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

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

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.

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.

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.
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.

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!