For the love of whales 

The lowdown on life as a whale research volunteer

click to flip through (2) PHOTO BY JENN DICKIE - Dive time Humpbacks are frequent visitors to Caamano Sound and their strong family units and acoustic traditions are captivating to researchers and volunteers alike.
  • Photo by Jenn Dickie
  • Dive time Humpbacks are frequent visitors to Caamano Sound and their strong family units and acoustic traditions are captivating to researchers and volunteers alike.
 
 

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Cetacealab sits at the convergence of numerous waterways, making it an ideal habitat for a wide diversity of species. Approximately 252 humpbacks return each year to feed in the nutrient-rich waters of Caamano Sound after their long migration from Hawaii or Baja California, orcas pass through as they follow the salmon south and recently fin whales have returned to the area they had long ago abandoned.

As for the true essence of the research conducted at the station, it can be summed up in a word: acoustics.

For this reason, the researchers have developed a network of hydrophone stations in strategic locations, covering an underwater area of 25 square kilometres. Each hydrophone has been placed 18 to 24 metres underwater, connected via cable to a land-based transmitter. The radio transmitter broadcasts all whale vocalizations back to the lab, which are monitored continuously in the lab, all year round.

And, as for the proposal to allow super tankers to chug through these pristine waters?

The researchers say the answer could not be clearer.

"If this project goes through, we will lose a very important place for whales, there's no doubt," says Meuter.

Whales depend on sound — it's crucial for their survival — and if the tankers come to this coast, Meuter and Wray argue it will drive them away.

Super tankers produce 215 decibels of noise underwater — which is 10 times as loud as if you stand 10 metres away from a jet plane engine, he explains.

"We can't really fathom how loud this is but it's enormously loud. It's a huge noise source and because these channels around here are so narrow, what will happen in these shallow inlets, the noise will echo back off the rocks which will make it even more confusing for the whales if they are navigating."

A day in the life

Dickie describes a typical day as a volunteer at Cetacealab.

The majority of time is spent watching, and then watching some more. While on duty for the five or six hour shift, volunteers use the spotting scopes and their naked eye to monitor for whale activity outside the lab in Taylor Bight.

"So there were always one or two people on shift at the lab recording what was going on visually as well as listening to the hydrophones — there were up to five hydrophones set up ... playing at all times. With the humpbacks you were typically hearing feeding calls; resident orca would be making more social calls as they were travelling."

Recording the whale calls enables the researchers to track whale activity, to identify individuals as much as possible and also get an idea of their social structure, she said.

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