Planet Earth III highlights B.C. humpback whales and Vancouver Island researchers

A humpback whale is shown in B.C.

The award-winning documentary series Planet Earth will showcase B.C. humpback whales and the Vancouver Island scientists who help research them in its upcoming season.

The Marine Education and Research Society (MERS), based out of Port McNeill, will be featured in episode seven of Planet Earth III, which premiers on BBC Earth on April 21.

Filming of the nature documentary in local waters brought veteran wildlife filmmaker Fredi Devas to Vancouver Island and had famous conservationist David Attenborough speaking about a humpback whale the MERS researchers had named themselves.

“We could never have imagined our research boat carrying the extraordinary wealth and volume of camera gear and working with famous nature documentarians, let alone that Sir David Attenborough himself would say the name of one of the Humpbacks we nicknamed and that we would spend weeks looking for whale poo,” said Jackie Hildering, MERS humpback researcher and director of education and communications.

New hunting method in B.C.

A major focus of the episode revolves around humpback whales using a new feeding strategy in the waters of northern Vancouver Island.

The new hunting method, called “trap-feeding,” involves humpbacks positioning themselves beside schools of juvenile herring and opening their mouths wide, like a trap. The whales then wait for the fish to dive down away from the surface to escape predation by birds, only to swim into the mouths of the whales.

In 2011, a young humpback whale named Conger was just one of two humpbacks in the world that seemed to use this “trap-feeding” method.

Now, MERS says at least 32 humpbacks have been documented trap-feeding.

“It was wonderful to watch producer Fredi Devas, who has filmed all over the world, fall in love with the area, experiencing the abundance and biodiversity of marine life sustained in B.C. waters,” said Hildering.

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Filming for Planet Earth III is shown. (Anthony Bucci/MERS)

Hunting for feces

MERS adds that a large portion of their time working with Planet Earth III was trying to track down whale feces.

Researchers say whale feces helps fertilize algae, which in turn helps the plants capture carbon.

Through this fertilization, MERS estimates that each whale in B.C. helps sequester approximately 33 tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year, or the equivalent of about 30,000 trees.

The Vancouver Island-based research society says it jumped at the chance to help with Planet Earth to help promote conservation efforts for whales of all kinds.

“Commercial whaling only ended in British Columbia in 1967,” said Christie McMillan, MERS humpback researcher and science lead.

“When we began documenting the return of humpbacks from the brink of extinction, we wanted to know who individual humpbacks were and to make it count for conservation,” she said. “We applied our research to create awareness and action for the threats they continue to face – climate change, entanglement, vessel strike, and noise.”

MERS and B.C.’s humpback whales will be featured in episode seven of Planet Earth III.


Adam Chan

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