MERS whale watch fundraiser

Yesterday’s whale watching fundraiser for the Marine Education and Research Society was a huge success, thanks to Jim and Mary Borrowman of Orcella Expeditions, and everyone who came out to support MERS… and of course, to the amazing wildlife of northern Vancouver Island!

Humpback whale "Guardian", lunge-feeding on herring (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Humpback whale “Guardian”, lunge-feeding on herring
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

The day dawned clear, calm, and fog-free – perfect conditions to head out and look for some wildlife.  Not long after leaving Telegraph Cove, we were able to catch a glimpse of humpback whale blows hovering over the calm water… a sign of things to come for the day.

Blackney Pass and Blackfish Sound were full of humpbacks, sea lions, and schools of herring.  As we approached a sea lion haul-out to have a look at the hundreds of Steller sea lions up on the rocks, we could see Slash the humpback whale’s calf, Stitch, doing full breaches in the distance, and had curious sea lions swimming all around the Gikumi.

A Steller sea lion (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
A Steller sea lion
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

Dense schools of herring, being fed on by gulls and murres, were forming throughout Blackfish Sound.  As we waited near one of them, humpback whale “Guardian” did a spectacular lunge, erupting out of the water with his or her mouth wide open.  As is clear from the photo below, Guardian missed a lot of the fish during the first lunge, so came back and lunged a few more times on the same school of herring.

Humpback whale "Guardian" lunge-feeding on herring  (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Humpback whale “Guardian” lunge-feeding on herring.  Note the fish all around Guardian’s lower jaw
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

Just as we finished an incredible lunch, we got a report that there were mammal-eating (transient) killer whales in the area… and that the killer whales were interacting with humpbacks!  Five killer whales from the T049s (including a brand-new calf!) were swimming very close to humpback whales Guardian and Freckles.

Mammal-eating killer whales (T049s) following "Guardian" the humpback whale  (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Mammal-eating killer whales (T049s) following “Guardian” the humpback whale
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

It was difficult to determine exactly what was happening between these two species… at times, it appeared that the killer whales were following the humpback whales, and that the humpbacks were quite distressed, making loud, trumpeting vocalizations, and slashing their tails through the air.  At other times, though, it appeared that the humpbacks were following the killer whales, perhaps to help the humpbacks keep track of these predators.  As we watched, two other humpback whales (Twister and Moonstar) joined the group as well.

Humpback whale "Twister" slashing its tail in response to the killer whales (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Humpback whale “Twister” slashing its tail in response to the killer whales
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
The T049s interacting with Twister and Freckles  (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
T049A1 interacting with Twister and Freckles
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

Mammal-eating killer whales are known to attack young humpback whales… some of the humpback whale fluke photos in the MERS humpback whale catalogue (available here) bear scars from killer whale teeth.  However, all of the humpback whales that were interacting with the killer whales yesterday were adults or older juveniles, and so were likely not at risk of being eaten.  Instead, the interaction may have been an effort by one species to intimidate or harass the other… but we do not know for sure.

Thanks again to everyone who came out to support the Marine Education and Research Society, and another huge thank you to Jim and Mary Borrowman!  All proceeds from this trip will go directly to MERS’ research and education efforts which include population monitoring of humpback and minke whales, and mitigating the threats to these species.  See our website for more information about our work.

~ Christie, Jared, Jackie, and the MERS team

Rescuing “Cutter” the Humpback Whale

As the days begin to shorten, the waters off northeastern Vancouver Island team with activity as every animal is trying to get in their catch before the season is over. While using this opportunity to collect some data on the feeding activity of humpback whales yesterday, I came across a group of three whales that we at MERS know very well – Twister, Cutter, and Corporal. They were all tightly grouped and moving fast, seemingly panicked.  I had a closer look through binoculars and was able to see the source of the panic – Cutter had ripped through a seine net and had it wrapped around his head and body.

