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.

Researching whale acoustics

In 2012, with support from Mountain Equipment Co-op, MERS acquired a Wildlife Acoustics SM2M submersible hydrophone to record the vocalizations of minke whales while we observed them from shore. This was the first project of its kind in the North Pacific and was successful in making the first recordings of minke whale vocals in BC.

Verifying minke whale presence visually through high powered binoculars
Verifying minke whale presence through high powered binoculars.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After this project was finished we then used the SM2M to record the sounds of foraging humpback whales to help determine whether these animals were feeding at night. These data were used by MERS researcher Christie McMillan to estimate herring consumption by humpback whales as part of the first dedicated study on humpback whale diet in BC.

Humpback whale trap feeding
Humpback whales feeding

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since that deployment of the SM2M it was once again submerged. This time it was anchored to the sea floor for 9 months where it recorded whales and other marine life for 6 months. It was deployed a few miles west of habitat that has been recognized as critical to the survival of the threatened northern resident killer whale population. The data it recorded will be used to discover how often northern residents travel in and out of their critical habitat during the winter months when visual effort is greatly reduced compared to summer.

Northern Resident orca in winter
Northern Resident orca in winter

 

 

 

 

 

 

Up next, we plan to deploy this device off the west coast of northern Vancouver Island. This area is one of the most inhospitable parts of the BC coast and as a result there is little known about what species and populations of threatened and endangered whales use these waters and how often. This deployment and the last retrieval of the SM2M were conducted with our new research and response vessel that was acquired with contributions from Mountain Equipment Co-op, Fisheries and Oceans Canada as well as private donations. Our work would not be possible without their support as well as the support of our MERS community. If you’d like to join these efforts to help ensure that we can continue this work please make a contribution today.

Retrieving the SM2M
Our latest retrieval of the SM2M

 

 

 

 

 

 

~MERS team

Our new Research and Response vessel

It has long been a fact that the Marine Education and Research Society needs a vessel upgrade. Prior to 2014, our research and response efforts were largely conducted from our own personal vessels. While suitable for most local work, these vessels often restricted our ability to carry out important work in other areas and during weather that was not perfect.

So, early this year we began doing some research into what our ideal research and response vessel would look like. With increasing concern about the potential of vessel strikes and entanglements of whales, our work plan for 2014 includes intensified research activities off northeastern Vancouver Island and the central BC coast as well as being on call to respond to marine wildlife incidents and emergencies in these areas and beyond. To effectively conduct this work we needed a boat that was seaworthy, fast and capable of carrying a lot of equipment.

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Sea trials

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a lot of research and discussion about what type of vessel would best suit our needs we decided that a rigid-hull inflatable would be the most practical and versatile type of boat for conducting research and marine wildlife response in BC.

Thanks to a contribution from Mountain Equipment Co-op and some recognition for the importance of our work from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada we were able to acquire a 24 foot Zodiac Hurricane. This vessel was at one time used as a fast response craft by the federal government but when its mother ship was retired it prematurely followed suit until new work could be found for it.

Prior to acquiring the vessel it was sitting for several months.
Prior to acquiring the vessel it was sitting for several months.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We took possession of the boat in early May and over the last two months have been setting it up for MERS research and response. Sea trials proved that it will service our needs well. There are only 2 things left to do.

  1. Continue to acquire the support needed to ensure that we put this vessel to good use.
  1. Name the vessel.
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Preparing the vessel for decals after installing the engines, rigging and electronics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We plan on leaving both of these things up to you. If you’d like to make any suggestions for a boat name please do so here. Whoever chooses the winning name will, in addition to the glory, receive a free MERS “Sponsor a Humpback Whale” package. The contest will run until July 31st.  Selection of the name will be undertaken by MERS directors and the winner will be announced on our Facebook site during the first week of August.

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Looking at a minke whale during our first day on the water with the new vessel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also, please consider supporting our work with a financial donation or even just a “like” on Facebook. Your involvement in the work of MERS goes a long way towards helping us promote conservation and understanding of marine ecosystems through scientific research, environmental education, and marine wildlife response.

Thank you!

 

Purple Martins on the North Island

Last year on June 15th, Christie and I saw and photographed two Purple Martins off the mouth of the Nimpkish River estuary near Alert Bay. The birds were flying around and around a piling that marks the edge of the Nimpkish Bank and happens to be an area where minke whales can often be found. We did not find any minke whales that day but our sighting of the Purple Martins constitutes one of very few sightings of this species this far north in the province.

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The Nimpkish Estuary

Purple Martins of the Western sub-species are native to coastal BC. Historically, they nested in abandoned woodpecker holes and other naturally occurring cavities in open woodlands near water. Due to habitat destruction from logging, agricultural and urban development as well as competition for nest sites from introduced species like European Starlings there were fewer than 10 breeding pairs of Western Purple Martins in BC in the mid 1980s.

Hayley Shephard installing Purple Martin nest boxes.
Hayley Shephard installing the nest boxes.

Now, thanks to efforts by many individuals led by the BC Purple Martin Stewardship and Recovery Program more than 800 pairs of Purple Martin breed in specially designed nest boxes at various locations around the south coast of BC. Given that Purple Martins prefer nesting in open areas near water most of these boxes have been placed a top of old pilings near intertidal areas in estuaries and marinas. It is probable that high recruitment from these colonies has led some Martins further afield in search of new nesting sites as may have been the case for the two individuals we saw last year.

