In Search of Killer Whales
In August 2020, nine people set sail aboard the MV Gikumi to determine whether there are enough chinook salmon to support southern resident killer whales in the Salish Sea. For 30 days, we used electronic fish finders, biologging tracking devices, and drones to document the abundance and distribution of salmon, as well as the feeding behaviours of two populations of resident killer whales—one that is declining (the southern residents) and one that is increasing (the northern residents).
The following are our diary entries. We welcome you to join us and relive some of what we did and learned….
August 19 – Getting Ready
For the next 30 days we will be studying the feeding behaviours of resident killer whales, and assessing the abundance of chinook salmon available to them. Our ultimate goal is to determine whether southern resident killer whales are experiencing a food shortage in the Salish Sea.
We are living and travelling aboard the Gikumi, and have brought a lot of specialized equipment to measure ocean conditions, and scan for fish. We also have drones to film and observe the whales from overhead as they search for food, and have a support vessel — the Steller Quest — to place suction cupped biologging tags that can film underwater and record their sounds and movements. Use of these technologies will allow us to determine what conditions killer whales require to successfully capture prey.
August 21 – On our Way
Our voyage from Campbell River to Johnstone Strait was remarkably quiet. Unlike past years, there were no cruise ships, and very few vessels of any kind. It has been eerily quiet. We went for long stretches without seeing another human being. None of us has ever seen it like this. It feels like another time and era.
We did not encounter any killer whales, but did learn that they have been seen rubbing their bodies on the pebble beaches of Robson Bight in Johnstone Strait. It bodes well for our research.
August 22 – Finding Orcas
Our first day in the Johnstone Strait area was very successful, despite the challenging weather. We encountered a large number of whales and were able to measure the abundance and distribution of fish as they traveled and fed.
August 23 – What is our Study About?
We are studying the two populations of resident killer whales that live in British Columbia. We are studying the two populations of resident killer whales that live in British Columbia. Both populations are fish eaters that have a strong preference for catching Chinook salmon. For the first two weeks we are focusing on studying the northern population of resident killer whales in the inside waters of northern Vancouver Island and along the central coast of British Columbia. This population is four times larger than the declining southern resident killer whale population—and is serving as our control population. We want to know why the northern resident killer whales have been doing so much better than their southern cousins.
August 24 – What Data are we Collecting?
We are placing a suction-cup CATs camera data logger (as shown in this picture) onto the backs of killer whales to continuously record their movements and behaviour. The data logger is like a cell phone. It comes with a high definition camera, satellite telemetry, tri-axial accelerometers, magnetometers, gyroscope, hydrophone and a time-depth recorder. All of this is packaged inside a lot of floatation needed to keep the data logger afloat until we can recover it (using radio and satellite signals) and download the data. The video and acoustic recordings are allowing us to see and hear what the whales are experiencing. When combined with the movement and dive data, drone footage, and fish data—we will estimate the frequency of prey sharing, and calculate how often they capture prey and how much they are eating.
August 27 – Looking at Data
For the past 3 days, we have been at the northern end of Vancouver Island with resident and transient killer whales, but no internet or cell phone coverage. However, we have sailed slightly south today towards Port Hardy within range of a tower, and all our phones are suddenly abuzz with downloading messages and notifications.
We recovered one of our camera tags yesterday about 20 miles out to sea, and saw some amazing video last evening showing the male resident killer whale foraging on its side along a sandy bottom. Something we did not expect to see.
Some of his dives were 9 – 12 minutes long, which is very long for a resident killer whale. We have a many hours of footage to review to determine what type of fish he was trying to catch.
August 28 – Deploying Data-Loggers
It takes a lot of skill and expertise to place a suction-cupped data-logger onto a killer whale.
