Whale Species at Risk and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Project

As a result of the November 29th announcement by Prime Minister Trudeau giving conditional approval to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Project, we have been receiving questions about what this might mean for whale species recognized to be at risk and protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA).

We have written the following in order to answer these questions related to the potential increase in tanker traffic and whale species at risk by summarizing available information from federal documents including Recovery Strategies and Action Plans.

In addition to this review of federal documents, MERS research on Humpback Whales and the risk of vessel strike is pertinent to the potential of increased tanker traffic. Our extensive experience with Humpback Whales provides us with the knowledge of how incredibly unaware Humpbacks can be of boats and how very unpredictably they can surface. This has made our “See a Blow? Go Slow!“campaign a necessity to raise awareness about reducing the risk of collision for the sake of whale and boater safety. Our work with Humpback Whales makes us all too aware that large vessels like tankers cannot divert course fast enough to avoid hitting humpbacks.

The more vessel traffic, the greater the risk becomes.


What are the specifics of the tankers – size, number and route?

  • The Aframax tankers proposed to serve the pipeline are 245 m long and 42 m wide.
  • There would be an approximate sevenfold increase in the number of tankers – from 60 to 408 tankers annually.
  • The tankers would carry diluted bitumen to Asian and Californian refineries along the route in the figure below. Note that tanker route (red line) is shown relative to acknowledged critical habitat for the endangered southern resident killer whale population (purple area).
Figure 1: Red line is the tanker route. Purple area is acknowledged critical habitat for the endangered southern resident killer whale population. Click to enlarge. Source: www.wildernesscommittee.org/kinder_morgan_pipeline_route_maps
Figure 1: Red line is the tanker route. Purple area is acknowledged critical habitat for the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population. Click to enlarge. Source: Wilderness Committee.

How important is the tanker route area to whale species at risk?
The following whale species are recognized to be at risk and are commonly present along the tanker route. They are protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

  • Southern Resident Killer Whales – Endangered
    Area is designated critical habitat (see Figure 2)
  • Transient / Bigg’s Killer Whales – Threatened
    Area is proposed critical habitat (see Figure 3)
  • North Pacific Humpback Whales – Threatened
    In addition to the designated critical habitat (see Figure 4) there has been a recent dramatic increase in humpbacks in the Strait of Georgia and the Juan de Fuca Strait.

You will note that the area through which increased numbers of tankers would transit is designated or proposed critical habitat for all three at-risk whale species.

“Critical habitat” is defined under SARA as “the habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of a listed wildlife species that is identified as the species’ critical habitat in the recovery strategy or in an action plan for the species” (SARA s.2 (1)).”

Figure 2: “Critical habitat for southern resident killer whales. The hatched area in US waters shows the approximate areas designated as southern resident critical habitat under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2011. Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series, Fisheries & Oceans Canada, Ottawa, ix + 80 pp. http://www.sararegistry.gc.ca/virtual_sara/files/plans/rs_epaulard_killer_whale_1011_eng.pdf
Figure 2: “Critical habitat for Southern Resident Killer Whales. The hatched area in US waters shows the approximate areas designated as Southern Resident critical habitat under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA).” Source: Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada.

Figure 3: “Map showing the habitat considered necessary for meeting recovery objectives for inner coast WCT killer whales [West Coast Transient]. Area includes marine waters bounded by a distance of 3 nautical miles (5.56 km) from the nearest shore. This area includes the locations of over 90% of all individual identifications and predation events documented in BC waters during 1990-2011.” Source: Ford, J.K.B, E.H. Stredulinsky, J.R. Towers and G.M. Ellis. 2013. Information in Support of the Identification of Critical Habitat for Transient Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) off the West Coast of Canada. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2012/155. iv + 46 p. http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/Csas-sccs/publications/resdocs-docrech/2012/2012_155-eng.pdf
Figure 3: “Map showing the habitat considered necessary for meeting recovery objectives for inner coast WCT Killer Whales [West Coast Transient]. Area includes marine waters bounded by a distance of 3 nautical miles (5.56 km) from the nearest shore. This area includes the locations of over 90% of all individual identifications and predation events documented in BC waters during 1990-2011.” Source: Information in Support of the Identification of Critical Habitat for Transient Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) off the West Coast of Canada.
Figure 4: “Locations of the four critical habitat areas [for humpback whales]: a. Southeast Moresby Island, b. Langara Island, c. Southwest Vancouver Island, d. Gil Island (DFO 2009). The existence of other areas of critical habitat for Humpback Whales in B.C. is likely.” Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2013. Recovery Strategy for the North Pacific Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. x + 67 pp. http://www.sararegistry.gc.ca/virtual_sara/files/plans/rs_rb_pac_nord_hbw_1013_e.pdf
Figure 4: “Locations of the four critical habitat areas [for Humpback Whales]: a. Southeast Moresby Island, b. Langara Island, c. Southwest Vancouver Island, d. Gil Island (DFO 2009). The existence of other areas of critical habitat for Humpback Whales in B.C. is likely.” SourceRecovery Strategy for the North Pacific Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Canada.
What risks are associated with increased tanker traffic?
Below, we have summarized associated risks as specified in the SARA Recovery Strategies or Action Plans for whale species at risk (click to enlarge).

