clue for who the whale was. We discussed the most identifiable features of the two whales and they asked questions that reflected concern for the whales and how the whale with the injury  might not be able to swim as well as other Humpbacks. 

And then it came – the message that the students had come up with their suggestions. They thought that BCX1100, the whale with the injured right fluke who was able to make it all the way to Port Alice from Hawaii or Mexico despite a handicap, should be nicknamed . .  “Terry”. 

The tears. Oh the tears. To get personal here, I was 16 when Terry Fox began his Marathon of Hope. I graduated from high school shortly after he died. His life ended. My adult life was just beginning.

To this day, at age 56, I have the paper on which my 16-year-old hand wrote this quote from Terry:


“How many people do something they believe in? I just wish people would realize that anything’s possible if you try – dreams are made if people try”. Terrence Stanley Fox.


He had an undefinable yet undeniably large impact on who I am and the strength for which I strive to stand for what I believe in: nature, whales  . . . children. For me it is always about the best chances of lives of hope and meaning for children. 

Tomorrow, on September 26th, the children in Port Alice and across Canada will participate in the 38th annual Terry Fox School Run.

From the Terry Fox Foundation webpage: “Terry showed us all that the impossible is possible. He reminded us all that we can make a difference in the world and change people’s lives for the better.”  

The children of Port Alice are certainly making a difference. 

They have also become a force in educating adults about the whales and safe and responsible boat operation around them (see www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org).  

They give us something to believe in. 

#BeLikeTerry

Some of the adults who made this all possible:

  • Friend, school secretary and driving force – Natalie Stewart.
    We are hoping there will be media interest in this story.
    Please contact Natalie at nstewart@sd85.bc.ca, (250) 284-3315.
  • Photographers – Darrell McIntosh, David Love, Douglas Bradshaw
  • Principal of Sea View School – Gloria Gadacz
  • Teachers:
    • Heather Jack – Grades K/1
    • Rebecca Herbert – Grades 2/3/4
    • Brenda Karch and Rhiannon Heim – Grades 5/6/7 & 10
  • Kathleen O’Reilly – North Island Eagle
  • Many other Port Alice community members:

And what was the nickname chosen by the students for Whiskers’ 2019 calf? Poseidon!

Notice the distinctive white lines on the calf’s tail that look like Poseidon’s trident? The students understood that this was the most distinctive marking that would likely still be discernable as the calf aged. The light white colouration on the tail will likely fade. 

Whiskers’ 2019 calf now nicknamed Poseidon. The calf will stay with Whiskers for a year and then may come back to the very spot where s/he learned to feed with mother. That would be right outside Port Alice.

Make a Difference in the World of Marine Conservation – Apply to Join our Board Today! (Volunteer)

Are You the Next Member of Team MERS?

In the height of summer, when MERS research, education and response work is at its peak, and our new office is full of busy summer staff, it is hard to believe that this organization started a mere nine years ago as a group of friends wanting to better understand and protect marine mammals in British Columbia (with our core study area and base being Northeastern Vancouver Island).

We have grown so much in nine years and there is so much more to come.

It’s time to grow our team once again! To help support and nurture MERS, we need more hands-on-deck.  Could this be you?

MERS board members and directors. For biographies of team members see this link. Missing from photo: Jared Towers. Photo: Derek Harnanansingh.

This fall, we are looking to add up to two new volunteer board members to help guide this organization into its second decade of operation and make an even bigger positive impact on marine conservation along B.C.’s coast. 

Interested? Here are the details:

Position:
Board Member at Large – potentially two positions available

Type:
Board of Directors position / unpaid

Organization:
MERS Marine Education and Research Society

Location:
Preferably British Columbia, but candidates from other areas considered

A Little About Us:
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. We are based on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and incorporated in 2010.

Our team is comprised of marine biologists and educators highly dedicated to marine conservation. While based on Canada’s west coast, team members have worked in many countries and oceans. Click here for background on our team.

We are a small organization doing big work.

Our research is primarily focused on investigating Humpback and Minke Whales, and that the threats that impact them in British Columbia. We also provide marine wildlife monitoring and incident response. Education is key to our strategy to reduce risks to marine species. Our work includes the See a Blow? Go Slow! campaign to reduce the risk of collision between whales and boaters and How to Save a Whale which educates about whale entanglement. MERS educational activities also include a comprehensive outreach plan of presentations, workshops, training sessions and programs aimed at a wide audience.

Responsibilities of the Board Member:

  • Provide leadership to MERS and help to set our strategic direction
  • Provide oversight and ensure new projects align with our established mission, vision and values
  • Provide governance and ensure MERS and its board adhere to by-laws
  • Attend and participate in bi-monthly board meetings (via teleconference)
  • Participate in fundraising initiatives
  • Help to spread the word about our organization and our work
  • Assist the organization in attracting the expertise, funding and resources needed for MERS to better achieve its goals
  • Attend bi-monthly board meeting, participate in at least one sub-committee and participate in an annual weekend-long board retreat/planning session

Qualifications:
MERS is currently seeking candidates with the following skills and expertise:

  • Experience in/commitment to environmental issues;
  • Experience on not-for-profit boards or strong willingness to learn; and
  • Fundraising experience and knowledge.

Additional Assets:

  • Experience in:
    • Marketing, Communications or PR;
    • Law; and/or
    • Accounting or Finance.

Commitment:

  • A two-year commitment is requested of all Board Members.

Candidates who feel they have other skills or experience that is applicable to our mission are also encouraged to apply.

To Apply:
Please send a note about your relevant experience, skills and interest in MERS, and a CV to board@mersociety.org before September 30th. 

Our MERS board is a fantastic group of professionals dedicated to guiding MERS as it grows, providing solid governance, insight AND oversight, sharing their skills, and ensuring MERS fulfills its mission and strategic plan.

If you are looking for a meaningful way to make a difference in the world of marine conservation, apply to join our board today!

 

Dedicated board members: Board Chair Caitlin Birdsall left (with Olin) and Vice Chair Leah Thorpe right (with Arlen).