Humpback whale flukes with killer whale rake marks (PC: Laura Bogaard, for Oceans Initiative)
It was another beautiful day in the North Island neighborhood and Team Dolphin was all aboard our trusty research vessel, Wishart. We were cruising up Tribune Channel in search of our study animal, the Pacific white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens). The water was a magnificent pale blue—a reflection of the late-summer sky, and an indicator that this channel was once the path of an enormous glacier, which carved out the intricate valleys that make up the channels and inlets of the Broughton Archipelago.
All eyes were squinted against the glare as we scanned the waves for fins or splashes—any indication that there were dolphins in our midst. Off in the distance, three tall columnar blows gave away the position of a group of three humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) making their way down the channel in our direction. We decided to slow our course in order to snap a few ID shots. We waited a few minutes for another surfacing and then, as if on cue, three more blows erupted through the surface almost in unison. One right after the other, each whale turned and dove deep into the blue water, flipping their tails and exposing their flukes as they descended. Armed with rapid reflexes and two spectacular cameras, Rob and I were able to grab ID shots for each whale in the short window of time that their flukes were vertical and above the water.
This is a photo I took from that encounter. The dark parallel lines you see are killer whale (Orcinus orca) rake marks that this whale probably sustained during a run-in with a transient orca. The scars left behind will help lead to an individual identification of this particular whale. Even after seeing them almost everyday this month, the size and agility of these creatures still astounds me.
The humpback’s smaller and speedier cetacean cousins, the Pacific white-sided dolphins, had the spotlight this season for Erin and Rob’s research project. They were quite a bit trickier to photograph than the humpback whales because of their speed and unpredictable behavior. After a month of working with them almost every day and shooting thousands of photos, I feel like I am finally getting the hang of it. Photographing wildlife can be a challenging experience, but with the right amount of patience, persistence, and positivity, the results are incredibly rewarding.
My favorite job on the boat was operating the hydrophone. Like photography, there was a bit of a learning curve. It took quite a few tries to get the hang of wrangling the long wire and recording in time to catch some vocalizations. Sometimes the dolphins would suddenly change their behavior and squall away at high speeds out of the detection range. Sometimes they were just silent. However sometimes, once the engine was off, the hydrophone was in the water, and the recorder and amplifier were switched on (given the batteries were charged and the SD card was in its slot), the voices that came through my headphones were simply breathtaking. This piece of equipment allowed me to access an underwater world that few people are lucky enough to experience. Listening to their whistles and calls as they communicated with each other and to their buzzes and clicks as they echolocated in search of food, added a whole new dimension to observing their behavior at the surface. It gave me a new appreciation for their complex sociality as well as the impact that ocean noise must have on their daily lives.
This is just a taste of a few of the wonderful experiences I have had this month during my Experiential Learning internship working with Oceans Initiative. I’m sad to leave the dolphins behind as this season comes to a close, but I am looking forward to working with Rob and Erin more this winter to help analyze the acoustic data we have been collecting over the last month for my Keystone thesis project at Quest University.
I have learned so much about the many different aspects that are involved in researching cetaceans. I can’t thank Erin, Rob, and Doug enough for being patient mentors and for making my dream come true by bringing me along to Malcolm Island for their field season. Thank you to Clara for the giggles, the sing-along-life-lessons, and for being such a trooper. Thank you MaryAnn for your generosity, warmth, and fabulous suppers. And finally, thank you to the unsinkable Molly Brown Dog for the slobbery kisses, being the best team mascot, and for always being there to keep my hands warm on the boat.
September 24, 2016
Laura deploying a CPOD — a high-frequency recorder that detects the echolocation clicks of killer whales, dolphins and porpoise.
Our dolphin health and conservation status project monitors health of individual Pacific white-sided dolphins and their population(s) in the Pacific Northwest. Thanks to Alexandra Morton’s pioneering work on this species, we now have a combined >25 years of data. This project is yielding new insights into the biology of the dolphins themselves, and ultimately about the health of the Salish and Great Bear Seas. In 2015, we launched a health study in partnership with Dr. Stephen Raverty to collect dolphin breath samples on petri dishes to screen for pathogens. This year, we plan to look for drug-resistant bacteria (e.g., linked to agricultural and sewage runoff) and how pathogen exposure changes in urban versus wild marine environments.