Figure 5: Summary of risks associated with tankers as specified in the SARA Recovery Strategies or Action Plans for whale species at risk. Click to enlarge.
Figure 5: Summary of risks associated with tankers as specified in the SARA Recovery Strategies or Action Plans for whale species at risk. Click to enlarge.

Further language from federal Recovery Strategies specifically referencing oil spills and/or tankers:

  • Resident Killer Whale Recovery Strategy (2011): The threat of a spill of oil or other toxic material within the areas of critical habitat pose not only an immediate and acute risk to the health of resident populations  . . . but have the potential to make critical habitat areas un-inhabitable for an extended period of time. . . . While the probability of either northern or southern resident killer whales being exposed to an oil spill is low, the impact of such an event is potentially catastrophic [Note that this Recovery Strategy dates back to 2011]. Both populations are at risk of an oil spill because of the large volume of tanker traffic that travels in and out of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia (Baird 2001, Grant and Ross 2002) and the proposed expansion of tanker traffic in the north and central coast of BC. In 2003, 746 tankers and barges transported over 55 billion litres of oil and fuel through the Puget Sound (WDOE 2004). If the moratorium on oil and gas exploration and development is lifted in British Columbia, the extraction and transport of oil may put northern resident killer whales at additional risk.
    Killer whales do not appear to avoid oil, as evidenced by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Less than a week after the spill, resident whales from one pod were observed surfacing directly in the slick (Matkin et al. 1999). Seven whales from the pod were missing at this time, and within a year, 13 of them were dead. This rate of mortality was unprecedented, and there was strong spatial and temporal correlation between the spill and the deaths (Dahlheim and Matkin 1994, Matkin et al. 1999). The whales probably died from the inhalation of petroleum vapours (Matkin et al. 1999). Exposure to hydrocarbons can be through inhalation or ingestion, and has been reported to cause behavioural changes, inflammation of mucous membranes, lung congestion, pneumonia, liver disorders, and neurological damage (Geraci and St. Aubin 1982).”
  • Transient Killer Whale Recovery Strategy (2007): “Killer whales do not appear to avoid toxic spills, as indicated by the behaviour of a group of transients in the vicinity of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska (and described in Section This spill was associated with unprecedented mortality of both transient and resident killer whales, which likely died from the inhalation of petroleum vapours (Matkin et al. 1999). Spills on a smaller scale have occurred in British Columbia, such as the Nestucca oil spill (875 tonnes in December 1988) in Gray’s Harbor, Washington, which drifted into Canadian waters, and the more recent spill of 50 tonnes of bunker fuel into Howe Sound from a ruptured tanker in August 2006. There is currently a considerable amount of tanker traffic in and out of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia, which poses a risk for killer whales (Baird 2001, Grant and Ross 2002). If the proposed 30-inch 400,000 barrel/day Gateway Pipeline is built near Kitimat, the risk of an oil spill associated with tanker traffic running from inshore waters to California and Asia will increase significantly.”
    [Note the Recovery Strategy was finalized prior to the announcement rejecting the Northern Gateway Project and developments with the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Project].
  • Humpback Whale Recovery Strategy (2013): “The recent oil platform blowout in the Gulf of Mexico released an estimated 5.2 million barrels of oil (Crone and Tolstoy, 2010) is a poignant reminder of the potential for failure in engineered infrastructure in the marine environment. Even with very low odds and excellent safety records, catastrophic events can lead to undesirable outcomes. Proposed pipeline projects, associated tanker traffic, and possible offshore oil and gas exploration and development in coastal British Columbia all increase the likelihood of toxic spills in Humpback Whale habitat in the future, and underscore the importance of protecting critical habitat and supporting mitigation measures and plans.
