Whale Update Seatalk

Dr Lauren McWhinnie – researcher, MEOPAR, UVIC
Mark Malleson – Whale Observer and Photographer
Saturna Island Marine Research and Education Society (SIMRES)
1.30pm May 20th at the Community Hall.

Despite the multitude of activities available on Saturna on a sunny Saturday afternoon, there was a large turnout for the SIMRES event in the Community Hall. More than 70 people crowded into the darkened hall to hear not one but two inspiring speakers talk about their passion for whales in this area. Both speakers know and love their whales. There is a glimmer of hope. Humpbacks are returning in increasing numbers – it is believed there are 20,000 humpbacks on the west coast, up from about 1,600 when whale hunting was banned in 1966.

The population of Transient (Bigg’s) Orcas is increasing every year – it correlates with cessation of seal culls – and the seal population itself has stabilised. However, this is balanced by the rather depressing decline in the numbers of Southern Resident Killer Whales - their reliance on a single food source (Chinook) is a risky strategy.

It was striking that a common thread for these talks - other than whales - was the positive impact of technology on our ability to gather information about the whales and their environment, to identify and try to mitigate the detrimental effects of human society on whales.

Dr Lauren McWhinnie’s focus is on marine acoustic patterns in order to establish the effect on whales. Whales echo locate to navigate and to find and track food and marine shipping noise interferes with their ability to do this.

Acoustic data from hydrophones (such as those managed by SIMRES, Saturna Island) are invaluable to Dr McWhinnie’s work especially when combined with Automatic Identification System (AIS) ship location data. However there are many smaller boats without AIS which makes it difficult to correlate volume of noise recorded with volume of marine traffic. Again technology has come to the rescue - a camera has been mounted on a conveniently located house on Cliffside Saturna to capture visual images which are combined with the acoustic data from the hydrophones to calibrate the relationship between noise and volume of marine traffic.

Mark Malleson began his observations and photography of whales using conventional film. He was encouraged to move to digital photography by Dr. John Ford a renowned cetacean researcher. Dr. Ford saw his photos and invited him onto research vessels and has collaborated with him and others in creating catalogues of the individual whales. The impact of digital photography – the number of photos taken, being able to quickly review and share the photos widely, cannot be overestimated.

Mark mentioned radio tagging of whales – in one instance this established that a particular whale was circumnavigating Vancouver Island every 2 weeks. Mark also described recent work done by Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard and his fellow researchers using drones to take aerial views so the dimensions of the whales are established at different points in the season and their breeding cycle. Seasonal variations in weight can be clearly seen – in some instances it may correlate with high calf mortality.

Dr McWhinnie by her own declaration is living her dream – she visited these waters as a child and saw the whales for the first time - this inspired her studies and her work till she found herself here as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Her research investigates the impact of marine noise on marine mammals. Dr McWhinnie began her talk by describing the classification of the Killer Whales into 3 ecotypes (Resident, Transient (or Bigg’s) and Offshore) and introduced her audience to the some of the 41 different communication calls they make. We were then challenged to identify Southern Resident pods, J, K or L, by listening to some of their calls. Interestingly, just as with any language, some vocalisations that were known in the past have disappeared – their language too is evolving.

The Killer Whales are identified by the shape of their dorsal fines and the saddle patch just behind the fin. Each pod forms a group who stay fairly strictly in that pod with the honourable exception of L87 “Onyx: who has proven very adaptable – his mother (in L pod) passed away and he move to K pod where he was adopted – his mother there passed away and he moved to J pod. With the demise of J2 “Granny,” the grand matriarch in J pod how Onyx will adapt this time is unknown.

Each pod has a number of families – and the males remain with their mothers for a long time. In most species the productive female is very important but for Killer Whales the older females play a pivotal role in guiding younger whales. Granny was the matriarch of J pod and when she died last year she is believed to have been over 100 years old.

There were 78 Southern Resident Killer Whales in 2016. Numbers are being negatively affected by an interconnected set of circumstances – legacy contaminants such as PCB’s which are concentrated in their fat and released to their young, a reduction in their only source of food – Chinook salmon, and marine noise which affects their ability to communicate, navigate and locate food. They echolocate by bouncing sounds off the swim ebladders of fish – with loud shipping traffic they are unable to locate food. Dr McWhinni spoke of propeller noise - it can be designed out but it is expensive to do so and has not been a focus for non-naval vessels to date.

Killer Whales have a 53% rate of neonatal mortality due to the contaminants and lack of food so their reproduction and survival rate is poor.

Dr. McWhinnie also described some of the mitigating strategies that are under way – Killer Whales are classified as species at risk, the DFO has a recovery strategy and an action plan. Her work plays a key role in collecting data to inform these strategies and actions.

She also showed us a map with the main shipping routes outlined according to volume of noise – not a pretty sight from a whale’s perspective as well as played recordings of noise levels from ships and asked us to pick out Orca vocalisations from the noise – we could not. Mark’s talk covered the history of whale observation on this coast and his close involvement with many well-known researchers at the forefront, such as Dr. John Ford and Graeme Ellis of the DFO Cetacean Research Program. Through his photos he showed us the beauty and diversity of the Killer Whales – Residents, Bigg’s and Coastal, as well as Humpbacks. He named his favourites – among them “Can-Opener” a male Californian Killer Whale, named for the shape of his dorsal fin, and BCY0324 “Big Mama” – a humpback who has given birth to at least six calves. Big Mama with her most recent calf was seen off East Point almost daily in the summer of 2016. We heard many anecdotes about the travels of the whales – being able to identify individual whales from photographs allows their location to be tracked. Mark wove many other interesting facts into his story – when Killer Whales have been feeding there often remains an oily sheen on the water and surprisingly the lingering smell of cucumber.

Mark was brought up locally in Victoria and through sailing came aware of and then passionately interested in whales. He estimates that he has spent approximately 3,800 days on the water and has had 912 encounters with whales. He worked his way up though boats of various sizes culminating in his current boat – an ex-police boat. His collaboration with Dr. John Ford and the Cetacean Research Program has allowed him to approach the whales as a researcher – i.e. closer than any whale watching vessels are allowed. His photos have formed the basis of whale identification catalogues for both Transient Killer Whales and humpbacks.

You can view his beautiful and informative photographs at

The event closed with refreshments and the questions and discussions continued. Do come to our next event Whale Tales, on Saturday June 17th at Thomson Park/Saturna Beach.

Photos and reporting by Mairead Boland

SEATALKS | Saturna Environmental Awareness Talks presented by Saturna Island Marine Research & Education Society | SIMRES