Many voices, one sea

By Megan Baker

The Salish Sea: inhabited for 14,000 years and home to humans, southern resident killer whales, humpbacks, gray whales, seals, sea lions, and…the list goes on. We all live here. As the 21st century marches on and the impacts on the Salish Sea change and grow, the need for all of our communities to come together with a plan is more and more evident.


Last week, governments, non-profit organizations, universities and citizen scientists from both sides of the border gathered in Vancouver to present and share the latest scientific research and to discuss transboundary collaborations as well as management and policy actions for this portion of our great oceans.



While this may sound a little dry (OK, potentially a lot dry), the conference was a really engaging and motivating forum with often eye-opening information being presented. For example, the Beam Reach Marine Science & Sustainability School has shown that during the quietest time in Haro Strait the average noise level is still 90 decibels. To give you an equivalent, that’s about the level of a power mower or a motorbike. That’s without any big ships around – that’s the quietest that it gets! The Beam Reach Marine Science team (Val Veirs, Scott Veirs and Jason Wood) further found that there is, on average, one big ship coming through the area every hour, day and night.

Jason Wood also presented his findings that in response to this constant noise, there has been vocal compensation by the southern resident killer whales – during 19 nights of recordings and 2600 calls, he found that while there was no significant change in call durations, the S10 call is more likely to be given in a noisy environment. The southern resident killer whales are a repetitive bunch – is this due to all the background noise?

Credit: Georgia Strait Alliance

Credit: Laurie MacBride/Georgia Strait Alliance

(Note: much of the research presented at the conference isn’t yet published but you can read previous publications by Val Veirs, Scott Veirs and Jason Wood at

Cetus presented a poster by Doug Sandilands, Nicole Koshure and Nic Dedeluk, which looked at boater interactions with the southern resident killer whales within their critical habitat. Results from data collected between 2007 and 2011 show that during the summer months, the southern resident killer whales experience an average of 62.5 interactions with vessels each day, and over 100 interactions per day during July and August. Not co-incidentally, the voluntary no-go zone off the west shore of San Juan Island had much lower interactions with vessels and shows significant benefit to the whales.

Leah Thorpe, also from Cetus, presented her initial findings on engaging professional mariners in citizen science and conservation, to much interest and acclaim.

Leah presenting her research

A big take home from the conference was the difference that citizen scientists (that is, you and me) can make to research and conservation in your own backyard. Not a marine biologist? Not a problem. There are so many environmental projects in communities throughout the Salish Sea that need passionate volunteers to get things off the ground and humming along – including Cetus! You can bring your skills to the table (enthusiasm is mandatory) and learn more as you do.

We had the perfect opportunity to catch up with our transboundary partners, Soundwatch, from San Juan Island and it was really inspiring to see and talk to the hundreds of people who are working on projects and issues around the Salish Sea. And while we work together above water, I like to think that sometimes the whales get together to discuss how they can manage us from below.

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