A (spectacular!) day of MERS research

Posted by Christie McMillan (MERS President and humpback whale research director):

Even though it has been 10 years since my first summer working with whales off northeastern Vancouver Island, there are still days that leave me stunned at how incredible this area really is in terms of the numbers, diversity, and behaviours of marine mammals found here.

Humpback whale "Zorro" (BCX0380) breaching in Blackfish Sound
Humpback whale “Zorro” (BCX0380) breaching in Blackfish Sound. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS. Taken with a telephoto lens and cropped)

Just over a week ago, I was on the Merlin (MERS’ research and response vessel), monitoring the behaviour of whales around the commercial fishery for chum salmon, collecting data on the numbers and locations of fishing nets and whales, and standing by in case of an entanglement. Together with Marie Fournier, who was helping MERS out with these efforts, I was sitting in the fog and light rain in Queen Charlotte Strait when we heard a loud whale blow, and looked toward Malcolm Island to see a whale with a long body and small, curved dorsal fin surfacing close to the shoreline. We were amazed and excited to see that this was a fin whale, part of a threatened population that is only very occasionally seen off northeastern Vancouver Island. While two fin whales were seen in the area in 2011 and two more in 2012, this was my first time seeing the world’s second-largest whale species here. We collected identification photographs of the fin whale for our colleagues at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and based on the shape of the dorsal fin and scarring on the whale’s body, we were able to confirm that this was a different individual from the fin whales seen in 2011 and 2012.

A rare sighting of a fin whale in Queen Charlotte Strait. (Photo: Christie McMillan, MERS)
A rare sighting of a fin whale in Queen Charlotte Strait. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

After leaving the fin whale, we headed into Blackfish Sound and came across two very surface-active humpback whales. The behaviour of humpbacks at this time of year is quite different than during the summer. When humpback whales return to Vancouver Island after their winter migrations to Hawaii or Mexico where there is little to no food for them, they appear to be very focused on feeding. In the fall, however, they tend to spend more time socializing. On Saturday, “Claw”, a whale that was first seen in the area in 2011 and “Zorro”, a whale new to the area this year, were very surface active, interacting with one another. They were “head-lobbing” (bringing their heads out of the water and slapping them down on the water’s surface), breaching, and tail-slapping. Almost every time the whales surfaced, Zorro was behind Claw and appeared to be posturing, exhibiting behaviours similar to humpback whale males in competitive groups in the breeding grounds. We are unsure of whether this behaviour around northern Vancouver Island is related to mating, but we do know that it happens more frequently as the breeding season approaches.

Humpback whales "Claw" and "Zorro" spyhopping
Humpback whales “Claw” and “Zorro” exhibiting a surface-active social behaviour called head-lobbing. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Humpback whale "Claw" breaching
Humpback whale “Claw” breaching. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS. Taken with a telephoto lens and cropped)

As we headed down to the bottom of Blackfish Sound, we saw some splashing up ahead of us, and found a group of Bigg’s (mammal-eating) killer whales chasing a Steller sea lion. The killer whales were leaping out of the water, attempting to ram the sea lion. Several hundred other Steller sea lions were in the water by the shoreline behind the killer whales.

Bigg's killer whale attacking a Steller sea lion. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Bigg’s killer whale attacking a Steller sea lion. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Partway through the sea lion chase, two humpback whales (“Domino” and “Backsplash”) came swimming rapidly over from the other side of Blackney Pass. They immediately began interacting with the killer whales, surfacing right next to them. Shortly after, they were joined by a third humpback whale, “Quartz”. The two species of whales continued to follow and interact with one another for over half an hour. We are unsure of why these species were in such close proximity to one another… it may have been territorial behaviour, it may be that humpback whales are keeping an eye on potential danger, or there may be another reason for this behaviour. Regardless, it was a reminder of how much we have yet to understand about these two species.

