“Reel” Solution – balloon releases and impacts to wildlife

This is very inspirational. So often, you don’t get to know if your efforts have an impact but this time  . . .

Ashley Hasgawa is a student at Shawinigan Lake School. She attended one of our “Humpback Comeback” presentations. We always make quick mention of our work around endangered Leatherback Turtles – that they belong off the coast of British Columbia, coming all the way from Indonesia and that a risk to them is that they cannot discern plastics and balloons from their jellyfish prey.  (See leatherbacksinbc.org.)

Ashley later took up contact asking for data around this risk to wildlife, explaining that her school had a balloon-release at their Closing Day ceremony. She had done the work to know that, while they use biodegradable balloons, these can take a very long time to breakdown (over 6 years, see this link).

Canada Day balloons found drifting off the west coast of Vancouver Island on July 21, 2017. They were retrieved by the crew of the Canadian Coast Guard Ship JP Tully. We would later see a Leatherback Turtle. In a global study of 408 dead Leatherback Turtles, more than 30% had plastics in their intestines (Mrosovsky et al, 2009).

She wanted to ensure she had solid facts before having a discussion at her school about how the risk could be further reduced.

We provided the data and some links to alternatives for such ceremonies. The lowest risk would be not to release balloons.

Never could we have anticipated the ingenuity of the compromise agreed upon by the graduating class and school management.

Biodegradable balloons clipped securely to fishing line, released, reeled back in, and then popped and put into the compost. That’s ingenuity. Photo by Becky Han, Shawinigan Lake School. 

Here is Ashley’s recent email describing what they did:

” . . .  We attached a carabiner to each balloon, as a grad class, we all clipped the balloons onto a fishing line like a kite. As you can see in the pictures [see below], they all flew out together. Later on, we brought it back down again after the graduation ceremony. Unfortunately, there were still about 3-4 balloons failed on clipping onto the fishing line, but most of the balloons did get brought down, got popped by our school and dumped to our own compost facility. This could not have happened without the support of our headmaster, David Robertson, and the teachers, especially, my fine art instructor, Scott Noble for always helping me. Thank you so much for your fantastic presentation, I will never forget it. I am so happy that I went and made a difference for the environment.”

Imagine how happy we are.

Thank you Ashley and all those who made it possible for a student’s concern to lead to empowerment. Our great hope is that this approach to balloon releases will go widely into the world, creating further awareness of the risk to wildlife.

For sustainable alternatives to balloon release ceremonies, please see this link by “Balloons Blow”.

Photo provided by Ashley Hasegawa.


Trap-Feeding – A new humpback feeding behaviour!

One of the best things about researching individual whales is that, no matter how long we study them, we keep being reminded of how much more there is to learn…

In 2011, MERS researchers observed a humpback whale named “Conger” (BCY0728), a whale that we have documented off northeastern Vancouver Island since 2009, doing something that we had never seen a humpback do before. Conger was remaining at the water’s surface with his mouth wide open, and he stayed like this for an extended period of time.


With his mouth open, he spun slowly in place for about a minute, and then used his flippers to push fish toward his mouth!


After observing this feeding behaviour several more times, we named it “trap-feeding”, because it reminded us of the way that Venus flytraps catch flies. Humpbacks were remaining stationary and waiting for prey to enter their mouths. By studying the behaviour further, we have learned that, in addition to often using their long flippers to direct fish toward their mouths, humpbacks also benefit from diving birds that are chasing the same prey. While trying to escape the birds, the small fish appear to school in or next to the whales’ mouths.

We know of only two whales who used this trap-feeding behaviour in 2011 –  Conger and “Moonstar” (BCY0768), who was three years old at the time. But by the end of 2015, sixteen of the humpback whales that feed off northeastern Vancouver Island had been documented using this strategy at least once. In some cases, humpbacks even trap-fed side-by-side!


Aided by the many people that have contributed photos, videos, and sightings of trap-feeding over the past six years, MERS researchers have concluded that when whales trap-feed, they are feeding in the same locations and on the same prey species (juvenile herring) as when they lunge-feed. BUT there is a big difference in the size and density of the schools of fish that humpbacks consume when they trap-feed vs. when they lunge-feed…


The schools of herring that humpback whales trap-feed on are much smaller and less dense than the schools that they lunge-feed on.  We believe that trap-feeding is an energetically efficient way to feed on these smaller schools of fish. When whales are lunge-feeding, they accelerate toward their prey, then open their mouths – an energy-intensive strategy that only makes sense if schools of fish are large and dense enough to result in a net energy gain for whales.  But while trap-feeding, whales open their mouths while stationary or near-stationary, and therefore use much less energy.

