Cetacean Research in B.C.

Key Research Projects

Long-term Monitoring of Killer Whale Populations in British Columbia

The world’s longest continuous study of killer whales – and one of the longest on any animal species – has been underway in British Columbia for over 40 years. The project is a unique cooperative effort of marine biologists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Vancouver Aquarium, the University of British Columbia, the Center for Whale Research, OrcaLab, and a host of other institutions. At least 18 graduate students have earned Masters or PhD degrees based on their involvement. Photo-identification is at the core of the project and makes it possible to track the lives of all of the more than 500 killer whales living along the British Columbian coast. Other important techniques used include acoustic analysis of calls, and analysis of DNA from minute skin samples. Drs. Lance Barrett-Lennard, Holly Fearnback, and John Durban are assessing the body condition of killer whales using a technique called photogrammetry. Using a hexacopter drone to take photos of killer whales from above, researchers are able to monitor changes in health and condition of individual whales. This technique will hopefully become a long-term monitoring tool that will help identify when whales are experiencing nutritional stress, and will help inform fisheries management recommendations.

Humpback Whale Population Monitoring

Once abundant in coastal British Columbia, humpback whales were driven close to extinction by commercial whaling in the early part of the last century. For many years, sighting a humpback in B.C. waters was a rare event. However, ongoing field studies involving Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and numerous other institutions, are revealing that humpbacks are making a comeback in the province. Like killer whales, humpback whales can be individually identified from natural pigmentation patterns and nicks or scars on the underside of the tail flukes. Comparisons of humpback whale ‘mug shots’ with photos taken by researchers in other areas are helping researchers understand the whales’ migration patterns to feeding areas in Alaska and breeding grounds in Hawaii and Mexico, and to estimate a population size for B.C. humpback whales. SPLASH (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpbacks) represents one of the largest international collaborative studies of any whale population ever conducted. Fisheries and Oceans Canada maintained a coast-wide catalogue of humpback whales until 2010. Since then, many NGOs along our coast have continued with cataloguing efforts, including the Marine Mammal Research Program’s North Coast Cetacean Research Initiative. Since 2016, the Marine Mammal Research Program has been using hexacopter drones to collect “snot” samples from the blow of humpback whales in order to monitor population health.

Researchers from Ocean Wise’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute, NOAA, and SR3 are using hexacopter drones to collect blow samples of humpback whales.

Until 2010, Fisheries and Oceans Canada maintained a coast-wide identifications catalogue of humpbacks in B.C. Presently, conservation organizations across the province are continuing with the cataloguing efforts.

Researchers continuously monitor killer whale populations by taking identification photos.  Here, northern resident A50 is seen with her offspring, A72 and A84.

Cetacean Research Programs in B.C.

Marine Mammal Research Program

The Marine Mammal Research Program is run by an eleven-person team at the Coastal Ocean Research Institute – an initiative of Ocean Wise, a non-profit conservation organization located in Vancouver, B.C. The Research Program consists of a main office in Vancouver, a Conservation Genetics Lab in West Vancouver and a North Coast office in Prince Rupert, B.C. Since the mid-1980s, the Marine Mammal Research Program has conducted conservation-oriented research on killer whales, belugas and other marine mammals. The Program’s particular strengths are in cetacean distribution and abundance, acoustic behaviour, population genetics and, most recently, photogrammetric monitoring of health and condition. Much of this research is funded by the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program, which raises funds through symbolic adoptions of B.C.’s killer whales.

The Marine Mammal Research Program is also the home of the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, one of Canada’s longest and most successful citizen science programs. Since 1999, this program has collected opportunistic sightings of whales, dolphins, porpoises and sea turtles from coastal citizens to better inform researchers about the distribution, relative abundance and habitat use of these threatened and endangered species.

Personnel include our Marine Mammal Research Scientist and Director Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard; Arctic Research Scientist Dr. Valeria Vergara; Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program Coordinator and Research Biologists Brittany Visona and Meghan Moore; Conservation Genetics Lab Coordinator and Research Biologist Carla Crossman; Conservation Genetics Research Scientist Allyson Miscampbell; BC Cetacean Sightings Network Coordinator Jessica Torode; North Coast Initiative Coordinators Karina Dracott and Caitlin Birdsall; Research Assistant Chad Nordstrom; and Arctic Research Assistant Marie-Ana Mikus.