The most difficult part of tagging a whale is piloting the vessel into the proper position next to the whales. Fortunately, we have a skipper with years of whale-watching experience to safely navigate near them. He starts each approach by analysing the behaviour of the whales to establish their swimming speed and heading. He will then parallel them and gently slide towards an individual until we are at just the right distance. Any harassment or sudden movements on our part, would cause the whale to avoid us. They are very aware of our presence and behaviour —- they just don’t know our intent.
Polarized sunglasses helps the tagger standing in the pulpit at the front of the Steller Quest to see the whales underwater. As he senses that the whale is coming to the surface to breathe, he will lower a very long pole (25.5 ft, ~8 m) and place the tag near the dorsal fin.Read More
The carbon fiber pole holding the tag only weighs about 10 lbs (4.5 kg), and the tag is about 2 lbs (0.9 kg). However as the pole is lowered to a horizontal position, the weight of this 2-lb tag (as felt by the tagger at the pivot point of the pole) increases to about 100 lbs (45 kg). The tagger’s front arm on the pole feels it is lifting 100 lbs, while his back arm pushes down against 100 lbs of force to counter balance the pole. It takes incredible strength and skill.
All four suction cups need to be pushed firmly against the whale. To a person, it would feel like being pushed or shoved as the suction cups are pushed flat. However, to a 3,000 kg (~6,500 lb) killer whale, it appears to be a relatively soft touch. Some killer whales shudder briefly when touched, while others show no reaction. However, all of the whales we have tagged continue about their business seemingly unaware of the hitchhiker they just picked up. To a killer whale, the weight of the tag is like the weight of a wedding ring worn by a person.
August 29 – Retrieving the Data
The corrosive links keeping the tag from releasing are designed to corrode in 5, 7 or 20 hours (depending on which link we use). Once corroded by the salt water, the broken link releases four pinched tubes that allow air to enter under the suction cups. The tag then floats free to the surface from the killer whale, and sends a radio signal to help us find it.Read More
It is surprisingly difficult to find small floating objects in the ocean — even when they emit tracking signals. We rely on satellites to give us a general area to search, and then use a goniometer to detect satellite transmissions, and a UHF receiver to listen for clicks using a hand held antenna. Despite all of this technology, it takes hours (and sometimes a day) to find this a needle in a haystack. Fortunately, we have been able to recover all of the tags we have deployed to date.
August 21 – Northern Resident Killer Whales
There are a lot of northern resident killer whales. Over 300. They range from Vancouver Island to Southeast Alaska, and belong to three clans (known as the A, G and R clans) that can be separated by their different dialects.
To date, we have seen members of all three clans, and had our biggest encounter two days ago with members of the R clan. It was an impressive sight, seeing so many whales swimming together.
August 31 – Downloading Data
One of the first things we do after recovering our suction-cupped data logger is huddle around a laptop in the boat’s galley as the data are downloaded to see and hear what the whale we followed experienced. The biologger records movements and dive depths. It also records the whales calling to each other, and films them capturing fish and interacting with each other.Read More
In the case of A100 (the first whale we followed after arriving in Johnstone Strait on August 20th), we were all excited to see what she had been doing. However, our excitement and sense of awe was quickly replaced with shock and dismay when we realized that the occasional flashes we were seeing in front of the camera were not salmon — but were coming from a plastic flasher used by fishermen to draw salmon towards their hooks. A100 had swallowed a hooked salmon —- and now has the hook embedded in her.
We informed Fisheries and Oceans Canada about our sad discovery, and are sharing these images and video with everyone. It is a disturbing video to see and hear.
We could not see the flasher that was hooked to A100 from our boat or in any of the identification photos we took of her when she surfaced. However, we could occasionally see a reflection of light bouncing off the flasher in the video we shot from our drone.
