Telling stories about wildlife populations, one photograph at a time

July 09, 2017

Guest post from our newest team member, Natalie Mastick

“I look at pictures of dolphins all day,” is my most common answer when asked what I do for work.


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.

It’s an over-simplified statement, albeit accurate, and it usually leads to many follow-up questions. The most frequent being “Why?” That’s a fair question. I then proceed to explain how by looking at photos of the dorsal fins of dolphins, I can identify individuals, which can be used in calculating population estimates and survival rates. I am usually surprised by the awe that this explanation inspires, as I am somewhat numb to the task after several months of photo analysis. “You can really tell dolphins apart like that?” They have a point; photo-identification is quite remarkable when you think about it.

Photo-identification (photo-ID for short) is a non-invasive way to study marine mammal populations. It’s been used for both cetaceans (dolphins and whales) and pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), and requires a high-resolution photo of each individual. Photo-ID is an effective way to determine individuals based on coloration, markings, scars, fin shape, nicks and notches. For humpback whales, the underside of the fluke is the most recognizable feature, which is can be photographed as the whale dives. For dolphins, one of the most recognizable features is an individual’s dorsal fin, visible as the dolphin breathes at the surface.

I have worked on several projects that use photo-ID, including a long-term study of bottlenose dolphins in Florida, humpback whale population analysis in Antarctica, and currently, a long-term study of Pacific white-sided dolphins in British Columbia with Oceans Initiative. To accomplish this work takes three major steps: photographing wild dolphins, processing the photos, and then looking for matches between the photos.

Oceans Initiative has been taking photos of these dolphins since 2007, which is not an easy feat. Pacific white-sided dolphin are fast and can often travel in large pods of hundreds of animals. Erin, Rob, and their dedicated field team have a ton of experience taking photos of these animals, which provided me with a hearty collection of over 10,000 photos to process. One by one, I went through and determined the quality of each photo. Obviously when photographing hundreds of dolphins quickly surfacing and diving, not every photo will be useable for a photo-ID catalog. I found the photos in which fins were in focus, parallel with the camera, and mostly visible (not partly submerged or covered by water or other dolphins) and then looked carefully at each fin to determine its distinctiveness.

It never ceases to amaze me how different dolphin fins can look. A dolphin can have a single little notch at the base of its fin that makes it completely distinct from the rest of the dolphins seen that day. The combination of scarring, nicks from other dolphins, entanglements, killer whales, and normal wear and tear provide an endless permutation of unique fins. I visually assessed each high-quality photo and determined if the fin was not distinctive, somewhat distinctive by temporary marking or discoloration, moderately distinctive, or highly distinctive. Moderately and highly distinctive fins can be used to identify an individual over longer temporal scales.

Once the fins were scored for distinctiveness, it was then my job to match them to other fins within that encounter, and lastly between encounters from that season. When matching between a single encounter, it’s a lot like a game of memory. You know you’ve seen that fin before, you just need to remember where in order to match them. Once the fins are matched within an encounter, I compile a “best of” folder with all of the identifiable individuals observed in that area to match to the other encounters.

When you include the variable of time, then it becomes more like a game of 6 differences, in which you need to spot what’s changed in a fin over time. Except instead of having two fins that you know are just slightly different versions of the same fin that you’re comparing side-by-side, you need to look through the entire catalog to determine if a fin has actually changed since last identified or if it’s a new individual. Though that’s a fun challenge, it is unlikely that a fin changes much over the course of a few weeks, which means matching fins across encounters is a little easier than across years.

To match fins across encounters, I compile all of the moderately and highly distinctive fins from each encounter and look for individuals seen more than once. The 2016 field season provided over 1000 identifiable photos, which were then compared to each other to determine if there were matches. This is where your imagination comes into play. Looking at these fins enough, you start to see shapes in the nicks and notches and fin shape. There was a fin with a distinctive nick towards the top that looked like the profile of a person yelling. There was another that looked remarkably like a bicep. There was one photo in which a fin caught the light just right and looked like it was reflecting back the shape of a storm trooper.

Reading that back sounds like I’ve kind of lost it. Looking at fins enough might do that to you! But overall, being able to put a minimum number to the dolphins seen last season (think about all the dolphins we couldn’t photograph and the fins that weren’t distinctive enough to match!) is incredibly rewarding, and completing each step of the processing myself was oddly satisfying. I’m hoping we can get a comparable number of photos in 2017, and look forward to seeing some familiar fins in the field.

Natalie Mastick


June 05, 2017
A family of orca (killer whales) works together to find food off northern Vancouver Island. (Photo taken under research permit, zoomed and cropped.)