Cutter, entangled in fishing net (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Cutter, entangled in fishing net
(Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Interestingly, one of Cutter’s companions, Twister, already has a history with fishing gear. In a period of less than 3 weeks in 2009 he became entangled twice. Both times, the fishermen who set the gear reported the incident immediately, and trained responders from DFO were able to free the whale.  As was the case with Twister, a quick response provides the best chance of survival, so having been involved with the rescues of several entangled whales both in BC and in the Atlantic, I alerted the authorities and carefully moved in for a closer look.

The net on Cutter's head was attached by barnacles and tubercles on his lower jaw.   (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
The net on Cutter’s head was attached by barnacles and tubercles on his lower jaw.
(Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Cutter was staying close to the surface and lifting his head high in the air allowing me to confirm with photographs that the net was just caught on the barnacles and tubercles of his bottom jaw. With the help of DFO and using standard disentanglement techniques including a long pole, lines, and flotation the net was grabbed onto and once tension was applied, Cutter tossed his head back and the 60-foot swath of net came off.

Cutter twisting at the surface (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Cutter twisting at the surface
(Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Within seconds Cutter went on a long dive, followed by Twister and Corporal.  When Cutter surfaced again, he was alone but was relaxed and swimming slowly. This afternoon, we found Cutter looking healthy and behaving normally, feeding along with 3 other whales only a few miles from where I saw him yesterday.

Cutter today - swimming and feeding effectively.  Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS
Cutter today – swimming and feeding effectively. Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS

This situation is a reminder that with the return of humpback whales to the coast of BC, there is increasing overlap between whales and fisheries. This is a difficult situation for both parties, as entanglements can lead to injuries and deaths for whales, and loss of catch and gear for fishermen. MERS has been studying the threat of entanglement since 2010, and has found that a significant number of the whales we have documented show scars from previous entanglements. If you see an entangled whale, call DFO’s Marine Mammal Incident Reporting Hotline immediately at 1-800-465-4336.  If possible, standby the whale until trained responders arrive, but do not touch the whale or the entangling gear.

To learn about MERS’ education and research projects, check out our website at www.mersociety.org.  Please also consider liking us on facebook, following this blog and/or making a donation now.

~ Christie

Meet Slash and her calf, Stitch

For the past two weeks, whenever the weather has allowed, I have been out by Bold Head (at the eastern end of Queen Charlotte Strait) collecting data on humpback whales. This area is transformed at this time of year… earlier in the season, it was not unusual to see 1 or 2 humpback whales around Bold Head; while on August 22nd, we counted 17 individuals in this one area. With the help of many volunteers, including Annika Putt, Caitlin Birdsall, Erica Forssman, Tyson Hopkins, and Nic Dedeluk, I have been filming bait balls underwater and measuring herring for my thesis research (see previous blog post for details). I have also been doing focal follows of humpback whales (I will explain more about this in a future post), and identifying which whales are spending time feeding in the area.

At this time of year, large numbers of humpback whales spend time feeding in eastern Queen Charlotte Strait.  This is "Ripple" (BCX1063), lunge-feeding on herring near Bold Head (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
At this time of year, large numbers of humpback whales spend time feeding in eastern Queen Charlotte Strait. This is “Ripple” (BCX1063), lunge-feeding on herring near Bold Head (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Two of the whales that we have seen almost every day around Bold Head are “Slash” (BCY0177) and her calf, “Stitch”. Slash’s nickname comes from the parallel scars across her back. In 2006, she was photographed by MERS director Jared Towers with deep, recent, unhealed injuries on her back. The injuries indicated that Slash was the victim of a vessel strike; these parallel cuts were caused by a boat propeller.  Vessel strikes are becoming a serious concern for humpback whales around Vancouver Island (see this blog post by the BC Cetacean Sightings Network for more details).

Slash (BCY0177) in 2006.  The injuries on her back were caused by a vessel strike (photo by Jared Towers, MERS)
Slash (BCY0177) in 2006. The injuries on her back were caused by a vessel strike (photo by Jared Towers, MERS)

Fortunately, Slash survived her injuries, and has returned to the northeastern Vancouver Island area every year since 2006.  In 2008, she brought her first documented calf to the area, a whale that we nick-named “Moonstar” based on the markings that look like a moon and a star on her tail.  Moonstar has also been seen in the area every year since she was born.

