Research biologist Sarah Patton shares her memorable experience teaching Ocean Bridge students aboard the Providence, including a rare encounter with hybrid porpoises!

A day in the life of a marine biologist is not always filled with bow-riding porpoise, waves, sun, inspiring people, and tall ships….but every now and again, those magical days come along. On October 15th, I was invited aboard the tall ship Providence to teach a group of young ocean ambassadors about Pacific coast marine mammal ecology. The setting was exceptional- the sun was out, the air was crisp, and the seas were calm. We started and ended the day on beautiful Saturna Island supported by its generous residents, including staff from the Saturna Island Marine Research and Education Society (SIMRES).

The view from the bow of the Providence

We sailed between the beautiful gulf islands, surrounded by harbour seals sunning themselves on rocks, cormorants diving for fish, bald eagles perched high atop trees, and California sea lions swimming in search of prey. We were about to turn around for the day when a group of Dall’s porpoise caught our attention. Within minutes, there were a dozen or more Dall’s porpoise bowriding the Providence. To add an extra thrill, the group included not one but two Dall’s-harbour porpoise hybrids, Most often, these hybrids are the the offspring of a Dall’s porpoise  female and a harbour porpoise  male. Typically, their colouration is similar to a harbour porpoise, but they travel with and behave much more like a Dall’s porpoise.  While harbour porpoises are solitary, elusive, and tend to avoid boats, Dall’s porpoises are gregarious and will approach vessels to bow ride.  For nearly half an hour we watched the group of porpoises surface beside us as we laying the hammock suspended from the bowsprit.  It was a perfect end to a magical day.

A hybrid porpoise (left) and Dall’s porpoise (right) bowriding.

It was a great thrill and honour to teach this group of exceptional young Canadians, and I’m sure they will continue to innovate and do great things in their home communities, in Canada and abroad. To learn more about how you can get involved with the Ocean Bridge program, you can visit To learn more about the Good Ship Providence, you can visit and to learn more about Saturna Island and SIMRES, please visit and

Being a marine biologist can be difficult job at times!



Crossman, C.A., Barrett-Lennard, L.G., and Taylor, E.B. 2014. Population structure and intergenetic hybridization in harbor porpoises, Phocena phocena in British Columbia, Canada. Endangered Species Research. 26: 1-12.

Willis, P.M., Crespi, B.J., Dill, L.M., Baird, R.W., and Hanson, M.B. 2004. Natural hybridization between Dall’s porpoises (Phocoenoides dalli) and harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena). Canadian Journal of Zoology. 82: 828-834.

About the author:

Sarah Patton is a Research Biologist and Coordinator of the Southern Vancouver Island Cetacean Research Initiative at the Marine Mammal Research Program. Since the mid-1980s, the Marine Mammal Research Program has conducted conservation-oriented research on killer whales, belugas, and other marine mammals. Currently, Sarah’s main focus is the development of the WhaleReport Alert System (WRAS), a tool that uses real-time sightings reported to the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network  to inform large commercial vessel mariners of whales in their vicinity so that they can take mitigation measures to reduce the risk of disturbance or collision.

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