Frame grabs of the flasher from the underwater video suggest the flasher came from a recreational fishing boat. According to John McCulloch, a member of the DFO Sport Fish Advisory Board who viewed some of our images, the ball bearing swivels joined with split rings to bead chain swivels and the type of fasteners indicate it is lighter gear, and the knots and thickness of the monofilament line are also consistent with recreational fishing gear (25 to 40 lb breaking strength). Commercial fishing salmon trollers use similar flashers, but generally use significantly thicker and stronger monofilament line (80 to 100 pound breaking strength), and most often use crimps and heavier fasteners, instead of knots and lighter snap, to attach the heavier line to the flasher and lure.
If this is Canadian recreational salmon fishing gear, the hook should be barbless and likely made of plated steel (not stainless steel). However, if it came from Alaska, the hook will likely be barbed.
We do not know whether A100 took the fish when being reeled in on a fishing rod, or whether A100 caught a fish that had broken the fishing line after being hooked.
Flashers are used to catch the attention of salmon, and bring them closer to a baited hook or lure. Typically, flashers are placed about 5-6 feet (1.5-1.8 m) from the hook when fishing for Chinook during summer.
Based on distances we measured from the aerial photographs taken in collaboration with the Hakai Institute, we estimate that the flasher extends ~5 ft (1.5 m from the corner of her mouth). Given the typical distance between a hook and a flasher, we believe that the hook holding the line and flasher is caught in A100’s mouth.
There have been very few reports of killer whales dragging flashers, so it is difficult to make a prognoses for A100’s health. Sea lions seen with flashers hanging from their mouths usually have the hook caught in their throat or stomach. According to Vancouver Aquarium’s veterinarian, Dr. Martin Haulena, the real damage to sea lions that swallow hooks with flashers is caused by the drag and slicing of the monofilament fishing line that prevents them from catching fish. Cutting off the flasher has helped some sea lions survive.
In a study published over two decades ago, John Ford and colleagues reported that the stomach contents of two of eight carcasses of resident killer whales examined contained hooks or lures designed to catch salmon, and that another two of these individuals had ingested halibut hooks.
In 2015, J39 (one of the southern resident killer whales) was seen with a flasher dangling from his mouth. The flasher was seen for 5 days, and was gone on the sixth day. J39 is still alive and has not showed any apparent health effects from this incident according to Dr. Haulena.
The hook in A100 appears to be caught in the mouth, and the amount of drag created by the flasher should be relatively small for such a large animal. A barbless hook would also come out more easily than a barbed one. All of this suggests that A100 should be able to feed successfully and survive until the flasher either breaks off, or the hook rusts or works its way out of her mouth.
We have not seen A100 since we made this discovery. It will be important to look out for her to determine whether she is still carrying the flasher, and whether her body condition deteriorates.
September 1 – Fishing Gear Hooked to A100
Here are some screen grabs from the video and some overhead photos we used to identify the gear and estimate where the hook is caught on A100.
September 1 – Drone Footage of C1 & D1 Pods
Yesterday, we spent the day observing the C1 and D1 pods (members of the A clan) hunting alone or in small groups for fish. They later all came together to rest and travel slowly to their next foraging location. This is what we saw from the air.
September 2 – Unexpected At-Sea Drama
“It was gnarly out there” is how our water taxi driver described the offshore ocean conditions when he returned to Telegraph Cove last evening. There was wind and 2-3 m high swells — and a lot of uncertainty about whether our search and rescue mission would be successful given the few hours of daylight remaining.Read More
We didn’t realize when we put our suction-cup camera and data logger on a member of the D1 pod, 24 hours earlier, that he was just passing through, and was not going to hang around our general area. The D1 whales had been associating with other A-clan whales, which had frequented our study area for weeks.
As the clock ticked down to the expected release time, we began watching the Argos satellite website for transmissions telling us that our floating tag was ready for pickup.
The first satellite transmission came in around 2 pm. When we plotted its location, we were shocked to see that our device was floating about 15 km off the northern end of Vancouver Island. The D1 pod had travelled about 140 km from where we first started tracking them 24 hours earlier — and were now in the open ocean.
