Another whale has recently been documented with scarring from entanglement. We’ve identified the whale as Ocular, born in 2016 to Slash (BCY0177). Slash has her nickname because, from the first time we saw her in 2008, she had extreme scarring from a large boat propellor. Ocular’s entanglement scarring was first documented last week.
Ocular and Slash – ambassadors of the realities of the risk to whales of vessel strike and entanglement.
They are not exceptional cases. Our research, done in collaboration with DFO, shows that ~1 in 2 Humpback Whales off BC’s coast have scarring from entanglement. This data provides an indication of how serious the risk of entanglement is but does not reveal how many Humpbacks die after becoming entangled.
How many are hit by boats? We don’t know. We see scarring on some survivors but here too, it is not possible to know how many are hit and die as a result of their injuries. There are whales like KC (BCY0291) that we know have been both hit by a boat and been entangled (twice that we know of in KC’s case).
Thankfully, with the new Marine Mammal Regulations it is now law that such interactions with marine mammals must be reported (all incidents of concern to 1-800-465-4336). But increased public awareness is also very much needed. Please see www.HowToSaveAWhale.org.
Content about what to do if you find an entangled whale is summarized below:
- With great urgency, report the entanglement with location to the DFO Incident Line / VHF 16. 1-800-465-4336.
- 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).
- 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.
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.
July 8th documentation of Ocular’s entanglement injury near Comox by Peter Hamilton, Lifeforce Foundation.
Three generations of Humpback Whales have now been documented!
This is such an indication of the great collaborative effort in studying the fortunate return of Humpback Whales off British Columbia’s coast, and its importance.
Alethea Leddy was the first to document Apollo with a calf, now nicknamed Nova. Alethea’s photos from June 18th near Race Rocks even allowed us to determine that the calf is male. The calf had been lying on his back tail-lobbing whereby the pelvic area could be seen. See Aletha’s photo at the end of this blog that allowed determination of Nova’s gender. For detail on gender determination in Humpbacks, click here for our blog on the subject.
We know that Apollo was born in 2010 to Horizon but did not know her gender before now.
We first documented Horizon in 2004 when she was already at least subadult. Apollo is her first known calf. We documented a second calf in 2013 and have not had re-sightings of this whale.
Calves only stay with their mothers for a year. Having these solid ID photos allows us to ID them in future. Because the calves often lose a lot of the white pigmentation in their tails as they age, It is particularly helpful to also have photos showing both sides of the dorsal fin and the trailing edge of the tail. Being able to study whales as individuals allows us to have data informing everything from age of first calving (varies per population), to life expectancy, to social associations, to how the whales use the coast.
Humpbacks are nicknamed for distinctive features so that it is easier to recognize them as individuals. Horizon has horizontal lines on her tail. The markings on Apollo’s tail suggest planets. And, while some of the white will likely disappear on the calf’s tail, there is a distinctive line and a moon-shaped bump that will likely stay. Thereby, Alethea suggested Nova, also keeping with the celestial theme of these 3 generations of whales.
To make the point again that it takes a dedicated community to study giants, below are the names of all those who have contributed sightings of these 3 whales (outside of our direct MERS team). This includes naturalists, captains and guest of at least 9 ecotourism companies as well as our research colleagues:
Jarret Morton, Alexandra Morton, Marilia Olio, Tasli Shaw, Mark Malleson, Gary Sutton, Jos Krynen, Amber Stroeder, Kaitlin Paquette, Johanna Ferrie, Eiko Jones, Peter Hamilton, Leif Nordman, Shea Majbroda, Michelle Mercer, Chloé Warren, Jennie Leaver, Jeff Aoki, Carmen Pen, Alison Ogilvie, Geoff Dunstan, Roger McDonell, Franz Plangger, April Macleod, Jim Borrowman, Jess Fargher, Maureen Towers, Dave Towers, Sophia Merritt, Kyle Kermode, Inge van der Wulp, Shea Majbroda, Jan Kees, Humpbacks of the Salish Sea, Keta Coastal Conservation.
See this link to purchase a MERS Humpback Whale Catalogue (PDF) for whales documented from the northern Strait of Georgia to the northern end of Goletas Channel. Updated PDF provided annually at no extra charge.
Want a glimpse into the world of trying to study Humpbacks as individuals?