Humpback whales "Quartz", "Domino", and "Backsplash" interacting with Bigg's killer whales. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Humpback whales “Quartz”, “Domino”, and “Backsplash” interacting with Bigg’s killer whales, with Steller sea lions watching. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Humpback whale "Backsplash" interacting with T__ , a mammal-eating killer whale. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Humpback whale “Backsplash” interacting with T141 , an adult female mammal-eating killer whale. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Eventually, the killer whales went on a long dive, and we found ourselves surrounded by a sheen of oily water from the blubber of a marine mammal – it appeared that the killer whales had finally killed a seal or sea lion and were feeding on it underwater. We collected samples of tissue in the water so that genetic analyses could be conducted to determine the species that the killer whales had eaten, and collected identification photos of the whales, using Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Bigg’s killer whale catalogue (Towers et al. 2012) to identify the killer whales as the T055 group, along with T139 and the T141s.

Our 2015 field season is now drawing to a close… my 10th year of collecting humpback whale data off northeastern Vancouver Island. A day as remarkable as this one has me looking forward to the next field season, when we can continue to address some of the many questions regarding the humpback whales in this area and the threats they face.

It’s a Girl!!!

Freckles is a "she"!!! Read on to find out how we know...
Freckles (BCY0727) is a “she”!!! Read on to find out how we know (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

This time of year, when most humpback and minke whales that spend the summers feeding in BC are down in their winter breeding grounds, MERS researchers and educators  are spending more time at our computers and less time out on the water. One of our focuses this winter has been to share the results of MERS research with people who spend time on and near the water with the goal of discussing how we can work together to better understand humpback whales and the threats that they face, for the sake of boater and whale safety. In addition, we have been working on humpback and minke whale publications for scientific journals (see our latest publications).

MERS Director Jackie Hildering has been traveling around Vancouver Island to talk about the return of humpback whales and how we can work together to reduce the threats that they face. Click here for information on upcoming presentations

With the help of one of our experienced and dedicated volunteers, Alison Ogilvie, we have also been reviewing some older humpback whale data, getting our photo and sightings databases up to date. One of these older humpback whale photos has allowed us to learn something new about one of our best-known whales, “Freckles” (BCY0727). Freckles was first seen in 2009, and was named for the white, speckled markings on its body. Since then, Freckles has lost some of these markings, but has become one of the whales that shows very strong site fidelity to northern Vancouver Island, coming back to the same area to feed each year.

Freckles in 2009 (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Freckles in 2009 (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Freckles in 2014 (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Freckles in 2014 (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

The photo in question allowed us to determine that Freckles is a female. Determining the sex of humpback whales is not as easy as it is for many other animals… there are no obvious physical characteristics that are reliably visible at the surface to distinguish males from females. MERS has documented several of the humpback whales that spend time off northeastern Vancouver Island come to the area with a calf, so we know that these whales – including Chunky (BCX0081), Ripple (BCX1063), and Slash (BCY0177) are females. However, the sex of the vast majority of the humpback whales in our catalogue is unknown. We were therefore very excited to see photos of Freckles tail-lobbing repeatedly, which made the underside of her body visible. In this photo, I was able to see a small feature on Freckles’ body, the hemispherical lobe, that allowed me to determine that she is female.

Freckles tail-lobbing, with her hemispherical lobe visible
Freckles tail-lobbing, with her hemispherical lobe visible (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

Only female humpback whales have a hemispherical lobe, a small round lobe between the whale’s umbilicus (belly button) and fluke. These diagrams from Glockner (1983) demonstrate the different features of male and female humpback whales.

Glockner
Diagram from: Glockner. A. 1983. Determining the sex of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in their natural environment. In Behavior and communication of whales. Edited by R. Payne. AAAS Sel. Symp. No. 76. pp. 447-464.

Now that we know that Freckles is a female, we are very curious to see when she might bring her first calf to the northern Vancouver Island area. Knowing Freckles’ sex is also very valuable for better understanding humpback whale behaviour.

~ Christie

Are humpback whales threatened in BC?

For the past decade MERS has conducted research on humpback whales in the waters off northern Vancouver Island. With the help of fellow north island researchers, community members, and ecotourism companies, especially Stubbs Island Whale Watching and Seasmoke Whale Watching, we have been documenting the return of humpback whales to these waters following the end of commercial whaling. In 2003 we only documented 7 humpback whales in these waters, but by 2011 there were 71. We have learned that the majority of individuals consistently return to these waters each year to feed between spring and fall. It is likely that this area is critical to the survival of these whales.

