Since the inception of the North Coast Cetacean Society (NCCS) in 2001, a small subpopulation of roughly 40 humpback whales has been recorded as steadily growing in size to a recent estimate of over 500 whales foraging in the deep fjord-waters of northern British Columbia (BC), Canada. This population growth has been meticulously documented by NCCS/BC Whales in conjunction with the society’s highly dedicated ecological research, itself deeply rooted in the conservation ethic.
Each year we aim to increase the scale at which our research operates, by adopting novel techniques and increasing the scope and depth of the ecological questions we pose, all with the goal of deepening our understanding and thus ability to protect the whales utilizing the Kitimat Fjord System within which we operate. This year, 2019, we have launched a drone-based project, adopting this astounding new and quickly developing technology to study humpback and fin whales non-invasively and from the air.
The emerging technology that would compound the value of our long-term efforts the most is drone-based genetic sampling and photography. Small drones have been shown to be non-invasive and less disturbing to whales than more commonly adopted sampling approaches, including biopsy sampling which uses specialized bows-and-arrows. With the drones we can collect blow (the whale’s exhale, or “snot”) from both humpbacks and fin whales, which has been shown to contain viable amounts of DNA for sequencing, and thus obtaining a genetic sample without ever actually making direct contact with the whale itself!
We aim to address important ecological questions by first genetically mapping the roots of their heritage. Having closely studied the same populations of fin and humpback whales for almost twenty years, we recognize known individuals, as humpbacks and fin whales can been identified down to the individual via unique markings on their tail flukes for humpbacks and the shape of the arch of dorsal fins on the long arching backs of fin whales. By adding the genetic fingerprint to this individual knowledge we can begin to draw a “big-picture” map of where these whales come from, and where they travel to. This level of detail becomes essential for the protection of global populations, for which finite resources and research effort must be allocated strategically.
As we welcome back well-known whales to this area summer after summer, we’ve begun noticing how particular feeding groups have formed containing the same core individuals each year. Through this genetic study we would be granted the opportunity to assess relatedness patterns amongst the long-standing groups. Do mothers teach their calves where the feeding is best? And do these calves then feed side by side with their relatives later in life? These are the types of questions we have begun asking. Through the addition of new research dimensions to our long-standing study, we will be in a position to knit together the existing layers of data with novel insights, in order to weave together a coherent narrative that is much more than each individual part.
To complement the blow-sampling aspect to the drone-project, we are collecting overhead imagery of both fin and humpback whales using a specialized ‘LiDAR’ kit: the drone is equipped with specialized technology, including a high grade GPS device and LiDAR laser, which emits a regular laser pulse and records the length of time it takes for this laser pulse to bounce off a surface and come back into the LiDAR device. This LiDAR kit allows us to know the exact height of the drone above the sea surface, and in combination with footage of the whales from directly above, means we can calculate the size of each individual, both in length and width.
Obtaining such measurements means to hold the key to assessing nutritional wellbeing (how well these whales are feeding); injury, scarring and entanglement rates and intensity; surface behaviour and interaction between members of a group; as well as estimating pregnancy rates across the study region. As BC Whales has recently documented the decline in humpback calves arriving with their mothers to the area (a potential tell-tale sign of population stabilization and/or decline), knowing the pregnancy rates will further delineate this ongoing work. Humpbacks are known to arrive to their annual feeding grounds after having fasted extensively whilst in their breeding areas. Tracking the nutritional recovery of humpbacks throughout their feeding season will shed light on the ability of the whales to bounce back from extended periods without food, beginning a new research journey of humpback nutritional status.
Injury and scarring can occur as a result of aggressive interactions with their natural predator – the mammal-eating transient orca – or from direct collisions with vessels. Additionally, entanglement poses a serious threat, as it can often prove to be fatal. However, when whales do escape the ropes or cables, permanent scars can remain to tell the tale.
To carry out this exciting work, we are partnering with a graduate student, Éadin O’Mahony, at the University of St. Andrews’s in Scotland. Through her research Masters, she will have access to the laboratory necessary for the genetic sequencing and later analysis, as well as the academic support from BC Whales Founder and CEO Janie Wray, BC Whales Science Co-Director Eric Keen and the Scottish Oceans Institute’s Professor Oscar Gaggiotti, her supervisor at the university. As part of the BC Whales core ethos, we feel strongly about providing opportunities for passionate early-career scientists, allowing them to develop their careers further. This is both true for our ongoing and successful international internship program, as well as more intense partnerships such as that with students like Éadin.