    In 1989 and 1990, following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Humpback Whales in Prince William Sound were monitored for resulting effects. A change in abundance could not be determined, no change in calving rate was observed, and distribution varied by year, possibly related to changing prey abundance or distribution. Since there were no reports of Humpback Whales directly exposed to the spill (i.e. swimming through oil slicks), or of dead stranded whales (Dahlheim and von Ziegesar 1993), it is difficult to conclude whether Humpback Whales are vulnerable to oil spills or whether there were simply no whales in the vicinity at the time of the spill. However, other cetaceans such as Killer Whales do not appear to avoid toxic spills, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill was associated with unprecedented mortality of both Resident and Transient Killer Whales, likely resulting from inhalation of petroleum vapours (Matkin et al. 2008). Toxic spills have occurred impacting marine habitat along the B.C. coast. For example, the Nestucca oil spill (1988) resulted in 875 tonnes of oil spilled in Gray’s Harbor, Washington. Oil slicks from this spill drifted into Canadian waters, including Humpback Whale habitat. In 2006, a tanker ruptured in Howe Sound, B.C. spilling approximately 50 tonnes of bunker fuel into coastal waters. In 2007, a barge carrying vehicles and forestry equipment sank near the Robson Bight-Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve within the critical habitat for Northern Resident Killer Whales, spilling an estimated 200 litres of fuel. The barge and equipment (including a 10,000L diesel tank) were recovered without incident. When the Queen of the North sank on March 22, 2006, with 225,000 L of diesel fuel, 15,000 L of light oil, 3,200 L of hydraulic fluid, and 3,200 of stern tube oil, it did so on the tanker route to Kitimat, which is currently the subject of a pipeline and port proposal and within the current boundaries of Humpback Whale critical habitat . . .
    Strong avoidance reactions to underwater noise by Grey, Humpback and Bowhead Whales has been observed at received levels of 160-170 dB re 1 µPa (Richardson et al. 1995; Frankel and Clark 2000; McCauley et al. 2000; Stone and Tasker 2006). The level of noise from a tanker may be as high as 190 dB re 1 µPa, and bathymetric features that reduce sound dissipation would further increase the level of disturbance. For this reason, fjords or channels may be particularly sensitive to noise propagation from vessel traffic. The disruption of access to these areas would limit or reduce foraging opportunities or alter behaviours that support other life processes, such as resting, socializing, and vocal interaction.
    Humpback Whales exhibit strong site fidelity for feeding along the B.C. coast (DFO 2009; Ford et al. 2009) and increased acoustic disturbance in these areas may be detrimental to the quality and accessibility of the feeding grounds.”

What mitigation measures has the federal government put forward?
On November 7th, the federal government announced the “Ocean Protection Plan” for which “Canada will invest $1.5 billion over five years in long-needed coastal protections, with an action plan to deliver results for the coming decade. This Plan will engage communities, first responders, and governing authorities to work together effectively to respond to emergencies.” Many details have not yet been released.

The announcement includes the following plans to address specific risks:

Collision: “The Government of Canada will . . .. Work with partners to implement a real-time whale detection system in specific areas of the species’ habitat to alert mariners to the presence of whales, which will allow them to better avoid interactions with this and other marine mammal species.”

Noise: “The Government of Canada will . . . Take action to better understand and address the cumulative effects of shipping on marine mammals, such as the southern resident killer whales pods . . . This includes work to better establish baselines for noise and consideration of options to mitigate these effects.”

Oil spills: “The Government of Canada will fund improved research capacity to seek safe, reliable, and more effective technologies to clean up oil spills. Research into new clean-up technologies is an essential part of a world-leading marine safety plan.
New investments will fund research to help improve emergency response to marine pollution incidents on the water drawing on the expertise and experience of the science community both in Canada and abroad.
New international partnerships will give Canadians access to the best technology available for spill clean-up. A program will build on the work of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s world-leading Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research and will encourage collaboration on scientific research with Indigenous and local communities, international research facilities and industry.”

