Written by Tessa Danelesko
If the opportunity to spend two weeks looking for whales in the middle of the Pacific Ocean arose, would you take it? For most people it would be a no-brainer, an automatic yes. Many would imagine a Jaques Cousteau-esque adventure on the high seas, forgetting (or choosing to ignore) the real possibility of perpetual seasickness or homesickness. Despite the risks, I found myself aboard the CCGS John P. Tully last month. For two weeks I was invited to work with a team of scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Pacific Biological Station to document marine mammals in the North Pacific, a remote, mysterious, and beautiful part of the world few people get the chance to visit.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been surveying British Columbian waters for marine mammals since 2002. Thousands of hours have been spent collecting important information on where and when marine mammals are spending time, in both offshore and coastal environments. A specific data collection protocol and line transect model (following a specific path to ensure even coverage of a survey area) are used to try and locate marine mammals during these surveys.
The result of these efforts can help scientists understand more about habitat use and plan recovery strategies for species at risk. This work is essential for the conservation of marine mammals in B.C., especially many of the large baleen whales which spend much of their time offshore, an environment difficult to access and study.
Here I recount some of the memorable experiences I had during this summer’s marine mammal survey.
Forget Waldo, where are the whales?
It’s astounding how small blue and fin whales, which can grow to 30m and 22m in length, respectively, look against the vast abyss of the North Pacific. Armed with a pair of binoculars, myself and the other science crew members would work in shifts from 5:30am until sundown at 10:00pm, scanning the horizon and surrounding waters for cetacean activity. From the “Monkey’s Island”, a high point of the ship above the bridge, many cetaceans were spotted. For most sightings, cetaceans were noticed first by their blows, and then identified by species by using powerful binoculars, affectionately referred to as “the big eyes”.
Keeping track of where and when offshore cetaceans are found can shed light on population dynamics and habitat use by these animals, many of which little is known about. We tend to understand more about coastal species because they are generally found in areas close to human settlements and are therefore much easier to access and thus research. Regardless of where they can be found, for both offshore and coastal species, the more we know about them, the easier it becomes to focus on the conservation of these animals and their habitat.
Primary objective: find your footing
The John P. Tully is a dedicated offshore oceanographic science vessel operated by the Canadian Coast Guard, that spends much of her time exploring the open Pacific Ocean. With the territory often comes large swell, sudden changes in weather, and strong winds, making for a very unsteady boat at times. Trying to stare at objects far off the horizon can become very tricky in such a situation, and I experienced the joy (pain) of using binoculars in big swell while on the Monkey’s Island, one of the highest, and therefore rockiest, parts of the ship.
I also learned that putting on a pair of socks (seated or standing), pouring from a pitcher, and exercising using a rowing machine (which for once felt realistic) are all activities that for entertainment sake, should always be attempted aboard a rocky vessel.
Unknown to science
There’s something special about the field – and I know all biologists feel it. Whether it’s the chance to discover, explore, document, or reveal, the field offers the opportunity for many of us, who spend the majority of our working lives in front of a computer, to remember why we chose the line of work we did.
One of the most exciting opportunities that can arise from being in the field is the chance to describe something that was previously unknown to science. In other words, biologists think it’s pretty cool to see and describe something for the first time.
This trip, the science crew got to do just that, as we spotted several new groups of killer whales in offshore waters. Two of the three “unknown to science” groups were identified as Bigg’s and one as offshores (B.C. is home to three distinct killer whale “ecotypes”, resident, Bigg’s, and offshore. Read more about these killer whale communities here).
It becomes exceptionally important to obtain high resolution identification photographs of these never-before-seen individuals. Biopsy samples, obtained using a dart that collects a skin and blubber sample the size of a pencil eraser, are also valuable to collect. A single sample can provide a wealth of genetic information on family groupings.
Researchers can apply for special permits to gain access to the whales from smaller boats that can be safely maneuvered alongside the animals. Using powerful cameras with lenses the length of a human arm, researchers document details of the saddle patch and dorsal fin, features that can be used to identify individual killer whales. This task is difficult even in calm weather, and these “unknown to science” individuals had likely never before been alongside a small vessel, which seems to explain their wariness when approached.
These sightings were made more exciting by the fact that killer whales in British Columbia are some of the best studied animals in the world, so it was absolutely thrilling to observe individuals who had never been catalogued. Identifying individual killer whales can help researchers estimate population sizes, understand movement patterns and provide insight into social structure and birth and death rates.
Lost and Found
Aside from the diverse array of cetaceans we spotted, spending time on offshore means there’s a good chance of spotting many different, and often otherworldly, species and objects.
One of the neatest events I observed happened just before 6:00am one day, when I witnessed a large splash off the front of the ship. Upon looking down, I saw a large, smooth body, with a big, vertical fin sticking off the back end. It took me a second (after having cetacean identification on the brain 24/7) to comprehend what I had seen when it dawned on me – I had just witnessed a shark breach out of the water! It’s difficult to say what species it was as the encounter was so brief, but my guess is it was a blue shark (find out more about the sharks of British Columbia and how to report sightings here).
Other species of note we spotted were Mola mola (an odd looking offshore species of fish), fur and elephant seals, buoy barnacles (a goose barnacle that constructs its own float), and copious amounts of Velella velella, a type of free-floating hydrozoan that uses a small stiff sail-like structure to move over the surface of the sea.
Also of note were some non-living objects: glass floats. Glass floats, used in many of the world’s oceans as a means of keeping fishing nets afloat, were used from the mid 1800s until they were replaced by plastic counterparts. The floats are now collectible items, coveted by beachcombers, mariners, and collectors.
Glass floats can be found washed ashore, but many will spend decades bobbing at the ocean’s surface. I was told that typically the crew would find one glass ball a trip, but this time around the record would be set: we found 5 large glass floats during our two week voyage. Each was carefully cleaned and then raffled off to crew members (although many were given back to the person who spotted them, as is sometimes tradition).
The best type of school
As a first time marine mammal observer, the trip aboard the Tully was an incredible learning experience. I am so thankful for the opportunity to have been invited to work alongside such a talented science crew, hone my cetacean identification skills, and observe species I had only ever seen in pictures. I wish to give my sincere thanks to Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Pacific Biological Station team for an incredible experience. I highly recommend adventures on the high seas!