A family of orca (killer whales) works together to find food off northern Vancouver Island. (Photo taken under research permit, zoomed and cropped.)


One of the things we admire most about orca or killer whale cultures is their commitment to teamwork. They work together to find food, coordinate travel, and thrive in a cold, dark environment where prey are easier to find using sound than light. These whales serve as a great template for people working together to tackle some of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including unsustainable fishing, climate change, and ocean noise. These are challenging times.

As we enter World Oceans Week, we are inspired by the team at Sea Legacy, including the amazing conservation photographers, Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen. In words and in deed, they show that we can accomplish more #together than we can as separate voices. Taking a cue from Paul and Cristina, we’d like to offer the Oceans Initiative team three ways to help during Oceans Week.

  1. Spread the word. We do “use-inspired science” to guide effective conservation of marine wildlife. By definition, you are a key part of the research questions we ask, and what we do with the information we produce. We can’t do this without you. We’d love to hear from you. Please comment on this blog, or share it with your friends. Sign up for our newsletter. We never share lists, and we won’t fill up your inbox. Encourage your friends to like us on Facebook, and actually click the “follow” button to see what we post. We’d love to hear from you on Facebook, because the platform lends itself to back and forth conversations. Our Twitter feed is interactive, and light, but focuses on emerging science on marine conservation and solutions. We have a large and growing audience on Instagram, and we’d love to see you there. These sound like trivial things, but they matter. Many funders use social media metrics as an indicator of a nonprofit’s reach. Please help us spread the word about our work.
  2. Donate frequent flyer miles. Aeroplan, Air Canada‘s frequent flyer program, is matching all donations of Aeroplan miles 1:1, up to 500,000 miles, this week. Your donated miles help in many ways. The flights get our team to the field, bring top scientists and aspiring young biologists to join us, let us bring our skills to other countries to help build capacity in lower-income countries, and ultimately, to take the information to the meetings where important conservation decisions are made. Aeroplan even offsets the carbon footprint for every flight we redeem through this special program.
  3. Invest in our work. As much as we try to do more with less and be good stewards of charitable dollars, it still takes money to do the conservation work we do. Every dollar made to our partner charity in Canada enters us in a draw to win $10,000 from CanadaHelps. Every dollar is directed to the dolphin conservation project in British Columbia. American taxpayers can receive a tax receipt for any donation made through our website.

Thank you so much for your help. We are starting to see some real-world conservation successes emerging from our work on ocean noise and marine mammal bycatch in fisheries. Thank you for allowing us to do that work.

Happy Earth Day!

April 22, 2017


Today, 22 April 2017, marks the 48th time that people around the world celebrate Earth Day. Since 1970, the effects of climate change have become undeniable, but the environmental news is not all bad. The voices of 1970s environmental grassroots movement were heard, and that public pressure led the USA to pass some of the most powerful legislation anywhere to protect endangered species and their habitat. Given our focus, it’s not surprising that we see the Marine Mammal Protection Act as one of the best examples of grassroots movements leading to real-world conservation gains. Over the last few decades, consumer demand has shifted fisheries practices to the extent that “dolphin-safe tuna” is now the industry standard in North America and Europe. Similar efforts drove the Save the Whales movement, which led to a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. We’re not naive, but we are inspired by #OceanOptimism.

After every public lecture we give, people ask how they can help.

People often share feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness in the face of global losses of biodiversity and wilderness. The paradox is that collectively, we hold the power to influence policy, and with every purchase we make, we have the power to influence markets and industrial practices. We cast a vote every time we buy – or choose not to buy – a product. And we are struck by the energy in today’s March For Science events around the world. The people have spoken, and they want policy to be based on reliable evidence. Our tagline, Science for the Sea, tells you that we share that view.

Here are some examples of the power of consumer choice that have inspired us lately. This is not an exhaustive list, and it draws heavily from personal experience. When have you “voted” or made a sustainable choice with your dollar? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

What are we missing? Please share your Earth Day tips with us.

Notes from the field: guest post from Laura Bogaard

September 25, 2016
Humpback whale flukes with killer whale rake marks (PC: Laura Bogaard, for Oceans Initiative)

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.


Laura Bogaard

September 24, 2016



Laura deploying a CPOD -- a high-frequency recorder that detects the echolocation clicks of killer whales, dolphins and porpoise.

Laura deploying a CPOD — a high-frequency recorder that detects the echolocation clicks of killer whales, dolphins and porpoise.

Molly Brown

Molly Brown Dog being helpful

Doug searching for dolphins

Doug searching for dolphins

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.