Federal documents that have informed the above:

Gifts That Keep Giving

Below, we have bundled three ways support can be provided through meaningful gift-giving. 

Please know that we could not do it without you . . . our work to understand and reduce risks to whales . . . the entanglement and feeding research, the education regarding how to reduce risk of collision and what to do if entanglement is witnessed, and our marine wildlife rescue efforts. It’s because of people like you  – data contributors; sponsors; donors –  that our small team can achieve what we do.

  1. Sponsor a Humpback?

For just $43 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. Yes, that’s right, there are no renewal fees.  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.


2. Sponsor a Sign?

We are striving to have “See a Blow? Go Slow!” signs all along BC’s coast to reduce the risk of collision for the sake of both boater and whale safety. This is essential now that Humpback Whales have thankfully returned from the brink of extinction and because they behave very differently from whales like Orca that boaters are more used to seeing on our coast. The awareness of how to reduce the risk of hitting a Humpback serves the other whale species well too. Sign costs are approximately $68  (price depends on shipping costs) and the sign would include the name of your gift recipient (or the logo of your choosing). 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 super durable dibond with dimensions 18.5″ x 24″ (~47 cm x 61 cm).


Example of a sponsored sign in Comox, made possible by
Example of a sponsored sign in Comox, made possible by the Flying Dragons Dragon Boat Team. 

3. Make an Honorary Donation?

Click here to make a donation, indicate that it’s a gift, and we’ll send your giftee a message revealing your thoughtfulness and what work the donation supports. Oh, and YOU get a Canadian tax receipt.
MERS is a registered Canadian charity whereby donations are tax deductible. All contributions directly support our research, education, and marine wildlife response activities.

Thank you for considering MERS in your gift-giving and donations. 

KC sponsorship package
Example of a MERS Humpback Whale Sponsorship package. Five whales to choose from and the accompanying letter can be personalized for your giftee. See link here.


Two Months and Two Humpbacks Entangled at the Same Location – What Can We Learn?

[UPDATE: November 29: Another Humpback Whale has died in open-net fish farm gear. This is the 2nd Humpback Whale dead at a fish farm in two weeks and the 3rd that is known to have been entangled in fish farm gear in 2.5 months. See this link for information on the latest death (at Grieg Seafood’s Atrevida farm in Nootka Sound).]

As a result of our research to understand and reduce risk of entanglement for Humpbacks and our efforts to increase awareness about what to do if an entanglement is witnessed, we’ve been getting a lot of questions about the latest known Humpback entanglement on BC’s Central Coast. Many of the questions were generated by Marine Harvest’s November 17th release “Whale found dead at empty aquaculture site”.

For the sake of efficiency and awareness raising, we’ve strived to answer the questions below and will update this information as we learn more. Our aim is to help ensure that what is learned from entanglements leads to measures that reduce the risk.


1. Was the November 15th entanglement at the same site as the September 12th entanglement?
Marine Harvest has reported that both whales were entangled on the same anchor system at the fallow Sheep Passage open-net farm site near Klemtu.

2. Why was the anchor system not removed?
The latest entanglement is under investigation by Fisheries and Ocean’s Canada (DFO). We are striving to find out if the results will be made public and if the results may inform policy and regulations around open-net fish farm anchor systems.

3. Did the whale entangled at this site on September 12th survive?
The Humpback caught up in the same anchor system on September 12th was disentangled by those with training (disentanglement must be coordinated by DFO and done by those with training, see #9 below). This was a very complex entanglement (see photo and video below) but all gear was successfully removed from the whale. It is not possible however to definitively say that the whale survived the injuries as there have been no documented re-sightings.

4. How did the whale found on November 15th die?
Whales are mammals and therefore need to come to the surface to breathe. They will drown if they are anchored to the bottom because of being trapped in ropes or fishing gear. It is hoped that the DFO investigation will provide insight into the specifics of this anchor system and how the Humpback died. Wherever there are lines or fishing gear in the ocean, there is the potential for entanglement, especially in areas where Humpbacks are feeding. They feed on krill and small schooling fish like herring and it can be expected that these prey are in the same areas as open-net fish farms. It is essential to realize that Humpbacks do not have the biosonar that toothed whales like Orca have and they can be extremely oblivious of boats, let alone fishing gear.
Also note that if whales have enough mobility to swim away, entanglement also can also cause death due to the fishing gear in which they are wrapped leading to serious injuries and infections, and/or because the gear makes it impossible for them to travel and feed effectively.