The day before we encountered the D1 pod, they were seen near Seymour Narrows and Discovery Passage by
. When we mapped out the locations and distances travelled, we were impressed to see that the D1 pod had travelled about 280 km in the space of 2 days. That’s a lot of swimming!
It would have taken the Gikumi about 2-3 days to complete our search and rescue. Fortunately, in our search for a faster boat, we ran into James from
in Telegraph Cove who had the day off and was willing to take us offshore on short notice. Within 30 minutes, we were headed west aboard the Silver Bear towards the last reported Argos transmission.
As we got closer to the Argos location, our hand held antenna began picking up an intermittent chirping sound coming from our tag. However, what would have been is a relatively simple procedure in calm conditions became a daunting and uncertain task in 2.5 m swells. Eventually, the tracking chirps got louder and louder as we zeroed in on our transmitting tag telling us we were very close. It was a massive relief when we finally got eyes on the tiny florescent device rising and falling between the swells — and dipped it out of the ocean. Best feeling ever!
September 3 – Seeing What the Whales See
Enjoy your ride as you travel with the D1 pod. This video was taken by D26 from its orca-cam. Each frame of the video has corresponding data on depth, speed, vocalizations and 3D-movement.Read More
D26 is 10 years old, but its sex is unknown. The video shows D26 interacting with other family members as they travel together through Queen Charlotte Strait.
We were surprised to see how different the skin of a killer whale looks underwater. The skin appears completely black above water, but appears quite different underwater due most likely to lighting.
We shared the images with a pathologist and a veterinarian who thought we are seeing edema (spongiosus) based on dead orcas that they have examined. Edema is a skin condition that should resolve with time, and may be associated with nutritional and health condition, or a change in the environment.
This is the most marked up whale we have seen so far, but all have shown unexpected skin colourations and lesions such as in this video from D26.
September 5 – Pacific White-Sided Dolphins
We have seen many Pacific white-sided dolphins charging in all directions at high speeds. Sometimes they race towards us to bow-ride our research boats, — and at other times they race towards the killer whales to ride in front and alongside them. Whatever their goal is, they sure seem to have a lot of fun.
September 5 – Dolphins, Porpoise & Orca from the Air
In addition to seeing the dolphins and killer whales together, we have also seen Dall’s porpoise joining the action as captured in this drone footage. See if you can count the number of killer whales, white-sided dolphins and Dall’s porpoise — and let us know your tallies.
September 7 – Dolphins & Orca Underwater
We often see Pacific white-sided dolphins and resident killer whales interacting. However, this is the first time anyone has seen this from the whale’s perspective.
September 9 – Onto the Salish Sea
We are in the Salish Sea after a long journey from the north. All of us aboard the Gikumi are feeling warmer, drier, and excited to continue our research in UBC’s backyard!
September 10 – Seeing with Sound!?
The depths of the ocean are dark and silty. It’s hard to see anything. Killer whales use echolocation to locate their prey, but how can we see what fish are in the area?Read More
Our hydroacoustics team uses a pole with four orange transducers. These send out “pings” of sound that bounce back in an echo.
Based on the echo heard by our transducers, we are able to visualize the sea floor and the fish down in depths of over 500m! We are effectively using the same technique as the killer whales to find fish, killer whales just do it better.
We use this hydroacoustic technology in regions historically recognized as favourite spots for orcas to feed. It allows us to assess how much prey is available for killer whales to eat, as well to see the types of fish present!
By doing so we hope to better understand the differences in prey availability between the northern & southern resident killer whale’s habitats. Knowing this information can inform decisions to better protect and support orcas off our coast.
September 12 – Searching for the Southern Residents
We spent the past two days looking for the southern resident killer whales at the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait (on the open ocean between Washington State and Vancouver Island). We are based out of Port Renfrew, and had the good fortune today of finding K and L pods.
September 12 – Feeding Whales
We saw lots of feeding activity off the Carmanah Point Lighthouse (West Coast Trail) as the southern resident killer whales gathered before moving into Juan de Fuca Strait.
