Just after sunrise on August 25th, we headed out from our home port at the Oak Bay Marina for a southern resident killer whale (SRKW) monitoring cruise. We guessed the SRKWs were still in the area as they had been around the previous evening, and so we decided to head for Hein Bank off the south side of San Juan Island where they’re often seen. At Hein Bank, we put the hydrophone in the water to listen for calls and were instantly surprised to hear the distinct calls and whistles of SRKWs. They were close by. Moments later we heard blows to the southeast and spotted killer whale dorsal fins a kilometer or so away through the binoculars. As we motored slowly along towards the killer whales, we suddenly spotted the distinctive shape of a humpback whale dorsal fin breaking the surface. A moment later, the humpback surfaced again, this time closer to us, and we both thought this whale seemed familiar. The whale had two distinctive white scars ahead of it’s dorsal fin, the shape of the dorsal fin was blocky and the whale’s flank appeared greyish with numerous areas covered in orangey whale lice.
All these clues, in addition to the whales’ diving behaviour (five minutes between dive cycles, with a high-arching back on the terminal dive, but never bringing the tail flukes above the water) reminded us immediately of a humpback known as Canuck. A couple weeks previously, Canuck had been sighted 60 nm north of us in Georgia Strait, and was reported as entangled in fishing gear with a small white float following along the surface behind it. But this whale had no float trailing behind it, as Canuck did when he was last seen. Could it be the same whale?
Two weeks earlier, on August 11th, we were participating in a survey of Georgia Strait with the Vancouver Aquarium’s B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network (BCCSN) when we got a call from Lisa Spaven of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). Lisa coordinates the BC Marine Mammal Response Network (BCMMRN) – a network of mariners from government, the whale watching industry, non-governmental associations and researchers who respond to dead, injured, sick and harassed marine mammals. Lisa reported that an entangled humpback whale had been spotted about 20 nautical miles south of us. This same whale had been observed by whale watchers periodically since July 31st, trailing a small white float near Active Pass in southern Georgia Strait. Photos from whale watchers allowed researchers from the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) to confirm that this was a known humpback whale – Canuck. Canuck was first sighted by researchers from Orcalab on May 25th (getting it’s name from the Canucks hockey team, because of a small puck like marking on it’s tail fluke and because the Canucks won the Western Conference Final that day). MERS researchers checked photos they had taken of Canuck in early June, which showed Canuck breaching repeatedly and fluking, showing most of every part of the whales’ body – and confirmed the whale was gear free. The entanglement must have occurred since early June.
When we arrived on scene on August 11th, we were extremely thankful that whale watchers were standing by with the whale. The importance of staying with an entangled whale can not be understated. Without a vessel standing by, rescuers will almost never be able to re-locate the whale that same day – it’s a big ocean and even if sighting conditions are ideal whales can be very hard to find. We quickly documented everything we saw, collecting: a photo identification shot of the whale, video of the whale’s behaviour, photos of the whale’s body condition and photos of the gear we could see at the surface. Unable to see how the whale was entangled as the water conditions resembled the consistency of chocolate milk and with no authorization from DFO to tag the whale, or otherwise intervene, we motored slowly back to Vancouver wondering when and if the whale would be spotted again.
We sent the photos to experts from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS) on Cape Cod in Massachusetts and MERS, who both confirmed that the whale lice and peeling skin indicated that Canuck was not healthy. The PCCS has been pioneering disentanglement methods and entanglement research since the early 1980s. Since then their methods have been adopted and lauded worldwide.
Cetus Research & Conservation Society (Cetus) has been acquiring the training and tools to properly conduct responses to entanglements. In 2009, after helping DFO respond to two entanglements, we received a grant from the Mountain Equipment Coop to acquire disentanglement gear, a satellite tag to track entangled whales and attain more entanglement response training. Our staff have been training for entanglement response since a 2005 workshop put on the by the Vancouver Aquarium, and taught by a whale disentanglement expert from the PCCS. Additionally, one of our staff has participated in over twenty five disentanglements during her work with the PCCS, while another has attended a two week training at the PCCS in 2010 which included participating in live disentanglement efforts. Over the past year, Cetus has been negotiating with DFO to obtain authorization to assist with entanglement response and the process is well underway. Since coming across Canuck on August 11th, DFO has provided Cetus with a temporary authorization to assist with the entanglement response.
DFO is responsible for marine mammals in Canadian waters. Any interactions between humans and marine mammals which might be considered a disturbance, including rescue efforts, must be conducted by trained personnel under authorization from DFO. This authorization is difficult to attain and rightly so. Efforts by untrained rescuers to disentangle whales from fishing gear have resulted in death and injury to the rescuers, have caused unnecessary injury to the whale and often leave the most life-threatening parts of the entanglement on the whale. Further, response to entanglements is about more than just cutting the whale free. Entanglements are fairly rare events and present a very important learning opportunity. Proper documentation can help us to understand how and where the whale became entangled, what kind of gear was involved, what body parts became entangled, and from what population the whale came. With this information, researchers can learn: how to modify gear so that it entangles whales less frequently; which whale was involved, what injuries the whale sustained and the long term outcome for the whale; if certain populations are more frequently entangled; and which fishery types represent a higher risk to threatened species.