5. How often to whales die from entanglement on BC’s coast?
Preliminary research conducted by the Marine Education and Research Society and DFO supports that 47% of Humpbacks have scarring on their tailstocks that indicate that they have been entangled and survived, i.e. almost one in two Humpbacks that feed on BC’s coast have been entangled at some point in their lives (>1,000 Humpbacks). This indicates how widespread the risk of entanglement is, but does not indicate how many Humpbacks die due to entanglement. Dead whales most often sink to the ocean bottom whereby their deaths cannot be documented. If their bodies do wash ashore on BC’s vast coastline, often they are so decayed that cause of death cannot be determined.

6. Have there only been two Humpback Whales entangled in Marine Harvest open-net salmon farms in the last 30 years?
Yes, specifically at Marine Harvest farms, and specifically for this marine mammal species, there have been two reported cases of Humpback entanglement. There was another documented case of a dead Humpback Whale at an open net fish farm in March 2013 near Tofino at a Mainstream Canada site (now Cermaq). The statement regarding “30 years” in “Whale found dead at empty aquaculture site” must be weighted out against the reality that Humpbacks were extremely rare on BC’s coast even 15 years ago. Humpbacks were whaled in BC waters up to 1966. To give an indication of how Humpback numbers have increased since then, our research shows that in the islands outside Telegraph Cove on NE Vancouver Island alone, we documented just 7 Humpbacks in 2004 and, this year to date, we have documented 83 individuals (some just passing through). The population estimate for Humpbacks feeding in BC waters is at least 2,000 individuals. With more Humpbacks, there is more risk of entanglement. 

7. Are there regulations around the gear left at fallow fish farms?
No, there are not. It is hoped this will be an outcome of what is learned from these entanglements. See #10 below for what regulations do pertain to aquaculture and marine mammals.


8. Is the ID of the dead Humpback known?
No, it is not known. It is hoped that as part of the investigation, Humpback researchers like ourselves may be able to be of use in trying to identify who this whale was.

9. What should be done if someone witnesses an entanglement?
• With great urgency, report the entanglement with location to the DFO Incident Line / VHF 16. 1-800-465-4336.
• If at all possible, remain with the whale at a distance until trained help arrives or another boat takes over tracking, otherwise the chances of relocating the whale are greatly diminished
• Take whatever video/photos are possible but maintain a distance that doesn’t stress the whale (at least 100 metres).
Do NOT attempt to remove any fishing gear or rope from the whale as it risks human and whale safety (has led to human death). Professional training and equipment are needed to assess the entanglement and proceed safely with the greatest chance of success. Often, much of the fishing gear in which the whale is entangled is not visible at the surface. If well-intentioned members of the public remove the gear at the surface, it is made much more difficult to: (1) recognize that the whale is entangled; and (2) disentangle the whale even if it is relocated. Trailing gear at the surface provides the opportunity for trained responders to attach a tag to track the whale and/or to attach floatation to maintain contact with and slow down an entangled whale. Loss of this gear can significantly reduce rescuers’ ability to save the whale.

For more information regarding reducing the risk of vessel strike and entanglement, see www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org.

10. What regulations are there around reporting and reducing the risk of entanglement at finfish aquaculture sites?
In the Pacific Aquaculture Regulations, marine mammals are regulated under the term “nuisance fish” and there is obligatory reporting on “the number and species of nuisance fish that die as a result of the aquaculture facility’s operations.”
• Section 10 of the Marine Finfish Aquaculture License specifies conditions around “management of Marine Mammal Interactions” and includes “The licence holder must notify the Department [DFO] of any marine mammal drowning mortality or entanglement (live or dead) not later than 24 hours after discovery.”
• The Marine Mammal Regulations state that there is to be no disturbance of a marine mammal but “disturbance” is not defined. Specifically the language in section 7 is “No person shall disturb a marine mammal except when fishing for marine mammals under the authority of these Regulations.”
• Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, North Pacific Humpbacks are recognized as a threatened population. General prohibitions include “No person shall kill, harm, harass, capture or take an individual of a wildlife species that is listed as an extirpated species, an endangered species or a threatened species.”