"Moonstar" (BCY0768), Slash's 2008 calf (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
“Moonstar” (BCY0768), Slash’s 2008 calf (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

This year, Slash returned to the area with a new calf, who was recently nicknamed “Stitch” by children from the  Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw summer day camp from nearby Port Hardy.  Humpback whale calves nurse for about a year, and therefore maintain very close bonds with their mothers during this time.  However, it is also very important that the mothers get enough food during the summer to provide them with the energy that they need to nurse their calves, and to migrate back to winter breeding grounds in Hawaii or Mexico.  During the past couple of weeks, we have seen Slash leave her calf’s side, in order to feed on the dense schools of herring that are found in the area.  Without her mother at her side, the calf often becomes very active at the surface… breaching, rolling around, and playing in kelp!

Slash's calf, Stitch, breaching while her mother feeds on herring (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Slash’s calf, Stitch, breaching while her mother feeds on herring (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Stitch, lifting up kelp with her flipper (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Stitch, lifting up kelp with her flipper (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Once BCY0177 has finished feeding, she communicates with her calf underwater, using grunting sounds that likely alert her calf to where she is… stay tuned, we’ll post these sounds soon!

~ Christie

How important are herring to humpback whales?

Each spring, humpback whales in the eastern North Pacific Ocean travel from warm waters off Hawaii or Mexico up to the cooler, temperate waters off B.C. and Alaska.  What brings them back up here is food; the tropical and sub-tropical areas where humpback whales mate and give birth during winter have very little food for whales, so humpbacks must obtain almost all the energy they need for a year’s worth of activity while they are in our cold, rich waters during the summer and fall.

A humpback whale feeding on herring

Humpbacks feed on krill (small crustaceans), as well as small, schooling fish such as herring and sandlance.  Off B.C., however, it is not yet known how important different prey species are to humpbacks, or to what extent individual humpback whales may specialize on specific foraging locations and prey types.

In some areas, krill (these small crustaceans) make up a large proportion of humpback whale diet
In some areas, krill (these small crustaceans) make up a large proportion of humpback whale diet

In eastern Queen Charlotte Strait, herring congregate in dense schools, locally known as “bait balls”, during the late summer and fall.  Humpback whales in this area appear to specialize on herring during this time, targeting bait balls and lunge-feeding on them.  As part of my Master’s research through Simon Fraser University, I am working on estimating how much of humpback whales’ energetic requirements are obtained from feeding on these herring.

Humpback whale "Guardian" lunge-feeding on herring
Humpback whale “Guardian” lunge-feeding on herring

To help answer these questions, I need to estimate how often humpback whales are feeding on herring, and how much herring they consume each time they feed.  To predict how often humpback whales are feeding, I first identify a whale as an individual, and then watch it for an hour and record each time that it feeds and what type of prey it eats (tracking animal behaviour in this way is called “focal following”).  To figure out how much herring they eat during each feeding event, I have been taking underwater video of herring bait balls.  By also measuring the size of the herring in the bait ball, I can use their actual size, compared with their size on the video, to estimate the dimensions and therefore the volume of the bait balls.  By combining the results of the focal follows and bait ball videos with an energetic model for humpback whales, I can predict what proportion of the energy requirements of these humpbacks are provided by the herring bait balls that they are feeding on.

a dense school of herring, or "bait ball", filmed underwater

The results of my research will have implications for managing humpback whale populations.  Although human impacts such as overfishing and habitat degradation may not be sufficient to affect humpback whale prey species at the population level, they may cause depletion of these species on a local scale.  It is not yet understood whether B.C. humpback whales have the ability to easily switch to a different prey source and foraging location if availability of their preferred prey declines, so it is possible that local prey depletion may have impacts on humpback whales that feed in B.C.

