Studying Pacific White-sided Dolphins

September 10, 2019

“It’s always such a privilege to study marine wildlife. I am especially grateful to join Oceans Initiative in studying Pacific white-sided dolphins in truly one of the most beautiful places on Earth.” 

— Laura Bogaard

This summer marks our 11th year of Pacific white-sided dolphin research in the Broughton Archipelago of British Columbia, Canada. Since the birth of this project with Dr. Erin Ashe’s PhD research, we have learned so much about this fascinating and under-studied species. The Broughton Archipelago also provides a rare opportunity to study a generally pelagic (open ocean) species in inshore waters. We now think that this habitat may be crucial to their feeding on herring. It also acts as a nursery for rearing their babies. The initial goal of our study was to use dorsal fin photographs for identification to model population level changes from year to year. You can read more about the post-season intricacies of this work from Natalie Mastick’s blog post on our website. 

It’s a 3-day trip on our research vessel, Wishart, from Seattle to Malcolm Island in British Columbia. On the way, we stopped briefly at San Juan Island to check in on our Southern Resident killer whale field team. As we navigated up the inside waters between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia, we spotted a plethora of marine mammal species including humpback whales, transient killer whales, harbor seals, harbor porpoise, Dall’s porpoise, and Steller sea lions. 

We were also delighted to be joined for a few days by Ryan Tidman and Chelsea Xavier-Blower of SeaLegacy. They brought lots of creative energy (and of course, their drones) and helped us with building some fun new behind the scenes content that we are very excited to share on social media in the upcoming months. 

Photo credit: Ryan Tidman

The two action-packed weeks that followed covered three research aims: investigate the effectiveness of a fishing pinger on dolphin avoidance behavior, collect breath samples in order to better understand their individual health, and capture as many identification photographs as possible. We collected almost 700 GB of identification photos and 17 breath samples, and conducted 30 experimental trials for our pinger study. Satisfied, fulfilled, and exhausted we ended our expedition on a high note.

On our last day in the Broughton, we had a rare opportunity to re-sight my favorite humpback whale, Lucky, whom I wrote about in my first blog post as an intern three summers ago. We even got to watch as she and another humpback were bubble-net feeding! This is where humpback whales blow bubbles in a large circular motion, creating a “net” around a school of fish. Then, they lunge up through the school, mouths open wide, gulping large quantities of prey.

It is always such a privilege to study marine wildlife. I am especially grateful to join the Oceans Initiative team in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

Where are the Southern Resident killer whales?

August 07, 2019

“We hope that they are finding fish in peaceful, clean waters. And when they return to the Salish Sea, we will be waiting for them.”

— Sarah Colosimo

It’s another beautiful summer on San Juan Island for our field team, where the days are long and end with glorious sunsets. Seal pups and fawns mark the beginning of new life. And the town is bustling with tourists who have come to see the resident star attraction of the islands; but the whales are not here.

We haven’t seen the Southern Resident killer whales since their fleeting visit in early July. Their appearance spanned the course of two days as they performed their classic “westside shuffle” along the shores of the island at a hasty speed, treating those who were lucky enough to witness this brief encounter. As quickly as they appeared, they too quickly disappeared. It has now been over a month since we have seen them.

The absence of the whales we know and love from these inland waters this summer is unprecedented and impossible to ignore. It is particularly prominent for us, given the purpose of our team being on island is to observe these whales. However, the reality begs us to accept that the whales are not here because this is no longer a viable habitat for them. Perhaps the whales have finally realized this too, and are unable to energetically contend with the declining salmon runs, vessel noise, and toxins that have become the reality of the Salish Sea.

Waiting for Southern Resident killer whales on San Juan island. © Farrell McClernon

The story of the Southern Resident killer whales is undoubtedly devastating. Last summer, we watched on from the shore as a mother carried her deceased calf for days on end and as a starving juvenile wasted away until she eventually disappeared. As their numbers continue to decline, with additional missing whales this year, it is hard not to feel as though all is lost and the damage is irrevocable. But we urgently need to escalate our efforts to restore the Salish Sea in the hopes that the whales will return, before we lose them forever.

It is bittersweet to be without the Southern Residents this summer. While we are without our study species in the place that has historically been considered their critical habitat, we can only hope that it is because they have found an abundant source of salmon that is filling their bellies and supporting their survival. If there is anything that these whales have demonstrated to us, it is the ability to endure and persist. Wherever the Southern Resident killer whales are, we hope that they are finding fish, in peaceful, clean waters, and when they return to the Salish Sea, we will be waiting for them.

Supporting women in marine mammal science

May 04, 2019
Photo credit: Aaron Henry

While on the surface, our field may look like more fun than science, marine mammal science is a STEM discipline that requires years of experience and education to land and develop a career. Like other STEM fields, women continue to be underrepresented in senior career positions in the field of marine mammal science and conservation.  Our STEM discipline has many hurdles that make it difficult for underrepresented people to access. In marine mammal science there is an observed “leaky pipe” phenomenon, in which the representation of women in early career positions is lost at the leadership level.  Our discipline can involve a lot of fieldwork, representing time away from responsibilities at home. This is a cost that is unevenly available to marine mammal scientists of different socio-economic backgrounds. In addition, paid opportunities for well-educated individuals in marine mammal science are rare and competitive; opportunities are available only to those that can afford to gain the necessary experience to enter the field. It is not uncommon for young scientists in our field to take on multiple unpaid internships before gaining enough experience to get a full time position, even with a Bachelor’s degree.

Laurel Yruretagoyena, Biologist (left) capturing photographs of Pacific white-sided dolphin dorsal fins in 2018 under the mentorship of Dr Erin Ashe (right) for her long-term work on this population.
Photo credit: Laura Bogaard

Oceans Initiative aims to provide women in marine mammal science the tools and resources necessary to support them as they conduct cutting-edge conservation research. We work to help women develop and become trained to use new technology. We also support them in communicating their findings in peer-reviewed publications, speaking engagements, and meeting with policy-makers. Many of our peers report changing careers or leaving academia because they sense competition, not collegiality in their workplace, and because their contributions are not being seen or lauded. We aim to elevate women by supporting our employees and fostering a sense of community and teamwork, not competition.

Oceans Initiative prioritizes hiring early career female scientists for paid positions to provide mentorship and to advance their skills. We hosted a Women in Marine Mammal Science Workshop at our professional society’s international conference in October 2017 and conducted a survey about gender equality in our field, to which over 600 members of the society responded. We have been working with a team of 6 female scientists to analyze the survey data and distribute our findings to a broader scientific audience in order to address the issue of inequality in our field.

Natalie Mastick, Graduate Fellow in Marine Parasite Ecology (left) and Laura Bogaard, Research Assistant (right) deploying a C-POD off San Juan Island during our study of Southern Resident killer whales in 2017.
Photo credit: Aaron Henry

To continue our efforts to promote women and equality, Oceans Initiative will be hosting additional workshops to provide female scientists with tools to further their careers. Currently we are organizing a workshop in partnership with Alimosphere to teach female early-career scientists how to pilot unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) for marine mammal science. We are also developing online tools to reach a broader audience of women and help them gain necessary experience in other research skills, like communicating with stakeholders and managers, publishing, statistics, and using our toolkits for their own research.

Learn more about the Oceans Initiative team.

Show your love for the ocean

February 14, 2019

Are you in a healthy relationship with the ocean?

You love the ocean. We love the ocean. Let’s work together to protect it. (PC GGraphics)

Valentine’s Day is all about making sure we don’t take the people we love for granted. Sometimes it feels as though we’re taking the ocean for granted, even though it’s the 71% of the planet that gives us the air we breathe, much of the food we eat, the way we transport goods around the globe, and supports the miraculous wildlife that sparks so much joy. How can we show our love for the ocean?

Right now, people are pulling together to show their love for our endangered orcas any way they can. We use science to find solutions that help us protect endangered species while supporting the people who earn a living from the sea. We are working to reduce bycatch of dolphins, whales, and other ocean creatures by making fisheries more sustainable. Our ongoing efforts to measure and reduce ocean noise can make it easier for whales and dolphins to find food, mates, and navigate an increasingly noisy ocean. Our work on dolphin health provides a glimpse into which pathogens may affect whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals in the Pacific Northwest, and aims to draw a direct link between what we dump into the sea and how the ocean ecosystem is affected.

You don’t have to be a marine biologist to have a positive impact on ocean conservation. The choices we make as consumers can have a ripple effect that encourages industry and policy-makers to embrace ocean-friendlier practices.

Here are five ways to show your love for the ocean. What did we miss? Please share your ideas in the comments!

  1. Reduce your plastic use. Pass on the plastic straw and use re-usable cups. Some of our favorite go-to thank-you gifts are these custom Oceans Initiative pint cups and coffee mugs from our friends at MiiR.
  2. Buy locally and support local artists: 90% of everything comes to us from ships, which are important sources of carbon emissions and underwater noise. Buying locally reduces our shipping footprint. This year, a lot of our gifts include sweets from Seattle-based Joe Chocolates and custom orca stickers from the talented artist, Sophia Trinh. Sophia even offers painting classes, so you can give the gift of experiences, not things.
  3. Choose and support sustainable seafood: Ask your local grocer, farmer’s market, and restaurant about the source of their seafood. It makes a difference. Aim for wild, locally caught seafood that has MSC certification. If you already do this, you can go further to help southern resident killer whales. In the wake of the tragic story of Talequah and the ongoing struggle of the orcas, Chef Renee Erickson made a bold decision last summer to pause serving Chinook salmon in her restaurants. We love giving Renee’s excellent cookbook to our friends and family. Feeling bold? Eat invasive species! Totally guilt-free eating. You’re doing the ocean a favor.
  4. Get out and enjoy the ocean! Go for a walk on the beach, organize a local beach clean-up, surf, paddle, sail, learn about a new whale, fish, or other sea creature, paint or create your favorite ocean art. Have a nap on the beach.
  5. Find a marine conservation nonprofit whose work you like, and support it. Spread the word about their work. Convince a friend to support it. Make a charitable donation in the name of someone you love. It doesn’t have to be us (but we’d be thrilled if you did support our work, of course). Honest. Find the group whose mission sings to you, and get involved.
Pacific Northwest classic gifts (clockwise from top left): Chef Renee Erickson’s cookbook is a love song to the Pacific Northwest; Sophie Trinh’s whale stickers and paintings are magical (& she even offers painting lessons); Joe Chocolate is a sweet, local company; and MiiR’s reusable cups and mugs are lovely and handy in a town that runs on coffee. What are your go-to gifts?

How do you show your love for the ocean?

Underwater noise from airplanes: An overlooked source of ocean noise

November 16, 2018

We tend to think of the air-water interface as a barrier to noise. Planes fly over the ocean all the time, but conventional wisdom tells us that most of the sound bounces off the surface of the ocean, and has little impact on the whales and dolphins that swim beneath the surface. A classic paper from 1972 tells us we only need to worry about airplane noise in a narrow cone under the flight path.

We recently worked with colleagues from Curtin University, Udayana University, and Conservation International Indonesia to measure noise levels from commercial jets taking off from coastal runways in Bali and Australia. We found that under certain conditions, those jets introduce up to 130 dB of noise into shallow waters. Those noise levels are high enough to cause disturbance to killer whales.

Planes fly pretty quickly of course, so any noise exposure is fleeting. But during the busiest periods, we recorded planes taking off every 3 minutes! Below is a map of runways, with coastal runways (<10 m above sea level) in red.

We conducted this study during Nyepi, the Balinese Day of Silence. We did not expect to be able to hear airplane noise over background conditions, but we got lucky. Did you know that fish have a chorus of song, just like the dawn chorus of songbirds? Check out the sounds of fish singing below:

And this is the sound of a small boat passing by our hydrophone. In the last few seconds, you can hear the roar of a jet aircraft taking off from the nearby runway of Denpasar airport, Bali, Indonesia.



Runways of the world, with coastal (<10m above sea level) marked in red


Pacific white-sided dolphin dorsal fin photos and breath samples

October 24, 2018

In August, part of our team traveled to the Broughton Archipelago off the coast of northern Vancouver Island to continue our long-term study on Pacific white-sided dolphins.  This study is multi-faceted. We are studying the health of the population by taking dorsal fin photos for statistical analysis, but we are also studying the health of individuals by looking for pathogens in exhaled breath. We’ve just celebrated the 10th anniversary of this study, but we made a few changes along the way. This year, with the help of Alimosphere, we were able to look at dolphin pods we encountered from a new perspective through the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), also known as drones.

Drone footage collected under permit, by Alicia Amerson.

This year, we are sponsoring our research associate, Natalie Mastick, to start an exciting PhD project in marine parasite ecology. As she explains in a recent blog post, taking photos of dorsal fins is a non-invasive way to study the population that allows us to identify individuals that we can use as statistical samples in models to estimate survival rates, and population size and trends. High-resolution dorsal fin photographs show us distinguishable details such as nicks, scars, and markings that help us to recognize individuals from year to year. The Pacific white-sided dolphin study launched by our co-founder, Dr Erin Ashe, has involved taking, processing and matching dorsal fin photos to previous catalogues since 2007. Some individuals have been seen in the study area since the 1990s, and we have seen one pair of dolphins together on two occasions 17 years apart.

Laurel Yruretagoyena, Oceans Initiative research assistant, aiding Dr Erin Ashe in taking dorsal fin photos for her long-term photo ID study. Look closely, like deckhand Molly Brown is doing, and you’ll see some dorsal fins in the distance!                               Photo credit: Laura Bogaard, 2018.

As a continuation of a study started by Erin in 2015, we also spent much of our time collecting exhaled breath samples from these dolphins. We collect breath samples by positioning a long pole with a petri dish attached to one end over a dolphin as it surfaces and exhales. This is a tricky activity that involves a knowledge of dolphin surfacing patterns, careful boat handling, precise timing, and skillful maneuvering on the bow of the boat. Despite the difficulty, our team was able to collect many breath samples that we will use to assess the pathogens (e.g., viruses, bacteria and fungi) this population has been exposed to. Ultimately, we aim to let the health of the dolphins tell us something about the health of their environment. Understanding how pollutants impact marine mammals and their habitat is essential to informing recovery efforts and monitoring ecosystem health.

A beautiful crisp morning spent with energetic Pacific white-sided dolphins off Vancouver Island.                                                 Photo credit: Dr Erin Ashe, 2018.

Next year, we are hoping to invite Alicia Amerson from Alimosphere to the Pacific Northwest to join us in the field again for a workshop on using UAS for noninvasive marine mammal research. We aim to offer this opportunity to other women in marine mammal science, and to our entire staff. We hope this will provide us with a new tool for collecting breath samples in the future, in a continuation of our efforts to use minimally invasive field research techniques. As we close out our field season, we  are so thankful for the support we have received to do this important work.

Southern Resident killer whale monitoring on San Juan Island

October 13, 2018

This summer, from mid-July to the end of September, we studied southern resident killer whale behavior under varying levels of boat and ship traffic. (This is an extension of our 2017 field season with OrcaSound). The Port of Vancouver has asked ships to slow down to less than 11 knots as they transit Haro Strait. Reducing ship speed can reduce shipping noise underwater, but slower speeds mean those ships take longer to transit the area. Working with Port of Vancouver and SMRU Consulting, we are exploring how whales navigate that trade-off between noise level and duration of exposure.

Do the whales find more salmon if they are exposed to a little bit of noise for long periods of time? Or is it better to get the noise over with quickly? 

Reducing noise is especially important because endangered southern resident killer whales (SRKW) feed in Haro Strait in the summer, and our work has shown that vessel noise disrupts killer whale foraging. While missing one meal might not seem like it would have long-lasting or population-level effects, Haro Strait is a noisy place, which may result cumulatively in many lost meals for the killer whales. We had our team on the western hillsides of San Juan Island all summer to track killer whales in an effort to find out if and how their behavior changes with the slower, quieter ships.

A ship transits Haro Strait by a family of southern resident killer whales. (PC Toby Hall). The theodolite crosshairs allow us to convert horizontal and vertical angles to estimates of latitude and longitude, knowing the cliff height.

To track these whales, we used an instrument called a theodolite. You may have seen them on construction sites or traffic surveys. A theodolite has a telescopic lens that we use to track killer whale movement. After setting a constant reference point, the theodolite can determine the angle between the reference point and the whale we’re looking at. It gets the vertical angle from a gravity-referenced level vector. A computer connected to the theodolite can use those two angles (along with the precise location and elevation of the theodolite) to estimate distances and fixed positions of objects on the ocean’s surface (whales, ships, etc). Your geometry teacher was right—this math does have real-world applications. And we can get all of this fine-scale information noninvasively, without another research boat confounding the effect we are trying to measure. This year, the developer of Pythagoras software generously shared code to let us integrate extremely high-resolution AIS data on the movement of ships, so we could automagically collect precise and accurate data on the ships, while having our expert observers concentrate on measuring the whales’ behavior.

In 2017, the killer whales were worryingly absent from the islands much of the summer, which left us with a small sample size. In fact, for the month of August 2017, the SRKWs were nowhere to be found. This year’s longer field season produced much more data. There were 29 days with whales present around San Juan Island. We had tracking stations set up in three locations along the west side of San Juan Island: County Park, Hannah Heights, and Cattle Point, which allowed us to get close to continuous tracks along Haro Strait. We are excited to analyze the data, which should allow us to determine more about killer whale behavior in the presence of these slower ships.

Video credit: Toby Hall

This work felt profoundly important this year, in a season riddled with heartbreaking news about the endangered southern residents. J35’s calf died shortly after being born, and the mother mourned the loss of her offspring by pushing around the carcass for 17 days. J50, the youngest individual in the southern resident population, was found to be critically malnourished. NOAA launched the first attempt to supplement a southern resident killer whale’s diet with additional fish. Unfortunately she has not been seen since September 7 and is presumed dead. It is abundantly clear than additional conservation effort is needed, and our team worked hard to make this field season count, both in the field and on the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.

This work wouldn’t have been possible without a super pod of a team. The Oceans Initiative team was led by Erin and Rob, and consisted of our employees Laurel Yruretagoyena, Natalie Mastick, and Laura Bogaard, as well as Toby Hall, Sarah Colosimo, Jess and Chris Newley, and Elizabeth Robinson, who provided additional field support.

Thank you, as always, for supporting our efforts to keep orca habitat clean, quiet, and full of salmon.

Please help us keep orca habitats clean, quiet, and full of fish

September 20, 2018



The critically endangered southern resident killer whale population now numbers 74 individuals. The ability of the population to recover is hindered by a perfect storm of threatsnot enough salmon, too much noise, and toxic chemicals affecting calf survival—but lack of access to salmon is at the eye of that storm.

We need to recover Chinook salmon stocks throughout the whales’ range. 

We support all efforts to do so. We support dam removal, where this will get more salmon into the environment. We applaud the recent announcement to reduce salmon fishing quotas until the whales recovery, which will reduce our competition with the whales. While we wait for those measures to take effect, we need your help to give the whales a fighting chance to find as many of those salmon as possible in a noisy ocean.

We need to give the whales a quiet place to hunt for salmon

Our work has shown that killer whales spend 18-25% less time feeding on salmon when boats are around than when they are undisturbed. We have found that the southern resident killer whale population needs 662 big, fat Chinook salmon each day. We have found that mothers with calves need 43% more calories, more salmon, than adult females without calves.

A protected area can help the whales if we put it in the right place. 

We have found that killer whales are more vulnerable to disturbance when they are feeding than when they are travelling from A to B. They also need more salmon. We have identified areas that whales use preferentially for feeding. (One is called Salmon Bank. We have a feeling the whales knew this before people did.) We need to bring together all dedicated datasets we can use to identify areas where the whales are finding salmon, so we can prioritize those for protection. Protecting key feeding areas is essential to protecting the whales.