It’s key to everything we do. If we can’t recognize the whales as individuals, we can’t count them; or know their range; or determine rate of entanglement; or study what feeding strategies they use, etc. etc. etc.!
Often it’s easy. Sometimes it’s not.
In this blog we share two examples of how puzzle pieces come together so that we can better understand Humpback Whales. It’s hoped that these examples give a sense of how much effort and collaboration is involved in studying these far-ranging giants and – how the contribution of sightings can provide us with essential puzzle pieces.
On the evening of August 25th two Humpbacks were in Comox Harbour and generated a lot of concern. Boats and jet skis were reportedly travelling at high speed near the whales. Public concern about the safety of the whales led to media attention and additional opportunities for us to provide education about safe boater behaviour around Humpbacks. We are so grateful too that people cared enough to sponsor MERS “See a Blow? Go Slow!” signage for Comox Harbour.
It was an important sighting and we hoped to be able to determine who the whales were. Thankfully, Peter Hamilton of Lifeforce contacted MERS with photos of the whales.
The following fluke shot allowed Alison Ogilvie of MERS to ID one of the whales.
The photo shows enough features of the whale’s tail for Alison to recognize “Towers” (BCX1239).
We nickname the Humpbacks for distinctive features. In this case, see the two distinctive peaks on the right side of the trailing edge of the tail that inspired the name “Towers”? (See our ID photo above).
But the second whale – who was s/he? While we can often recognize individual Humpbacks from their dorsal fins, we had never documented a whale with this dorsal fin before.
Months passed. Then, on December 11th, we got reports of two Humpbacks travelling past Alert Bay to the north. Jared Towers of MERS and volunteer Muriel Halle were able to get ID photos. Look at the distinctive dorsal fin! It’s the same whale that had been in Comox Harbour on August 25th.
They were able to get a fluke shot whereby we now have the ability to recognize this whale in the future (see below). S/he has been nicknamed “Bullet” for the distinctive circle-like shape on the trailing edge of the right fluke (upper third).
Even though this is an adult Humpback, the August 25th sighting in Comox Harbour may be the first known documentation of this whale. To date we do not know of any prior sightings by our colleagues studying Humpbacks in other areas on BC’s coast. We anticipate however that we will get more pieces of the puzzle in the future.
Here’s a puzzle with pieces dating back to 1996! That’s the first known documentation of “Kappa” (BCX0158). The knowledge comes from a photo given to MERS by data contributor, Bruce Paterson. Kappa was nicknamed by for the “K” marking
Through the work of others we know :
- Kappa migrates to Hawaii! Documented in March 2004 in Maui as part of the SPLASH Project.
- Kappa is female! She was sighted with a calf in Maui in 2004 and was seen repeatedly with the calf in BC as well from July to September 2005. This includes documentation off SW Vancouver Island by Brian Gisborne for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
- Addition sightings include her repeatedly being in Washington State.
- The first documentation there was in October 1997 as reported by the Cascadia Research Collective (catalogued as CRC-13576).
- The last known documentation of Kappa in Washington was on December 4, 2016 by Heather McIntyre of Maya’s Whale Watching as relayed to the citizen science site known as “Happy Whale“.
And then . . then there was this past December 30th. Again we got reports of two Humpbacks traveling past Alert Bay, heading north. Again, Jared was able to get photos.
When those photos were relayed, one of us may almost have fallen off her chair. It was Kappa, the first known sighting of her around NE Vancouver Island in 20 years!
See below for the ID photos resulting from that sighting.
BUT who was the whale with her on December 30th? That whale didn’t fluke. We only have a flank shot.
Here we go again – another puzzle we will hopefully be able to solve.
Piece by piece by piece . . . contributing to the important and intriguing picture of understanding – and protecting – North Pacific Humpbacks.
[Update: As a result of this blog, another puzzle piece has been delivered. “Bullet” was documented off Port Angeles, Washington on July 29th, 2016. S/he was photographed by Alethea Leddy of Island Adventures. Information was relayed by Tasli Shaw.]
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.
- 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 email@example.com to discuss dedication and confirm price. Signs are made of super durable dibond with dimensions 18.5″ x 24″ (~47 cm x 61 cm).
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.
[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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone 250-956-3525 or 250-230-7136.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: