Scientists pursue rare whales: Island waters hailed as new frontier for research

Scientists pursue rare whales: Island waters hailed as new frontier for researchh
Jean Kavanagh, The Vancouver Sun 31 Aug 1989, (Page B1)

ABOARD THE SCHOONER JOHN MUIR – La Perouse Bank – a submerged continental shelf of sand 50-kilometres off Barkley Sound – is the new frontier in West Coast whale research.

Sightings of humpback, finback, sperm and right whales recently brought five top whale researchers here in pursuit of the seldom-seen species.

A crew of award-winning underwater and nature film-makers is also here to capture the abundance of marine life in these waters, particularly the rare whales.

The worldwide reverence for these waters as unique and bountiful whale grounds prompted Tofino-based whale zoologist Jim Darling and Vancouver film-makers Gillian Darling (no relation) and Jack Silberman to unite pioneering B.C. whale scientists on a one-month expedition to make Island of Whales, a television documentary to be aired next year.

On a recent day of filming, Capt. Rod McVicker had barely turned the Muir into the raging waves at La Perouse when a humpback’s distinctive fluke cut the surface.

After a month at sea circling Vancouver Island and documenting killer and gray whale activity, Jim Darling’s fatigue gave way to excitement at the first humpback sighting.

“This is the new frontier in whale research,” he said, waiting for the animal to resurface around the 22-metre schooner.

“Ninety to 95 per cent of whale research is done close to shore and now there’s a desire to get out further to where these whales usually are. One of the reasons we’re out here is to really take a look and see what’s around.”

Darling, 39, pioneered West Coast gray whale and humpback identification and was the first to confirm that the same humpbacks travel through here on their annual voyage from Hawaii to Alaska.

Although the waters from Tofino through Barkley Sound have been Darling’s laboratory for 20 years, scarce funding has limited the offshore work that he now hopes to expand. Foreign data on similar feeding grounds and tales from local fishermen point to a wealth of whale activity here.

“On these banks there certainly once were blue whales, finbacks, right whales and so on,” he said, adding: “I bet there still are because in other areas it appears that the animals weren’t wiped out entirely.

“And the fishermen for years have told me about different whales they’ve seen. So it’s just become more of a priority for me to get out and keep track of them.”

Since whaling stopped in B.C. in 1967, no marine mammal surveys have been done on the outer coast. And while he’s not sure if the animals’ behavior offshore would be any different from inshore, Darling is intrigued with finding whales not yet documented.

“It’s very difficult because most of these studies take at least three to five years and even up to 10 and 15 years,” he said.

For more than 20 years, and with little funding, Vancouver Island-based scientists Ian MacAskie and Mike Bigg uncovered ground-breaking data on killer whales’ family groupings, including identifying the 330 resident and transient orcas that feed in B.C. waters.

The new crop of researchers, including John Ford of the Vancouver Aquarium and Graeme Ellis, who works with Bigg, are expanding the work which caught the film-makers’ attention.

Silberman said the $830,000 project (partly funded by the National Film Board, Nova – the PBS science program, and independent Niagra Television) is exciting because of its scope: footage of the orcas, gray and humpback whales.

Silberman, of Northern Lights Media Corp., said American, British and Japanese film-makers have come here to make whale films, and he believes the B.C. scientists – recognized as among the best in the world – should be able to share their knowledge with Canadians.

“We have something important to say that’s not been said before,” he said. “We need to tell our own story.”

The story includes Darling’s gray and humpback photo-identification work, and similar orca documentation by MacAskie, Bigg, Ellis and Ford, who has also
finished a language study of B.C.’s resident killer whales.

Ford says he has found that “whales are the only mammals besides humans to have dialects and the residents have been using the same language for up to 100 years and probably as long as 1,000 years.”

He says “it’s hard to know just what they’re communicating,” but hopes eventually “to be able to identify all the killer whale dialects worldwide.”

Darling’s work shows that whales “are basically mammals first and ocean dwellers second.

“They’re doing exactly the same type of things as mountain sheep or some other land mammals do,” he said of their mating and social behavior.

“We’ve considered them these mythical beasts and in fact they’re just mammals in the ocean.”

Besides identifying every orca pod in B.C. waters, Bigg and Ellis said they recently got some frightening glimpses of the killer whale’s future.

Bigg says disease, starvation and old age are still common causes of death, but that “because killer whales are the top predators in the ocean, they accumulate a lot of pesticides.”

“We don’t get to see what the animal dies of very often. In recent years we’ve seen those (who’ve died) along the coast with a lot of pesticides and pollutants.

“Forty per cent of calves die within the first six months of birth and we don’t know exactly why – if it’s pollutants or natural population control,” he said. “It’s one of the major problems to resolve.”

The scientists lament that it took recent oil spills here and in Alaska to raise public concern about marine mammal habitat.

“The (Nestucca) oil spill has been the greatest boon to research here,” said Darling, who has a government contract to assess damage to whale feeding grounds from the January spill.

“The pressures of habitat destruction and competition for food are so huge . . . but people and politicians only react to a crisis that everyone can recognize.”

Darling said he’d like the film “to show people how beautiful and incredible this coast is . . . and that we’re still fortunate enough to have a choice in some areas of Vancouver Island that haven’t yet been developed.

“In 10 years we might not have that left.”