Please support our efforts to keep orca habitat clean, quiet, and full of fat, wild salmon.

PS Thanks to our team, especially Toby Hall, for the great footage, and to our friends at SeaLegacy for help editing this video.

Our Vision for Recovering Killer Whales: A Clean, Quiet Ocean Full of Salmon

August 22, 2018

Southern resident killer whales in Haro Strait. Photo by Toby Hall

Southern resident killer whales in Haro Strait. Photo by Toby Hall

Southern resident killer whales are in decline.  Our recent population viability analysis on southern resident killer whales predicted that, if threats remained constant, it should take several decades for the population to decline from 80 to 75 whales. In fact, that decline took only three years. We fear that the decline is accelerating, and we may be reaching a tipping point.

By studying killer whales from land, we can measure their responses to noise without adding the noise of a research boat to the equation. We use noninvasive techniques to measure swimming speeds, breathing rates, and other behavior. Our work on both northern and southern resident orca has shown us that the whales spend 18-25% less time feeding in the presence of boats than in their absence.

We recently joined an international, interdisciplinary study to understand the relative importance of the three main threats to recovery in the endangered killer whale population. The whales are facing a perfect storm of threats–not enough salmon, too much noise, and too many toxic chemicals in their bodies–but lack of prey is at the eye of the storm. This research shows it will take 30% more big, fatty, Chinook salmon than we’ve seen on average over the last 40 years for the population to reach our recovery goals. That will take time, but we have to start now. Meanwhile, reducing noise and disturbance can help make it a little bit easier for whales to find the salmon we have now. In the coming months, we will be revisiting our study on identifying critical foraging areas in the Salish Sea and strengthening their protection.

One fish, two fish

August 11, 2017

Our Animal Counting Toolkit offers open-access data and tools to guide low-cost, small-boat surveys for marine wildlife

Our Animal Counting Toolkit offers open-access data and tools to guide low-cost, small-boat surveys for marine wildlife

Knowing how many animals are in a population is at the cornerstone of many conservation and management decisions. For whales, dolphins & porpoises, ship time to estimate abundance can be prohibitively expensive — often running into the tens of thousands of dollars each day.

We’ve just launched our Animal Counting Toolkit to share some of the lessons we’ve learned over the years in conducting low-cost, small boat surveys for marine mammals in coastal waters. It was a lot of fun to publish this work with our colleagues at University of St Andrews, NOAA, IUCN, CyberTracker, BlueWater GIS, and other NGOs and consulting companies. This is a gentle introduction to designing and conducting a survey to estimate abundance of marine wildlife. It is not a substitute for statistical training, but it should provide a good background for data collection. For data analysis, we strongly recommend joining the Distance Sampling web community and taking the Distance workshops at University of St Andrews

We published an open access paper introducing our Animal Counting Toolkit approach. Wherever possible, the approach prioritizes free software and tools. Our audience is the community of marine naturalists and scientists who may need a bit of guidance to ensure that their observations could be turned into a useful biodiversity monitoring program. We hope the Toolkit finds an audience among NGOs, grad students, coastal communities, and researchers working in countries where funding is severely limited. The US just passed a rule requiring countries to demonstrate that their fisheries are sustainable in terms of marine mammal bycatch. This rule affects $20 billion/year in seafood trade. It is driven in part by a need to level the playing field for US fisheries that have to comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and are competing with fisheries that are not MMPA-compliant. Used wisely, the new trade rule will use the purchasing power of the US market to create incentives to improve fisheries sustainability and transparency. But if it is imposed too harshly, and without funding for low-income countries to comply, the US risks penalizing countries that can least afford to take an economic hit. Our Animal Counting Toolkit was motivated in part by this new rule. We want to fill in important data gaps around the world, but we also see value in using this toolkit to help build local and regional capacity for countries to begin to do the kind of surveys that will be needed to demonstrate compliance with this new seafood trade rule. Our hope is to see countries actually improve sustainability of their fisheries, so that we reduce the number of marine mammals killed in fisheries while improving economic opportunities for people who earn their living from the sea.