On the water with Straitwatch South

On-water monitoring and education by the Straitwatch South program based out of Victoria began in the summer of 2007, and has been expanding ever since. Our boat is kept in Oak Bay and this year after some maintenance was ready to go by May 14th. Right away we knew this summer was going to be different due to the new Washington State vessel regulations to protect killer whales. The new regulations prohibit vessels (motor boats, sail boats, and kayaks) from approaching killer whales closer than 200 yards and prohibit vessels from intercepting or positioning in the path of a whale. This is a doubling of the previous approach distance of 100 yards in US waters. In Canada, the Be Whale Wise Guidelines are still in effect and vessels must remain 100 m away from marine mammals.

You can still get great shots at 200 yards away!

Explaining to boaters the differences in regulations when near whales in BC versus Washington has been challenging, but we have had plenty of help from our interns and volunteers. This is the first year we have included student interns, and it has worked out incredibly well. Emily joined us from England where she just finished a Bachelor’s of Science degree and will soon be pursuing a Master’s degree. Mercedes joined us from the Canary Islands, where she studies whale-watching impacts on pilot whales. Connel is from Nottingham, England (yes, just like Robin Hood), where he is majoring in Wildlife Conservation for his Bachelor of Science degree. Marie came from the University of Leipzig in Germany, where she is taking a Master of Arts in European Studies. Marie is specializing in both European and International law and is writing a master’s thesis on Ocean Protection Law in both fields. Emily and Mercedes were out on the water in May and June and now have headed up north to volunteer with our Straitwatch and Warden programs in Alert Bay. We’ve also had a great crew of volunteers – Amalis, Suzanne, Nina, and Philip. Thanks for all your hard work everyone!

Two of our interns: Emily and Mercedes.

This summer we’ve seen all three pods of endangered southern resident killer whales (J, K, and L pods) but L pod has not been around nearly as much as J and K pods and was last sighted off of Tofino. We’ve also observed and monitored transient killer whales, minke whales, humpback whales, dall’s and harbour porpoises. Unfortunately the only grey whale we’ve seen was a badly decomposed one in Beecher Bay. We were able to collect a skin and blubber sample from the whale for DNA analysis to be conducted by Fisheries and Ocean’s Canada (DFO). So far the “resident” grey whale that hung around Oak Bay last summer hasn’t returned.

Dead grey whale in Beecher Bay

Recently our boat was put on standby for an oil spill response simulation that involved Canadian and American agencies. It’s nice to know plans are in place and being practiced in case of an accident. We also recently obtained a hydrophone from DFO to record vessel noise while we are within 400 m of resident killer whales. Underwater sound is an increasing problem for marine mammals, especially because they rely on sound to communicate, navigate, and find food. With the cool weather we’ve had there have not been many pleasure boats on the water. So far the maximum number of boats in one of our half-hour boat counts was 40 boats within 1 km of the whales – this occurred when they swam through a fishing derby off of Sooke. During the Canada Day/Fourth of July long weekend we talked to 52 boaters about the Be Whale Wise guidelines and US vessel regulations on Saturday alone.

A busy day on the water.

By far the highlight of our summer to date has been a tour of Race Rocks Ecological Reserve and lighthouse. There was unlimited visibility the day we went and it was amazing to see the area from such a unique perspective. It was also wonderful to learn more about particular behaviours of the animals in the reserve and about the history of the lighthouse and Pearson College. It was also nice to stop on land in the middle of our day on the water.

Cetus staff training just wrapped up in Victoria and now our boats up north are ready to go. We are all looking forward to an exciting and positive season. There are also plenty of volunteer opportunities; please contact us for more information. And please remember to Be Whale Wise when on the water and help us protect whales, dolphins, and porpoises in their critical habitat.

Cetus Staff


Washington State Vessel Regulations


Be Whale Wise Guidelines


Race Rocks Ecological Reserve


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