An important development in the United States is that as of January 1, 2017, foreign fisheries must adhere to the provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) which address the incidental mortality and serious injury of marine mammals. These include: 

  •  With respect to foreign fisheries, section 101(a)(2) of the MMPA states that the Secretary of the Treasury shall ban the importation of commercial fish or products from fish which have been caught with commercial fishing technology which results in the incidental kill or incidental serious injury of ocean mammals in excess of United States standards. For purposes of applying the preceding sentence, the Secretary of Commerce shall insist on reasonable proof from the government of any nation from which fish or fish products will be exported to the United States of the effects on ocean mammals of the commercial fishing technology in use for such fish or fish products exported from such nation to the United States. (16 U.S.C. 1371(a)(2))
  • Section 102 (c)(3) of the MMPA states that it is unlawful to import into the United States any fish, whether fresh, frozen, or otherwise prepared, if such fish was caught in a manner which the Secretary of Commerce (Secretary) has proscribed for persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, whether or not any marine mammals were in fact taken incident to the catching of the fish. (16 U.S.C. 1372(c)(3)).

Contact information: For further information regarding the work of MERS to understand the risk of entanglement to Humpbacks: Email info@mersociety.org. Phone  250-956-3525 or 250-230-7136.

What a Fluke!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More photos of the remarkable encounter: 

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

Leatherbacks in BC!

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

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

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

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

Please help raise awareness:

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

Giants off BC’s Coast

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

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

Threats and Solutions 

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

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

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

The impacts of climate change are also a concern to Leatherback survival due to impacts on prey availability, beach erosion, toxic algae blooms, and nest temperature.

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

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

What YOU can do! 

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

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

Amazing Leatherback Facts

  • They have survived since the time of dinosaurs, for more than 100 million years.
  • Leatherbacks are one of the biggest reptiles in the world and likely the fastest growing. In the Pacific they are up to 2 m long and over 650 kg. That’s about the size of a Smart Car! Males and females are about the same size but, in males, the tail is longer, usually extending beyond the rear flippers. (Leatherbacks in the Atlantic are bigger on average, with the largest recorded mass being 915 kg.)
  • They are known to dive to depths of 1,270 m and can stay underwater for up to 85 minutes before surfacing to breathe (dives are more often ~30 minutes).
Unfortunate Leatherback Turtle at Nootka Packers. 1931. Click to enlarge.
Unfortunate Leatherback Turtle at the Nootka Packing Co. in 1931. 
Source: Nicholson, G. 1963. Vancouver Island’s West Coast 1762-1962.
  • Leatherbacks are the only sea turtle species that doesn’t have a hard shell. As their name suggests, their backs are covered with rubbery, leather-like skin. It is blue-black and this soft pad covers small bones (osteoderms) that fit together like a puzzle, making the shell (carapace) flexible and able to compress when Leatherbacks go for deep dives.
  • They are also the only sea turtle that does not have scales on their head or flippers.
  • Every Leatherback Turtle has unique pink markings on the top of their heads.  It is believed that this patch (the “pineal spot”) may allow Leatherbacks to sense light and/or navigate. Because they are distinct, these markings help scientists identify Leatherbacks as individuals.