Click here for a list of publications.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada-Cetacean Research Program

The Cetacean Research Program at Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo has been a hub for cetacean research since the early 1970s, when the late Dr. Michael Bigg first started his ground-breaking work on killer whale population biology. Their current field studies are focused on assessing the conservation status of killer whales, humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, sei whales, and North Pacific right whales. These studies involve a variety of field methodologies, including photo-identification using natural markings, ship-based visual surveys, and remote underwater acoustic monitoring.

Research projects include long-term monitoring of killer whale populations , sea turtle occurrence and distribution in British Columbia, monitoring of humpback whale populations in British Columbia, acoustic communication in killer whales, social evolution in killer whales based on acoustic communication, foraging behaviour of killer whales, vessel-cetacean collisions, and assessment of the conservation status of marine mammals and sea turtles listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.  It is also responsible for the coordination of incident response for distressed or dead cetaceans, pinnipeds, sea otters, and sea turtles.

Marine Mammal Research Unit (UBC)

The North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium is undertaking a long-term program of research on marine mammals and their interactions with fisheries, other species and oceanographic conditions in the North Pacific Ocean and Eastern Bering Sea. Member universities include the University of Alaska, the University of British Columbia, the University of Washington, and Oregon State University. The Consortium is administered by the Marine Mammal Research Unit at UBC.

Click here for a list of publications.

The Whale Research Lab (UVic)

The Geography Department at the University of Victoria has two research groups that are involved in cetacean research in B.C. The Whale Research Lab focuses on community ecology of grey whales and their habitat on the west coast of Vancouver Island, using primarily boat-based surveys, remote sensing and GIS analysis. The Society of Ecological and Coastal Research (SEACR) is an intern-based program that assists trained researchers with their work on marine mammal studies out of their Clayoquot Sound field office.

Click here for a list of publications.

Marine Education and Research Society (MERS)

MERS is a charity organization dedicated to promoting conservation and understanding of marine ecosystems through scientific research, environmental education, and marine wildlife response.  Current research includes entanglement rates for humpback whales in B.C., reducing vessel-strike risk for humpback whales, minke whale acoustics and habitat use, and energetic and prey requirements of humpback whales. 

OrcaLab

OrcaLab is a land-based whale research station in northern Vancouver Island, focusing on non-invasive research and conservation efforts for killer whales. The work of OrcaLab is centered around the philosophy that it is possible to study wild animals without interfering with their lives or habitat. A network of hydrophones and underwater video cameras positioned around the killer whales’ core habitat helps to monitor their movements year round.

Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Raincoast conducts boat-based surveys of British Columbia’s coastal waters, to document the presence of marine mammals and seabirds in the waters between Vancouver Island and Dixon Entrance, including Hecate Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait and several representative inlets along the coast. Much of htier research focuses on ecological linkages between cetaceans, fisheries, bird populations, and terrestrial ecosystems along British Columbia’s coastline.

Pacific Wildlife Foundation

The Pacific Wildlife Foundation is a non-profit coastal and marine research and education society that inspires an appreciation for objective scientific research and conservation of the ocean. Cetacean research programs include humpback whale photo-identification sampling which occurs annually in Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Canada, both through dedicated surveys by Dr. Jim Darling of PWLF, other researchers and contributions from whale watching operations in the region.

Cetacealab (North Coast Cetacean Society)

Cetacealab is a remote, land based whale research station situated on Gil Island along the north coast of British Columbia, Canada. Researchers monitor killer whale and humpback whale populations using acoustic monitoring and photo-identification.

Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society

Strawberry Isle Marine Research Society is a registered charity based in Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island.  They conduct research on marine eocsystems in Clayoquot Sound, establish long-term monitoring of marine life in the area, promote public awareness of marine life, and encourage public involvement.  Their Build-A-Whale program is an interactive program where students assist in the construction of the skeleton of an offshore killer whale.

Pacific Wild

In partnership with the Heiltsuk First Nation, Pacific Wild has installed six hydrophone stations to monitor changes in ambient noise and evaluate potential effects of increased vessel traffic within the Great Bear Rainforest marine areas. The hydrophones are also used to track movements and activities of cetaceans in the area.

Salmon Coast Field Station

Salmon Coast is a non-profit conservation organization and a hub for coastal research. It is located in Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis territory, deep in the Broughton Archipelago. Salmon Coast supports innovative research, public education, community outreach, and ecosystem awareness to achieve lasting conservation measures for the lands and waters of the Broughton and the surrounding area. Station users record all marine mammal sightings and share information with the BC Cetacean Sightings Network. Researchers also send killer whale and humpback photos to local researchers to add to identification catalogues, thereby enriching local knowledge on the habitat use and life histories of these fascinating animals.

Salmon Coast Field Station

Cetacealab

Orcalab