Ocean Wise is embarking on its second winter research project to study the behaviour of whales in the Salish Sea to further protect and boost the populations.
Researchers with Ocean Wise have noticed increased activity of whales like humpbacks, Bigg’s killer whales and southern resident orcas around Vancouver Island in the cooler months.
Gary Sutton, whale winter study lead, told CHEK News these animals are actually utilizing the Salish Sea habitat a lot more in the winter time now than they traditionally do.
“Winter habitat use of these whales is something that is widely unknown,” Sutton said. “It’s a difficult time of year to be out there obviously with shorter days, weather tends to be rougher, so it’s a harder time to work.”
This year, Ocean Wise has teamed up with Prince of Whales Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures to host its second winter study.
Researchers will be on the water, on safe weather days, between October and April to track the whales and study their behaviours.
Sutton said a big portion of the work will be researching what each whale is eating during the cold months, especially what Southern Residents are feasting on as their main source of food is salmon.
“We are opportunistically collecting prey samples from the animals when we are able to do so and providing those samples to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada for analysis,” he added.
Ocean Wise is also testing out a new, non-invasive way to gather genetic information from whales.
Sutton explained when whales dive into the water, they leave a flat patch on the surface called a fluke print, and researchers can collect data from that water.
“We can scoop up that water through that fluke print, which contains skin cells, could contain fecal matter, anything we can extract DNA from and then do the analysis on that,” he continued.
The work being done will not only help the researchers understand the whales better, but also understand what conservation efforts could further help protect them.
Sutton said we can’t properly make conservation efforts unless there is a full picture of what the life of these whales is like over the entire year.
“So helping to address that gap is going to be critical for conserving not just southern residents, but other whales moving forward as well,” he said.
He said the more we know about what the whales do and eat in the winter months, the more we can protect those areas and prey to ensure the whales not only survive, but thrive.
Claudia Milia, with Prince of Whales Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures, said education is a huge part of its business, and that’s why it’s teaming up with Ocean Wise for this research.
The whale-watching company is providing funding for the research.
“It’s so important to safeguard [the whales],” Milia said. “It just benefits the entire ecosystem.”
During the winter study last year, Ocean Wise said it 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, as well as obtained prey samples after witnessing feeding events from southern resident killer whales and humpback whales, providing insights into their winter diets.
The data collected from this year’s study will be a part of a preliminary report that will be given to DFO in early 2024.