    Each Leatherback has a unique pink path on the top of their heads that allows them to be identified as individuals. Photo @DFO - 2005, SW Moresby Island.
    Leatherbacks have a pink patch on the top of their heads that is uniquely shaped in every individual. Photo: @DFO; Leatherback near SW Moresby Island in 2005. 
  • Because of their fast growth, large size, and long migrations to cold water, Leatherbacks need to eat a lot of their gelatinous prey. They are “zooplanktivores” – also eating some other gelatinous zooplankton like salps. It is estimated that a single Leatherback Turtle will eat more than a 1,000 metric tonnes of jellyfish in their lifetime. They have amazing adaptations to do so. They have cusps in their mouths to grab the slippery jellies and their entire esophagus (which is very long) has spiny downward-pointing prongs made of cartilage (papillae). These projections ensure that the jellies don’t escape when the Leatherback contracts its throat to expel water; they shred the jellies; and likely protect the turtle from the jellyfishes’ stinging cells.
  • But, Leatherbacks cannot discern plastics from jellyfish making plastic pollution a very large risk to their survival (especially plastic bags and balloons). Please see “Threats and Solutions” for what you can do.
Awe-inspiring! Papillae in the Leatherback's very long esophagus that are designed for a life of eating jellies. Source:
Awe-inspiring! Papillae in the Leatherback’s very long esophagus that are designed for a life of eating jellies. Source: MuseumVictoria
  • Leatherbacks are unlike any other living reptile because they have a thick layer of fat that allows them to deal with cold water. Leatherback Turtles are “gigantotherms” – they can stay warm when in cold waters like those off BC, while not overheating in the warm waters like those in Indonesia due to the combination of having fat for insulation; being able to change blood flow to release or conserve heat; varying their swimming speed; and having a large body mass. They do not go into “cold shock” like other sea turtle species, maintaining a body temperature of ~25°C despite encountering temperatures from 0.4 to 15°C. The biggest Leatherbacks are more likely to be the ones seen off Canada’s Pacific coast because the larger individuals are better able to retain body heat.
1997 Kyuquot _A Weissenborn _02 – Kyuquot school children
Dead Leatherback being studied by school children in Kyuquot in 1997. Dr. Brian Bostrom as a youth on the right. Photo: ©A. Weissenborn. 
  • They spend their lives at sea. Leatherback Turtles mate at sea and males never return to shore after they hatch. Only females go to shore every 2 to 3 years to lay eggs, returning to the nesting beaches where they were born.
  • No one knows how they navigate over such long distances. Despite ocean currents, they find their way to and from their natal nesting beaches to cold jellyfish rich waters.
  • Leatherbacks are the fastest sea turtle species. They can swim up to 95 km/day at speeds of up to 9.3 km/hour (average ~38 km/day and ~2.5 km/hour).  In addition to their long, powerful front flippers, it is believed that the their tear-drop shaped carapace with its 7 distinct ridges makes them such fast swimming turtles.
  • They can’t swim backwards which contributes to the risk of getting entangled in fishing gear and is why they cannot be in aquariums. They injure themselves by swimming forward against the sides of the tank and can develop lethal fungal infections are a result.
Leatherback tracking data
Leatherback tracking data for the East and West Pacific populations. Source: Bailey et al. 
  • Lifecycle – so little is known! Estimates for the age of sexual maturity vary from 2 to 14 years. If females succeed in making the great migration back to the beaches where they were born, they dig a hole with their rear flippers (most often at night), lay about 100 eggs, compact the nest and return to sea (takes 80 to 120 minutes in total). Each clutch also contains around 50 yolkless eggs. The purpose of these infertile eggs is unknown. Females lay 4 to 6 clutches per season, at 8 to 12 day intervals. The babies hatch after 60 to 65 days and go straight to sea. They stay in warm waters until they have a carapace length of about 100 cm. In addition to the many human-created threats, the eggs and hatchlings face the risk of nest disturbance and predation by animals such as rats, birds, snakes, crabs, dogs, cats and pigs. Also unknown are the life expectancy of Leatherbacks and how long they can reproduce.
  • Nest temperature is a concern. Temperature determines the sex of the hatchlings. When the temperature is between 29.25 to 29.5°C, equal number of males and females hatch. If the nest temperature is lower, the hatchlings are male and if the temperature is higher, the hatchlings are female. Climate change related concerns include that warmer nests would lead to fewer males being born and, also that the hatchlings could die because of high nest temperatures. 
  • Leatherback Turtles may have the largest distribution of any vertebrate on Earth. In addition to being in the Pacific Ocean, there are populations of Leatherbacks in the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. All are at risk.
Leatherback Turtle colour sheet by Romney McPhie. Click to enlarge and download.
Leatherback Turtle colour sheet by Romney McPhie. Click here to enlarge and download.


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

Job Posting: MERS Research Assistant 2016

Summer Student Position

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

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

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

Additional duties:

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

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

Successful candidates:

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

Salary: $12/hour

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

Position location: Port McNeill, BC

Application deadline: May 24, 2016 (midnight PST)

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

Selection procedure:

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

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

Which Whale Will it Be?

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

Which whale will it be? You decide!

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

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

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

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

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

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