A second aim of our work this year is to assess the impact of human disturbance on dolphin behavio(u)r and populations. This non-invasive study will merge our past work on the impacts of vessels, noise, and other sources of disturbance (e.g., on resident killer whales) and the long-term demographic study to understand the population consequences of disturbance. We are not playing noise to the dolphins, but we will use their responses to our own boat and to large ships to explore how much harder dolphins may have to work to find food in a quiet versus noisy habitat.
Our first day on the water was a huge success. We encountered a few hundred Pacific white-sided dolphins foraging in a beautifully coordinated group. Many of the dolphins were well-marked, about 10% of the group were moms with babies, and the dolphins were vocalizing to one another in addition to echolocating. Please check out our Instagram account for more photos.
We look forward to sharing our notes and observations. Thank you to everyone for your support with launching these projects! Please sign up for our newsletter (see sidebar) if you’d like updates when we start generating results from our hard-won field data.
This dolphin has a well-marked dorsal fin, which we will match against thousands of photographs in our database. This photo was taken under research permit with a telephoto lens and cropped.
A lot of the research our charity, Oceans Initiative, conducts is to see how human activities — all of them — affect marine wildlife, both in the Pacific Northwest and around the world. The iconic orca we study illustrate this problem well. According to the latest census by Center for Whale Research, the population is hovering at 84 individuals. The original problem was a live capture fishery for display in aquaria, with all the direct and collateral damage that entailed. But why aren’t they recovering, nearly 40 years after the captures stopped? Regulatory agencies in Canada and the US agree: it’s a combination of lack of prey (Chinook salmon), too much noise, and chemical pollution. Some of these threats are much easier to manage in the real world than others. But are we focusing on the right threats?
In our field, this thorny problem is described as “cumulative impacts of multiple anthropogenic stressors.” Clumsy, right? Our colleague, Dr David Bain, described it better: Which raindrop caused the flood?
It’s really, really hard to predict how wildlife populations will respond to a minefield of too much ocean noise, not enough food and a body full of chemicals. Think about that for a moment. The blubber that whales put on to survive — used by mothers to make milk for their young — is full of toxic chemicals, and the best way for a whale to detox is to transfer those pollutants to their offspring. Not great for the calf. Adult males don’t even have that option. And if you’re honest about the uncertainty in all the steps and how they fit together, your predictions span the entire range from no effect to catastrophic effects.
This approach doesn’t solve the problem, but it helps identify the problem, and the math is easier. For some critically endangered species, policy-makers may not want to allow ANY impact on a population. For healthy, growing populations, our laws allow some impact on marine mammal populations, because humans use the ocean too: for fishing, shipping, recreation, tourism and extracting energy. Our approach gives us a rough, ballpark estimate of what a healthy population can withstand. Then, you can convene a group of scientists, managers and stakeholders to ask how likely it is that the sum total of all current and proposed activities could cause us to be exceeding that threshold.
There are a number of places around the world where this sort of exercise is needed. As we try to ensure whale and dolphin populations recover from the Deepwater Horizon incident, it would be good to look at the cumulative effects of all activities, including seismic surveys, in the Gulf of Mexico. As we discuss opening new parts of the Arctic to oil and gas activities and shipping, we can use this method to test whether all of those activities, together, could affect food security of communities living in the Arctic. As we consider the number of industrial developments for the British Columbia coast — ports, liquefied natural gas terminals, pipelines and tanker traffic proposals — it may be time to consider how all of these factor may affect whale and dolphin populations. Some are doing fine. Others are barely hanging on. Our new tool can give us a starting point for discussion how much is too much.
We loved writing this paper with Dr Christopher Clark (an acoustician at Cornell University), Dr Len Thomas (a statistician at the University of St Andrews), and Prof Philip Hammond (a marine mammal population ecologist at the University of St Andrews). Please check out the #openaccess paper on the website of the journal, Marine Policy:
Gauging allowable harm limits to cumulative, sub-lethal effects of human activities on wildlife: A case-study approach using two whale populations
Did you know two species of river dolphin live in the Amazon? The pink one is called boto, or Inia; the grey one is called tucuxi, or Sotalia. Both are gorgeous, ancient species that have become adapted to live their entire lives in freshwater. They are also incredibly tough to spot in muddy waters, and have a cryptic behaviour that makes them difficult to count.
That’s a problem, because a key task in conservationscience is knowing whether a species is increasing or decreasing.