After leaving Canuck still entangled on August 11th, DFO, Cetus, and the Aquarium’s BCCSN conducted several surveys in Georgia Strait in the hopes of finding the whale again. The whale watching community has taken a particular interest in Canuck and has donated countless hours and resources to the search for Canuck. The BCCSN and the BCMMRN worked hard to get information out to the public including blogs about Canuck, how to report sightings and what to do if you encountered the whale on the water. The media picked up the story, which generated numerous reports of humpback whale sightings, but with no one able to standby and as many reports came late in the day there had not been a confirmed sighting of Canuck until we chanced upon him/her on August 25th.
We were amazed at our good fortune that morning, to have come across Canuck by chance! Humpback whales can travel great distances (100 nm per day) and can dive for up to 15 minutes or more making it difficult to resight them. Not only were we lucky to have spotted Canuck, but we had also kept our disentanglement gear on board the boat in the off-chance that somebody else would come across him, so that we could assist any response efforts. As we were in U.S. waters we quickly contacted Soundwatch, officials with NOAA Fisheries and DFO to apprise them of the sighting and offer to stand by and assist any efforts. The San Juan Island Marine Mammal Stranding Network (SJIMMSN) has permission from NOAA Fisheries to conduct entanglement response in Washington. However, no one from the SJIMMSN with training to respond to entanglements was anywhere nearby. NOAA officials quickly provided authorization to Cetus (through the SJIMMMSN and Soundwatch – Straitwatch’s sister program based out of San Juan Island) to assess Canuck and make an attempt to disentangle the whale. We were immediately in touch with colleagues at the PCCS to ask advice and develop a plan. With Soundwatch providing assistance, by explaining our actions to the whale watch community and other boaters and by helping keep vessels clear of the path of the entangled whale, we obtained underwater video of Canuck’s tail and flukes to determine how he/she was entangled.
This footage was critical in confirming that Canuck was still entangled (as no gear was visible at the surface), providing key information on what body parts were involved and helping to develop a plan to disentangle the whale.
For the next several hours we attempted to grab the line trailing behind Canuck using specialized tools developed by the PCCS. This would allow us to attempt to disentangle Canuck and, if disentanglement efforts were not successful that day, to attach our satellite tag so we could find Canuck again the next morning. However, the action of Canuck’s flukes made grabbing the trailing gear very difficult. As we crossed into Canadian waters, DFO staff also made attempts for several hours to grab the line trailing Canuck; but were also unsuccessful despite their determined effort.
And so….once again, we left Canuck at dark, disappointed and unsure of what the outcome for this whale would be.
Canuck is a unique case in British Columbia (B.C.) and Washington State, in that he was observed in a highly traveled section of the coast line and was seen repeatedly. B.C. has a large amount of uninhabited coastline, where few observers exist to report incidents of entanglement. In contrast, on the east coast of Canada and the US, where there is a highly developed entanglement reporting network, hundreds of hours of marine mammal surveys conducted by plane, a highly trained response team, and a heavily populated coastline – only 10% of entanglements are reported. This is understood on the east coast based on a study of the number of whales that are observed with new entanglement scars each year. Since the inception of the BCMMRN in B.C., between four and eighteen whales have been reported entangled annually. Sadly, entanglements almost certainly happen much more frequently across the B.C. and Washington Coast than the number of reports suggest. That Canuck’s entanglement is no longer visible at the surface, provides further pause. How many other whales off our coast have cryptic entanglements?
Canuck’s entanglement was a good test for the relatively new response network, and there’s still lots to learn. While the outcome for Canuck is uncertain, the amazing people that pulled together to assist Canuck gives us hope.
What can you do to help with the issue of entanglement in B.C.:
– report sighting of whales, dolphins and porpoise to the BCCSN;
– report sightings of unhealthy whales to the BCMMRN at 1-800-465-4336;
– become a member of the BCMMRN in your local community by contacting Lisa Spaven (lisa.spaven(at)dfo-mpo.gc.ca);
– if you see an entangled whale call the BCMMRN immediately and stay with the whale;
– donate to research, such as that conducted by MERS to catalog humpback whales in BC waters; and,
– donate to Cetus Society’s efforts to continue to develop entanglement response in BC.
By Doug Sandilands and Nicole Koshure
****** UPDATE ******
Listen to an interview on the Bill Good show on CKNW about the Canuck entanglement.