If you see humpback whales exhibiting this feeding behaviour, we would love to know! Sightings and photos can be sent to info@mersociety.org

Additionally, MERS researchers are in the process of publishing a study focused on trap-feeding – so a lot more information about this new humpback whale feeding strategy will be available soon!

~ Christie, Jackie, Jared and the MERS Team

MERS Presentations on Humpback Whales

From urban centres to remote communities, if you live on BC’s coast, we are striving to be of use to you.

We’re going far and wide to share our work on the return of Humpback Whales from the brink of extinction – all the good news, their remarkable feeding strategies, and the need for raised awareness for the sake of whale AND boater safety.

Presenter is MERS Education Director and Humpback Researcher – Jackie Hildering.

April 4th – Powell River; 7 PM; Cranberry Seniors Centre; host Malaspina Naturalists; (all welcome; donations welcome).

April 5th – Sechelt; 7 PM; Sunshine Coast Arts Centre; host Sunshine Coast Conservation Association; (all welcome; entry by donation). 

April 8th – Gabriola Island; 7 PM; The Roxy; hosts Gabriola Rescue of  Wildlife Society, Gabriola Streamkeepers, and Gabriola Land & Trails Trust; (all welcome; free entry).

April 11th – Nanaimo; 7 PM;  Vancouver Island University’s Malaspina Theatre; host Vancouver Island Sustainability; (all welcome; free entry).

April 26th – Courtenay; 8 PM; Florence Filberg Centre – Upper Floor Hall;  host Cape Lazo Power and Sail Squadron AGM.

April 27th – Duncan; 7 PM;  Vancouver Island University Cowichan – Lecture Hall; hosts Cowichan Naturalists, Cowichan Watershed Board, VIU Cowichan.

April 28th – Nanaimo (Nanaimo Yacht Club members and invitees); 7:30 PM; location and host Nanaimo Yacht Club; (all welcome; free entry). 

June17 – Kitimat; 7 PM; location and host Kitimat Valley Institute; (all welcome; free entry). 

June 21, 22 or 23 – Klemtu; 7 PM; location to be finalized; host Spirit Bear Lodge.

June 24 – Bella Bella; 7 PM; location to be finalized; hosts Qqs (Eyes) Projects Society
and Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department.

June 28 – Bella Coola; 7 PM;  Bella Coola Valley Inn.

September 22 – Quadra Island; details to follow; host Sierra Club – Quadra.

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.

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.

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

Movements of minke whales in the eastern North Pacific

There are some species of cetacean that are more difficult to study than others. The minke whale, for example, is a small, uncommon and normally solitary rorqual that lives in the eastern North Pacific. As a result of their size, abundance and behaviour, minkes are difficult to find and once observed, they often make a long dive and are not seen again. Not surprisingly, little is known of their natural history.

A rare view of a minke whale breaching off of northeastern Vancouver Island. Photo: JTowers
A rare view of a minke whale breaching off of northeastern Vancouver Island. Photo: JTowers

To learn more about this cryptic species, we at MERS undertook a photo-identification study of minke whales beginning in 2005. With some help from many colleagues up and down the coast we accumulated 405 encounters with minkes in Washington and British Columbia by 2012. The data we gathered included 6,990 identification photos. Over the first few years of the study a few things quickly became apparent when analyzing the images.

Red dots indicate the locations where minke whales were encountered between 2005 and 2012.
Red dots indicate the locations where minke whales were encountered between 2005 and 2012. CBC: Central British Columbia, NVI: Northern Vancouver Island, WVI: Western Vancouver Island, SVI: Southern Vancouver Island. Map: CMcMillan

First, encounters with minke whales occurred predominantly between spring and autumn. Despite our best efforts searching for minke whales in all the places that we found them during summer, we did not see any of these whales during the winter.

Seasonal distribution of all encounters with minke whales from 2005 to 2012 shown for each area.
Monthly distribution of all encounters with minke whales from 2005 to 2012 shown for each area. Graph: JTowers

Secondly, known individual minke whales could often be found in the same areas within and among years. These animals would spend long periods of time during summer in very localized regions of the coast. After an absence during winter they would return to the same regions the following year. Some animals were so predictable that we could often correctly guess where we would find them on certain days.

The number of encounters with minke whales, the number of individuals photo-identified and the number of new animals each year from 2005 to 2012 in the northern Vancouver Island area.
The number of encounters with minke whales, the number of individuals photo-identified and the number of new animals documented each year from 2005 to 2012 in the Northern Vancouver Island area. Graph: JTowers

Third, some of these very predictable animals showed up in other parts of the coast hundreds of kilometres to the south during spring or autumn. These relatively long-range intra-annual movements (up to 424 kilometres between encounter locations) are the furthest documented for this species in the Pacific Ocean! The patterns of these movements indicate not only that the minke whales we photo-identified have different seasonally preferred foraging ranges but also that they undertake seasonally-based long distance travels.