We partnered with scientists at Fundación Omacha, University of St Andrews & NOAAto survey river dolphins in a stretch of the Amazon at the border of Colombia & Peru. Using some simple field methods [learn more about our small-boat survey toolkit here] & fairly sophisticated analytical methods, we found that tucuxi is likely to be stable or increasing, but boto are likely to be declining.
Our findings are worrisome, given reports from Brazil that there is a major problem with deliberate killing of boto for bait in a lucrative catfish fishery. Our next steps are to (a) continue surveys withFundación Omacha to improve our understanding of seasonal and annual trends; and (b) work with Dr Fernando Trujillo (founder of Omacha) to identify solutions. If poaching is the problem, we can work toward finding alternative sources of fish bait. Dr Trujillo points out that more than 150 major hydroelectric dams are proposed for Amazonia. These would fragment dolphin habitat, and our research shows that we have very low statistical power to detect declines — possibly until they become irreversible.
New research identifies areas that are important for many marine mammal species in BC, but still quiet
Sound is as important to marine mammals as vision is to us.
Our new research, published open access in Marine Pollution Bulletin, has mapped areas that are important to 10 marine mammal species in BC, and overlaid those maps with maps of chronic ocean noise from shipping. Most studies of this kind focus on the problems: where we still have a lot of work to do to make noisy areas quieter.
This new paper identifies opportunity sites — places that have lots of wildlife but very little ship traffic. We don’t want to minimize the serious, hard work needed to make noisy areas quieter, but our #oceanoptimism paper notes that there are places that give us hope. All we have to do is keep the quiet areas quiet.
The next steps are up to managers and policy makers, but there are many things we can do NOW to keep quiet areas quiet. We can do that by asking ships to slow down through important marine mammal habitats, just like we ask drivers to slow down through school zones. As ships slow down, they become quieter. We could identify the noisiest ships, and find financial incentives to replace those noisy ships as fleets age. Our colleague, Russell Leaper, has figured out that focusing on the noisiest 10% of ships will generate outsize returns. Finally, we could discuss incentives for Canada’s shipbuilding industry to take advantage of recent technological developments in building quieter ships.
For now, our main point is a simple one: Haida Gwaii and British Columbia’s north coast are blessed with important marine mammal habitats that are still quiet. We think of wild, quiet oceans as a valuable natural resource, and Canada is a steward of quiet oceans that are becoming increasingly rare in the developed world.
OK. Every day is Oceans Day around here, but today is the day when people around the world celebrate the 70% of the planet’s surface that provides the oxygen we breathe, the food we eat, home for the whales & dolphins we love to study, safe transportation for internationally traded consumer goods, and a place to reconnect with what’s wild and most important to us.
This year, we were thrilled that our good friends at The Walrus Magazine gave us space for an ad to tell their readers about the work that we do. We were blessed to work with the wildly creative team of Kelly Kirkpatrick and Rachel Connell, who were able to tell the story of our life’s work in a half-page ad. We want our conservation science to be useful, and The Walrus is read by the people who make decisions about environmental issues in Canada. We are grateful to Walrus, Rachel & Kelly for helping us to reach an audience who will never read our (important, but math-heavy) scientific publications.
This year, on World Oceans Day, we encourage you to think about how your own consumer decisions affect ocean wilderness. National Geographic has come up with a powerful list of 10 simple things you can do to save the ocean. We’d consider adding an 11th point: buy locally. This reduces the carbon and ocean noise footprint on the goods you buy. Their 7th point, Support Organizations Working to Protect the Ocean, obviously resonates for us. We’d be honoured if you’d consider our organization when making your charitable donations this year. All donations are tax deductible in Canada or the US, and our low overhead means that more of your charitable dollars go toward the mission of science-based conservation of the ocean and its wildlife.
We’ve been making a lot of noise about ocean noise for years.
Today, the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Marine Fellows Program announced that they’re listening. Our co-founder, Dr Rob Williams, won a 3-year Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation. He will use the award to expand his studies of impacts of ocean noise on whale, fish, and the interactions between marine predators and their prey. More importantly, he will use the award to help identify solutions to reduce ocean noise levels in important marine habitats.