12-year-old humpback whale "KC" (BCY0291), breaching.  KC was first documented by MERS research off northern Vancouver Island when he was a calf in 2002, and has returned every year since then. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
12-year-old humpback whale “KC” (BCY0291), breaching. KC was first documented by MERS researchers off northern Vancouver Island when he was a calf in 2002, and has returned to the area every year since then.
(Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

The waters off Vancouver Island are also busy with vessel traffic and commercial fishing activity between spring and fall. Since 2009 we have documented 5 incidents where humpback whales were entangled in fishing gear and since 2006 have documented 8 cases where humpbacks whales were struck by vessels in this small area alone. Efforts to rescue entangled animals or respond to vessel strike reports by MERS, Cetus and DFO have helped save the lives of some of these whales but an unknown number of individuals die each year from these threats. Preliminary results from MERS research reveal that over 30% of humpbacks off BC have scars indicating that they have been entangled at some point in their lives.

Humpback whale "Cutter", entangled in fishing gear off northern Vancouver Island (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Humpback whale “Cutter”, entangled in fishing gear off northern Vancouver Island
(Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Research by DFO has identified other areas of the BC coast that are also critical to the survival of humpback whales. Very little is known about the severity of the anthropogenic threats that humpback whales face in these waters but it can be inferred that threats are most prominent in areas where human activity is highest.

In this regard at least two things are worth noting.

1. The Strait of Georgia was historically important humpback whale habitat. Over 200     humpback whales were killed in the Strait of Georgia between 1868 and 1907. Today, this area is one of the busiest waterways off the west coast of North America and humpback whales have only just begun to show the first signs of recovery in these waters with a few individuals spotted each year.

2. Caamano Sound, Squally Channel, and the entrance to Douglas Channel have been defined as Critical Habitat (see the North Pacific Humpback Whale Recovery Strategy) due to the high numbers of humpbacks that use these waters. This area is on the proposed Northern Gateway tanker traffic route. If the federal government approves this project, vessel traffic will increase significantly in these waters in the coming years.

Humpback whale "Slash" (BCY0177), an adult female who has had at least two calves, with scars from a collision with a large vessel. (Photo by J. Towers, MERS)
Humpback whale “Slash” (BCY0177), an adult female who has had at least two calves, with scars from a collision with a large vessel.
(Photo by Jared Towers, MERS)

The recent proposed decision by the federal government to down-list BC’s humpback whales from Threatened to Special Concern means that the humpbacks will not be afforded their current level of protection from anthropogenic threats both within and beyond Critical Habitat.

The recommendation to down-list BC’s humpbacks comes from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) – a body that operates independent of government. Following protocol, their recommendation was based on the science available, yet some argue that there are significant knowledge gaps regarding the population structure of BC’s humpbacks and the threats they face. If BC’s humpbacks are indeed down-listed, this means that fewer dollars will be allocated to studying the threats to this population, how threats can be mitigated, and if genetically distinct populations exist within BC.

More research is required to better understand the threats that result from increased overlap between humpback whales and human activity  (Photo: Jared Towers, MERS)
More research is required to better understand the threats that result from increased overlap between humpback whales and human activity
(Photo by Jared Towers, MERS)

If you want to share your opinion on the federal government’s decision to down-list the humpback whale in BC please consider letting them know your thoughts through the public consultation period, open until May 17th.

Please also consider supporting MERS’s continued research on understanding and mitigating threats to this species. In 2014, we will continue to respond to cetacean entanglement and vessel strike reports in central and southern BC, operating cooperatively with DFO but with the understanding that their resources will become even more limited with the recent proposal to down-list humpbacks.

Humpback whale "Black Pearl", known to MERS since 2012, tailslapping off northern Vancouver Island (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Humpback whale “Black Pearl”, known to MERS since 2012, tailslapping off northern Vancouver Island
(Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

~ The MERS team

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