A humpback whale breaching off the west coast of Vancouver Island
A humpback whale breaching off the west coast of Vancouver Island

This summer will be my second field season of gathering the information that I need to estimate how important these herring are to humpback whales in eastern Queen Charlotte Strait. Huge thanks to everyone who has helped out with and supported this study so far, especially Stacey Hrushowy, Jared Towers, and Jackie Hildering.

Click here to learn more about MERS humpback whale research, or here to donate to MERS’ work.  Also, please feel free to e-mail me at mersociety@gmail.com with any questions.

~ Christie

MERS in Mexico

Humpback from Mexico

A small sailboat isn’t always the easiest platform for observing whales. We certainly worry less about our fuel consumption, but it isn’t easy to keep a steady hand on the camera, especially when the wind and waves get boisterous. The trade-offs for us are huge however; we travel with our whole household and all our familiar comforts (such as they are at sea) and can keep the “operation budget” low, which allows us months of exploring at a time.

“We” refers to Heidi (the wayward member of MERS) and her husband Stephen. We left Alert Bay a year and a half ago and plan to circumnavigate the Pacific, learning as much as we can along the way. It’s a broad goal and definitely subject to detours. So far we’ve only made it as far as southern Mexico, but we left the boat to work on the BC Coast for the summer and I also spent six weeks in Antarctica last year.

Most recently we’ve been sailing south along the coast and trying to gather ID photos of Humpbacks. Most of “BC’s” Humpbacks are known to winter in Hawai’i and Mexico, where they fast while they have their calves. At least some of the humpbacks in Mexico however are resident, finding enough food locally in summer that they don’t migrate north to BC and Alaska where the summer food (including dense schools of herring and krill) is so rich. It poses so many questions: Are they resident every year or only in “good” years? Perhaps it depends on El Niño events which affect this coat a lot. Perhaps it depends if an animal has a calf or not. Maybe some migrate and others don’t and they never change their individual pattern. With these thoughts in mind I shoot photos whenever the conditions allow. Some of the animals have tiny calves that still look floppy and awkward and we don’t approach these. At other times there’s simply too much wind and salt spray to photograph.

As I write we are on day 3 of a 5-day voyage to Huatulco – our last stop in Mexico. As we’ve moved south we’ve seen fewer Humpback Whales and more sea turtles (mostly Green Turtles, but many can’t be ID’d as we sail past) and lots of dolphins; both Spinner and Pantropical Spotted Dolphins. Sailing at night is frustrating as we know we pass lots of interesting wildlife without seeing it. The benefit is witnessing the planet’s best natural fireworks display: dolphins glowing in bioluminescence!

Pantropical Spotted Dolphin

February Humpback!

Yesterday, Jared and I (the two Alert Bay-based MERS Directors) took advantage of some calm weather and headed out on the water to see if there were any whales around. Thanks to a report from Jim Borrowman of Stubbs Island Whale Watching, we were lucky enough to see and photograph a juvenile humpback whale, almost right in front of our house!

Most humpback whales who feed in British Columbia during the summer head to warmer waters (places like Mexico and Hawaii) in the winter, which is where mating happens and where calves are born. This means that it is rare to see humpbacks in these colder waters in winter time… in fact, this is the first time that MERS researchers have ever seen a humpback whale in this area in February!

Like fingerprints for humans, each humpback whale has a unique shape and pattern on its tail or “fluke,” allowing us to identify the whales as individuals. MERS researchers have put together a catalogue of the humpback whales that have been photographed in our study area (the Johnstone and Queen Charlotte Straits) since the 1980’s, and this catalogue now contains the identification photographs of over 130 individual humpbacks!

We did not recognize the small humpback from yesterday as one that we had seen in this area before, but we were able to photograph its fluke, which means that we will be able to match it to future sightings of the same whale, if it ever returns to our area. We will add it to our catalogue, and will give it a nickname, based on the markings on the underside of its tail.

We will let you know if he or she shows up again later in 2011!

~ Christie