The work we do on ocean noise has been made possible with a whole host of visionary funders. We’re grateful to them for seeing the value and potential of this work, which we started in 2008. We’re also grateful to our main co-conspirators in ocean acoustics, Dr Chris Clark at Cornell University and Dr Christine Erbe at Curtin University, as well as our colleagues at University of St Andrews’ Sea Mammal Research Unit (Prof Philip Hammond and Prof Ian Boyd) and Centre for Research into Ecological & Environmental Modelling (Dr Len Thomas), who help us integrate the noise studies into ecological models of what the noise means for whale health and population conservation status. Together, we’re building up a solid evidence base on the ecological effects of noise, but there is a lot more work to do. And of course, thanks to all of you for supporting our charity to do this important work. It’s starting to get noticed.
We’re so grateful for this week’s special guest post from Inge van der Knaap, a Erasmus Mundus Master’s student in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation. Inge and her assistant, Sofya Reger, recently completed a beautiful experiment on noise and fish in collaboration with Salmon Coast Field Station. Inge produced a great video introducing people to her study. We’ll post it here, with her description and some photos below. Let us know what you think! And many, many thanks to those of you who donated to our charity to support this work.
Inge’s guest post:
Noise pollution is a relatively new topic in marine sciences. Little is known about the impact of underwater noise on marine life, while the number of ships travelling the seas still increases every year. This might not seem of major concern since our oceans are large and take up more than 70% of the planet’s surface; however noise travels 5 times faster and further in water than in air!
In a busy shipping area like the Strait of Georgia, where thousands of cargo ships pass through every year, the underwater noise production will have consequences for the marine life. This will become an even bigger concern in relation to proposed increase in tanker traffic to and from the port of Vancouver.
Many marine species are vocal and rely on their auditory senses to locate their prey. Numerous studies have investigated the effect of boat noise on cetaceans; however, effects on the largest group of marine vertebra; the fish, has not been studied much yet. In the quiet surroundings of the Broughton Archipelago myself, Inge van der Knaap (a marine conservation master’s student) and Soyna Reger (an undergrad biology student) have conducted a pilot study designed to investigate the effect of boat noise on the behaviour of a Pacific salmon and herring, and a rockfish species: fish species of ecological, cultural and economic value.
This pilot study was done during the summer of 2014 at the Salmon Coast field station under the supervision of Dr Rob Williams, of Oceans Initiative. Soyna and I collected the fish with the help of the experienced Salmon Coast staff and local people living around the area. We made sure that the fish were not harmed during the collection and all of them were released after our study was completed.
The fish where held inside large net pens and their behaviour was monitored using underwater camera’s. The noise was produced by a small motor boats passing the nets at different speeds and distances and noise levels in the net pens were recorded with a hydrophone (provided by David Hannay of JASCO Applied sciences).
The analysis of the data is still ongoing as part of my master thesis dissertation, which will be finishing in June this year. The results will hopefully give us an indication of the impact vessel noise can have on different fish species and provide a baseline for future studies in this area.
Valentine’s day can be a pretty lonely time for many people. Every day seems to be a lonely one for the whale in the North Pacific that sings at a unique frequency — 52 Hz — that no other whale uses to communicate.
Researchers and Navy submariners have been listening to this oddball whale for decades, but no one has seen him or her. In all those years the whale has been singing, no one has ever heard a reply.
Maybe it’s a hybrid between a fin and a blue whale. Maybe it’s a whale with a deformity or a speech impediment. But a team of filmmakers are launching an expedition to find him or her. They’ve launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund it. If you want to show your love for the ocean this Valentine’s day, we strongly encourage you to support this effort to learn how this compelling story ends.
Here’s our connection. Much of our work focuses on the rising levels of ocean noise from shipping, oil and gas exploration, and other human activities in an increasingly industrialized ocean. Because whales rely on sound to communicate — sound is as important to them as vision is to us — that background noise masks the whales’ ability to find each other, navigate, find food or avoid predators. Human-generated noise causes whales to lose acoustic space. It causes their acoustic world to shrink. It isolates them from other members of their family and their species.
One of our favourite days of the year is “Giving Tuesday” (2 December) — a charitable counterpart to the holiday pressure to buy, Buy, BUY!
We were thrilled to be profiled today on CanadaHelps as a small charity worthy of support. Please check it out and share it with your friends. If you’re still considering your year-end charitable giving, please keep us in mind. On 2 December, CanadaHelps is waiving all transaction fees, and Visa, Interac and PayPal will even add a contribution when you use their services to donate.
As governments cut funding for environmental research, we need a strong charitable sector to help fill the need for trustworthy science to inform conservation of endangered species. If you agree, we’d be grateful for your support.