The dolphin days of summer

August 27, 2016

Our team has arrived in the Broughton Archipelago and we are poised to carry out our dolphin photo-ID, health assessment, and disturbance studies. This year, we are thrilled to have an amazing team Laura Bogaard and Doug Sandilands. Laura, a student from Quest University, is our newest research assistant. Doug Sandilands has been working with the incredible team at The Center for Coastal Studies in Cape Cod as part of their large whale disentanglement program. As you all know, Doug is one of a kind and we are so happy to have his help.

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.

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.

Which raindrop caused the flood?

April 30, 2016

KW_seiner RWA 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.

Our newest research proposes a way around it.  Start at the end.  Start by asking how much impact on endangered whale populations that our laws allow, and work backwards to calculate how much perturbation (noise, competition with fisheries) it would take to get there.

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

Counting and protecting Amazon river dolphins

March 12, 2016

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 ‎conservation‬ science‬ is knowing whether a species is increasing or decreasing.

We partnered with scientists at Fundación Omacha, University of St Andrews & NOAA to 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.

Want to learn more?

Please check out our video describing the project and showing the animals swimming through flooded rainforest (underwater footage courtesy BBC Natural History Unit).  Science Magazine wrote a news article describing our work — a first for our team.  And of course, let us know if you’d like to read the original, technical paper published in Biological Conservation

Quiet(er) Marine Protected Areas

September 25, 2015


New research identifies areas that are important for many marine mammal species in BC, but still quiet

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.

UPDATE: Check out a nice interpretation of this study from Mongabay.

Happy World Oceans Day!

June 08, 2015


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.

If you prefer, please consider donating Aeroplan miles to our charitable pooling account with Aeroplan’s Beyond Miles program.  That allows us to cut costs and direct more funds toward our mission.

Please tell us how you’re already celebrating World Oceans Day.  What are you doing to celebrate the ocean today?  We’d love to hear from you.

Co-founder wins prestigious Pew Fellowship to protect whales

February 24, 2015

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.

This award makes it possible for our organizations (Oceans Research and Conservation Society, a registered charity in Canada, and Oceans Initiative, a nonprofit in Washington state) to take on much more logistically challenging projects, with a bigger team.  We’re looking forward to taking on more bright students like Inge van der Knaap, who blew us away with her pilot study last year on the effects of noise on wild Pacific salmon, herring and rockfish.  Of course, to do so, we’re gonna need a bigger boat!

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.



It’s a fish-eat-fish world: does noise affect them?

February 17, 2015

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.

Inge and Sofya


Happy Valentine’s Day! Show some love for the ocean

February 15, 2015

lonely whale

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.

It’s hard to think of a better poster child (or whale) for isolation than the lonely, 52 Hertz whale.  Please consider supporting this wonderful effort to learn more about this lonely whale.  Keep up to date on their efforts by following them on Twitter.

Happy #GivingTuesday!

December 02, 2014

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.

If you prefer to support the arts, or health care, or poverty alleviation, there are many other great charities on the CanadaHelps page, too.  CanadaHelps issues tax receipts for registered Canadian charities, so small nonprofits can spend more time on their mission and less time on administration.

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.  


Killer whale mother and her calf

Killer whale mother and her calf

Saving the whales by saving their habitat

November 09, 2014
3rd International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas

3rd International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas

It’s not rocket science. Much of the work we do involves conserving whale & dolphin populations by identifying the habitats most critical to their survival, and keeping the habitat quiet, and full of fish.

We’ve published extensively on the value of Marine Protected Areas to survival of endangered killer whale populations.  This week, we’re thrilled to participate in the 3rd International Conference on Marine Mammal Protected Areas in Adelaide.  Rob is chairing a workshop on extreme challenges in marine mammal conservation, when critical habitats occur in heavily industrialized coastlines.

This is a topic that consumes much of our time, because the killer whales we study live in habitats that have noisy shipping lanes running through them.  The dolphins and humpback whales generally live in quieter habitats in BC, but few laws exist to keep the habitat quiet, and proposed industrial activities have the potential to make quiet habitats noisy.

Thanks so much for your support for our charity.  We couldn’t do this work without your support.  If you like the work we do, please share our work through your social networks, or consider making a donation.