Enough nest boxes for a small colony to develop.
Enough nest boxes for a small colony to develop.

In any case, our sighting last year resulted in a stewardship initiative to build and install enough nest boxes for a colony to start up in this area should Martins ever return with intent to breed. Dave Towers built and donated the nest boxes and Hayley Shephard and myself installed them on an abandoned piling in the Nimpkish Estuary. If the Purple Martin population continues to grow further south and weather is favourable for flying insects (the Martins’ primary prey), then it may only be a matter of time until these boxes help aid in the recovery of a species that was nearly extirpated from this province. Many thanks to Bruce Cousens for guidance on nest box building and placement and to the Namgis First Nation for allowing this effort to take place in their territory.

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Waiting for the Martins with Alert Bay in the background.

~ JT

Talking about MERS research in Washington

One week ago, on April 30th, MERS President Christie McMillan and myself drove south to Seattle to attend the Salish Sea Marine Ecosystems conference the following day. It was a hot day with minimal delays at the border and smooth sailing all the way to the city.

On thursday morning (May 1st) we both presented on some of the research we are doing with MERS during the Birds and Mammals session at the conference. This session was well attended with about 75-100 people in the audience at any given time. Christie’s talk was titled “Anthropogenic threats to humpback whales in the Salish Sea: insights from northeastern Vancouver Island”. It provided an overview of the population trends of humpback whales in the Salish Sea and off northern Vancouver Island for the last decade and discussed the threats of vessel strikes and entanglement for these whales. My own talk was titled: “New insights into seasonal foraging ranges and migrations of minke whales from the Salish Sea and coastal British Columbia”. It presented the results from 8 years of photo-identification research on minkes in BC and Washington and discussed the seasonal movements of these whales and the ecological markers on their bodies. Both talks were well received.

Christie discussing anthropogenic threats to humpback whales at the Salish Sea conference in Seattle
Christie discussing anthropogenic threats to humpback whales at the Salish Sea conference in Seattle

Two days later Christie and I presented again in Bellingham at the annual meeting of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, northwest student chapter. Christie discussed the design and results of her thesis on energetic requirements, diet composition, and localized prey preferences for humpback whales in BC while I provided a keynote address on monitoring population trends and distribution with photo-identification and ecological markers. This talk gave an overview of much of the work I have been involved with researching killer whales but also provided insights for using visual methods to attain meaningful results for understanding other cetacean populations. The two presentations were well received and we both enjoyed the absolutely excellent selection of talks and posters provided by other students in attendance from BC, Washington, Oregon and California.

All in all we enjoyed our time south of the border talking about things that we think are important with like-minded folks. It was also nice to see some old friends and meet some new ones. We’d like to thank the organizers and facilitators of the Birds and Mammals Session at the Salish Sea Marine Ecosystems Conference namely Nathalie Hamel, Joe Gaydos and Peter Arcese for running such a smooth operation. We’d also like to thank Kat Nikolich for running a seamless meeting in Bellingham and providing MERS with the opportunity to talk about some of our work.

~JT

First minke whale of 2014!

In coastal waters of British Columbia minke whales are rather uncommon. They can be difficult to find in anything but the best weather – in very specific places – and during the summer. That said, we’re always a little bit excited when the first minke whale of the year gets photographed. As these animals are migratory, it is a sign that spring is here and that summer is on the way.

Minke whale #6 aka Eclipse photographed by Orcalab on April 1st.
Minke whale #6 aka Eclipse photographed by Orcalab on April 1st.

Yesterday, our colleagues at Orcalab on Hanson Island photo-identified Eclipse (above), a young minke whale that we have known since its first year of life in 2007. Eclipse is often the first minke whale to arrive to the feeding grounds off northern Vancouver Island and the last individual to leave in the fall. This is not surprising considering all of the other minkes that are regular to this area are adults and therefore may be motivated to spend more time in the breeding grounds during winter months.

Photograph of Eclipse from 2010 showing some of the same small scratches and bumps.
Photograph of Eclipse from 2010 showing some of the same small scratches and bumps.

Nevertheless, Orcalab’s photograph shows that Eclipse was sporting a new cookiecutter shark scar indicating that this animal also made a long distance migration to warm waters this past winter. The other marks on Eclipse such as the scratches and bumps near the dorsal ridge aft of the dorsal fin have changed very little over the past few years (above) allowing us to verify its identity. When seen from the side Eclipse can also be identified by the shape of its dorsal fin and thoracic patch (below).

A left side view of Eclipse showing the thoracic patch and several cookie cutter shark scars.
A left side view of Eclipse showing the thoracic patch and several cookie cutter shark scars.

The waters off northern Vancouver Island may well be the only place in British Columbia that finding and studying minke whales with any degree of regularity is feasible. Through our research, we’ve learned a bit about this species over the years. We’ve gathered insights into their seasonal movements, vocal behaviour as well as their population size and structure. Most notably though, we have come to appreciate minke whales for their ability to remain elusive, cryptic and mysterious despite several years of field studies.

~JT