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Ocean Wise’s Groundbreaking Study to Reveal Winter Secrets of BC’s Iconic Whales 

Ocean Wise has embarked on a groundbreaking study to unravel the mysteries of winter behavior and ecology of BC’s beloved whale populations, addressing a critical knowledge gap essential for their protection and recovery. 

The Salish Sea plays host to year-round at-risk whale species, including the endangered southern resident killer whales, threatened northern resident killer whales, Bigg’s killer whales, and North Pacific humpback whales, all listed under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). Recent years have witnessed significant shifts in their distribution, with a notable presence in the Salish Sea during the fall and winter months. 

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has identified crucial gaps in data needed for understanding year-round habitat use by these whales, especially during winter, and their diet. To address these gaps, Ocean Wise launched a pilot winter field study, supported by Prince of Whales Whale and Marine Wildlife Adventures, a longstanding marine adventure company in BC. 

This inaugural year of fieldwork establishes a new baseline for winter whale behavior in the Salish Sea, guiding future interventions for at-risk populations. Through the first year of study Ocean Wise:  

  • Gathered individual identification and location data from approximately 50 whale encounters. 
  • Collected 64 Environmental DNA (eDNA) water samples from southern resident killer whales, Bigg’s killer whales, and humpback whales are showing promising preliminary results, shedding light on population dynamics and structure. Testing the feasibility of eDNA collection, a minimally invasive method, is vital to reduce stress on marine mammals. 
  • Obtained prey samples, obtained after witnessing feeding events, from southern resident killer whales and humpback whales, providing insights into their winter diets. 

Ocean Wise is gearing up for a second fieldwork season, scheduled between October and April, with a preliminary report to be delivered to DFO in early 2024. 

“The effects of climate change are being felt around the world, including in the Salish Sea, where species that have been travelling through these waters for years are changing their behaviour. Our research provides a crucial window into winter whale activity, an underexplored realm, informing conservation efforts for their long-term health and recovery,” said Lasse Gustavsson, President and CEO of Ocean Wise, emphasizing the significance of this research. 

“We are proud to support Ocean Wise’s research. Understanding winter usage of the Salish Sea allows us to implement measures that benefit resident killer whales and the salmon they rely on, ensuring their success,” said Elspeth McGillivray, General Manager, Prince of Whales Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures.

Fieldwork was conducted under a DFO permit by Ocean Wise’s Cetacean Health and Monitoring Team aboard the research vessel “Skana.” 

About Ocean Wise 

Ocean Wise is a globally focused conservation organization on a mission to restore and protect our oceans. Through research, education, public engagement, and international collaborations, we empower communities to fight three major ocean challenges: ocean pollution, overfishing and climate change. By equipping and empowering individuals, communities, industries, and governments, we can create a future where people and our oceans can thrive. Ocean Wise is headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia with staff across Canada, the United States, and Chile, and operates conservation projects that make national and international impact.  

About Prince of Whales Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures  

Founded in 1993, Prince of Whales Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures has operations in Victoria,Vancouver, and Telegraph Cove. The company operates more than 15 vessels, including high-speed catamarans, Zodiacs, and custom-built cruisers. Prince of Whales is a Climate Positive marine adventure company, and is committed to offsetting at least 110% of their emissions annually. Prince of Whales is Biosphere Certified, and a member of 1% for the Planet. As an industry leader, Prince of Whales supports organizations such as the Pacific Salmon Foundation, Ocean Wise, Sea Smart, Center for Whale Research, and the Peninsula Streams Society. 

Posted September 12, 2023 by Rosemary Newton

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