Green lines indicate northerly  travels of minke whales M002, M006 and M008 during spring. Orange lines indicate southerly travels of minke whales M003, M008 and M021 during autumn.
Green lines and arrows indicate northerly travels of minke whales M002, M006 and M008 during spring. Orange lines and arrows indicate southerly travels of minke whales M003, M008 and M021 during autumn. Map: CMcMillan

It is generally assumed that minke whales in the North Pacific migrate to higher latitudes in the spring to feed in cold waters during the summer and to lower latitudes in the autumn to breed in warm waters during the winter. However, several authorities refer to minke whales in coastal waters of the eastern North Pacific as resident or behaviourally distinct from migratory populations. Instead, based on the temporal distribution and movement data we collected from minke whales in these waters it can be inferred that they do indeed migrate.

M003 also known as Galaxy  in Queen Charlotte Strait off northeastern Vancouver Island during summer. Galaxy has also been observed in Washington state on several occasions during spring and autumn.
M003 also known as Galaxy in Queen Charlotte Strait off northeastern Vancouver Island during summer. Galaxy has also been observed in Washington state on several occasions during spring and autumn. Photo: JTowers

To find out more about the movements of minke whales in our coastal waters and other evidence that reveals where these animals may migrate to during winter check out our latest peer-reviewed article recently published online in the Journal of Cetacean Research and Management. It can also be found on the MERS site.

MERS 2014 Whale Watch Fundraiser

The second annual Marine Education and Research Society fundraising whale watch trip provided a fantastic sample of the wealth of wildlife that northeastern Vancouver Island has to offer.

Our fabulous MERS supporters on the Gikumi
Our fabulous MERS supporters on the Gikumi.  Photo by Jared Towers (MERS).

Telegraph Cove was still in view when we came across our first sightings of the trip… Steller sea lions hauled out on the rocks, and humpback whales Freckles and Argonaut foraging in the productive waters of Weynton Pass. Common murres, northern phalaropes, rhinoceros auklets, Cassin’s auklets, and ancient murrelets were also seen feeding in the area.

Humpback whale "Freckles" (BCY0727) foraging with gulls overhead
Humpback whale “Freckles” (BCY0727) foraging with gulls overhead. Photo by Jackie Hildering (MERS)

The whale sightings continued as we proceeded out to Bold Head, where we encountered humpback whales Corporal and Backsplash traveling close together. Just minutes after leaving these whales, a group of Dall’s porpoises came rooster-tailing toward the Gikumi. These porpoises, the fastest marine mammals in the world, swam along with the boat, riding our bow wave.

The Steller sea lion activity in Blackfish Sound was incredible… during the summer, most of these sea lions head to rookeries to breed, leaving very few in the Telegraph Cove area. By fall, however, they return from their breeding areas, and focus on socializing and feeding instead. A large group of these sea lions were interacting with humpback whales Conger and Ridge, taking huge leaps onto the whales, and following them at high speeds. The humpback whales were “trumpeting” in what we perceive to be exasperation at highly maneuverable Stellers moving around them. We were also lucky enough to witness Steller sea lions feeding on chum salmon. Cued in by splashing as the sea lions thrashed their prey around, and by the birds who gathered to pick up any scraps of fish left behind, we were able to get a great look at how these sea lions catch and consume their prey.

Steller sea lion feeding on a chum salmon, while gulls wait to pick up the scraps. (Photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Steller sea lion feeding on a chum salmon, while gulls wait to pick up the scraps. Photo by Jackie Hildering (MERS)

There was more humpback-tivity in Blackfish Sound, where we found Guardian tail-slapping repeatedly. Humpback whale calf Lorax was also active at the surface, while her mother, Ripple, fed nearby. In the churning waters of Blackney Pass, the tidal currents lead to amazingly productive waters. Here we saw Bonaparte’s gulls, cormorants, more sea lions, and the humpback whales Slits, Guardian, and Inukshuk feeding.

Humpback whale "Guardian".  Photo by Jackie Hildering (MERS)
Humpback whale “Guardian”. Photo by Jackie Hildering (MERS)

A huge thank you to everyone who braved the liquid sunshine to support MERS, to Jim and Mary Borrowman of Orcella Expeditions for sponsoring the trip and providing delicious baked goodies, and to the Sportsman Restaurant in Port McNeill for donating an excellent lunch. Thanks to their generous support, all funds raised on this trip will be directly used for MERS’ research, education, and marine wildlife response efforts.