Cetacean Research in BC


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 Centre 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.

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. This research has been supported in part for the past ten years through the generous donations of Langara Fishing Lodge.


The B.C. Cetacean Sighting Network is a collaboration of the Vancouver Aquarium and Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The Network is based in the Vancouver Aquarium’s Cetacean Research Lab and works closely with researchers from DFO’s Cetacean Research Program.

Vancouver Aquarium – Cetacean Research Lab

The Vancouver Aquarium has a long tradition of research on cetaceans both at the Aquarium and in the wild. The Cetacean Research Lab is directed by Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, Senior Marine Mammal Research Scientist, and hosts numerous research associates, research assistants, graduate students and volunteers. Much of the research on wild killer whale populations is funded by the BC Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program.

Current research projects include:

-Long-term monitoring of killer whale populations in British Columbia, focusing on the central coast region

-North Pacific killer whale project – Gulf of Alaska, Aleutian Islands and False Pass killer whales (with North Gulf Oceanic Society)

-Killer whale mating patterns, social systems and population structure based on DNA analysis

-Photo-identification and feeding ecology of Pacific white-sided dolphins in the Strait of Georgia (with Research Associate Kathy Heise)

-Pacific white-sided dolphin echolocation and net avoidance (with Research Associate Kathy Heise)

-Harbour porpoise population structure and hybridization (with graduate student Carla Crossman)

Fisheries and Oceans Canada – Cetacean Research Program at the Pacific Biological Station

The DFO Cetacean Research Program at DFO’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. Dr John Ford is the head of the Program, along with killer whale researcher Graeme Ellis and numerous other research biologists, technicians and co-op students.

Research projects include:

– Long-term monitoring of killer whale populations in British Columbia (Northern resident photo catalogue, Bigg’s (transient) Killer Whale photo catalogue )

– Monitoring of humpback whale populations in British Columbia (Humpback whale photo catalog)

– Acoustic communication in killer whales, including social calls and group-specific vocal dialects

– Social evolution of killer whale populations based on acoustic communication

– Foraging specializations of fish-eating ‘resident’ killer whales

– Assessment of the conservation status of marine mammals and turtles listed under Canada’s Species-at-Risk Act including the North Pacific right whale, blue whale, sei whale, fin whale, humpback whale, killer whale, grey whale, harbour porpoise, sea otter and leatherback turtle.

– Coordination of incident response for cetaceans, pinnipeds, sea otters and sea turtles

At DFO’s Institute for Ocean Sciences (IOS), Dr Peter Ross studies toxicology and environmental contamination in marine mammals, focusing on killer whales and harbour seals.


Numerous other organizations also participate in research and conservation efforts for cetaceans and sea turtles in B.C., and work collaboratively with the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network.

Animal Health Centre (Dr Stephen Raverty)
Dr Stephen Raverty is a board certified veterinary pathologist with the British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture and Land in Abbotsford. Dr Raverty participates in the post-mortem examination of stranded marine mammals off the coast of B.C. and has a keen interest in infectious diseases.

North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium
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. Cetacean research includes work on killer whaleshumpback whalesharbour porpoise, and multi-species studies.

University of Victoria (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 Marine Protected Areas Research Group focuses on all aspects of the establishment and management of marine protected areas (MPAs)within the context of integrated coastal management. In B.C., research is focused on grey whale conservation within MPAs, and the effects of wildlife watching on marine mammals.

Simon Fraser University (SFU)
Researchers in the School of Resource and Environmental Management (REM) integrate ideas from wildlife ecology, landscape ecology, conservation biology and fisheries biology and management to address questions on environmental conservation and resource management. In the Fisheries Science and Management Research Group research is focused on improving the understanding and management of fish populations through research on marine and freshwater systems, including not only fishes, but also marine mammals, invertebrates, and their habitats.

OrcaLab is a land-based whale research station in northern Vancouver Island, focussing 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.

Raincoast Research Society
Raincoast Research conducts year-round research in the Broughton Archipelago, in the northern Vancouver Island region. Research focuses on killer whales, humpback whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins, and the effects of aquaculture on the local ecosystem. Raincoast Research is a partner in the Salmon Coast Field Station.

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 Island Research Society
The Strawberry Isle Research Society conducts primary research and monitoring of various marine ecosystems in Clayoquot Sound, based in Tofino. Cetacean research focusses on killer whales and grey whales.


Fisheries and Oceans Canada (Cetacean Research Program)
DFO researchers are investigating the patterns of seasonal occurrence and distribution of leatherback turtles in BC waters. Historical and recent sightings have been compiled and are being analysed, ship-based and aerial surveys have ongoing, and threats are being monitored through the reporting of dead and distressed animals.

University of British Columbia (UBC)
Researchers in the Department of Zoology and the UBC Animal Care Center are studying the bioenergetics (energy use/allocation) of leatherback sea turtles to examine how resource availability, abundance and climate change affect their growth rate and metabolic rate – the 2 most important factors for understanding a species and for managing a species on the brink of extinction.