September 13 – Salish Sea on Fire
We had a tough time yesterday finding the southern residents in the thick smoke — and can’t imagine what it is doing to their lungs. Smoke from the wildfires in the United States has poured over southern British Columbia and has smothered the Salish Sea. It is burning our eyes and stinging our throats, and limits our ability to see to less than a kilometer at best.Read More
J, K and L pods, who we were with two days earlier near Port Renfrew, have swum over 250 km to the heart of the Salish Sea. They appear to have followed a returning run of white Chinook to the mouth of the Fraser River.
We had little information to know where the southern residents were, and are very grateful for the help of the
. Without their help, we would have never found them in the smoke.
We started our day near Victoria with a rising blood red sun shining through the thick brown smoke — and ended it in downtown Vancouver. Of all the places the killer whales have led us over the past 26 days, we never expected to be taken here. We are in another world that bears no resemblance to the wild one we left just two days ago. It is a striking reminder of just how much the world of the southern resident killer whales has changed.
September 15 – Drone Research
“Knowing that once you let it go, you have to get it back — that’s the hard part”, according to Taryn, a UBC graduate student.
Wind and ocean swell conditions can change during each 20 minute flight, making landing on a bouncy rolling boat much more difficult than taking off. “Once it’s up, we are committed to bringing it back and catching it. There’s no turning back.”Read More
It always gets windier and noisier as Keith steers the drone closer and closer to Taryn’s outreached hands. During landing, Keith’s full attention is on getting the drone close enough for Taryn to grasp its two small handles without getting hit by the propellers.
Keith is a geo-spatial scientist at the
, one of our research partners. He has captured amazing overhead images of northern and southern resident killer whales as they travel, search for food, capture fish and interact with other pod members. He notes that “It’s a magical world seeing the whales from above”, and likens some of what he has seen on his small flight-screen to “watching a pack of wolves working together,” as the resident killer whales hunt down salmon.
Cameras are complicated, but flying-cameras are even more complicated. In addition to keeping the lens focused and the whales within his viewfinder, Keith must also track whale locations, monitor safety concerns, air traffic activity, diminishing battery life, and changing light levels.
Flying at heights of 45 m above the whales, Keith has not seen any of the whales react to the drone. “Drones are a very passive way to monitor the whales compared to using drones over species such as bears and sea otters that are affected by overhead noise.”
The end of each flight comes with a drop in heart rate and huge sense of relief for Keith — and an ear to ear smile from Taryn as she shouts “Got it!” and passes the drone over to Keith.
September 16 – Lost in the Wildfire Smoke
Three days ago, we lost the southern resident killer whales near Vancouver in the thick wildfire smoke that had smothered the Salish Sea. We looked for them in the following days, but had no visibility.Read More
However, they reappeared this afternoon as the smoke and fog started to clear, and visibility increased. They were headed towards the Fraser River where we have completed two days of surveys for salmon. From what we saw on our sounders, there are a lot of fish waiting for them.
The annotated map shows where we were on the Gikumi when we received information from the Pacific Whale Watch Association News showing some of the southern resident killer whales were inbound. Also shown is the general area we surveyed for salmon. Thank you PWWA!
September 17 – Final Entry
After travelling over 2,500 km in resident killer whale territories, surveying fish along over 500 km of track lines, and recording over 100 hours of underwater orca-cam video — we are back on land! Thank you for joining the nine of us on our orca research cruise for the past 30 days — and thank you for your comments and words of encouragement. We really appreciated hearing from you.Read More
Now the hard work starts for us and others at UBC. We have a lot of data to process and write up to determine whether the suspected food shortage southern resident killer whales are experiencing is occurring in the Salish Sea during summer and fall, or whether it is occurring elsewhere in their range during winter and spring.
We will be posting periodic updates of our findings and reflections from our research cruise over the next 12 months. Please stay tuned for more…