Of whales and plastic

I had spent the entire day hiking solo around Trutch Island on B.C.’s central coast looking for the feces of canis lupus for Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s wolf research project. Trutch doesn’t have a lot of distinguishing features and the landscape became somewhat uniform in the stupefaction caused by 10 hours of bush whacking.

I tried several routes, but was unable to locate the designated pick-up spot on shore. Sundown was approaching. My colleagues called me on the handheld asking where the heck I was. I spotted a familiar peak across the water on Campania Island and told them I was scrambling down to shore opposite from that landmark.

The sky began turning spectacular shades of gold, purple and pink as we headed back to where our mothership was anchored. Marveling at the multi-hued sunset, we suddenly encountered an enormous fin whale, with calf, in close proximity to our little aluminum skiff. We lingered as long as we could with the fin whales before returning to the boat in the
last rays of sunlight, savouring one of the greatest whale experiences we’d ever had.

When the IUCN released its annual 2008 list of threatened species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), it was encouraging to see that humpback whale populations in the Atlantic may now be approaching pre-whaling levels.

Until a few decades ago, commercial whaling severely depleted many of the fin, blue, sei and humpback whales that inhabited B.C.’s waters. Over the last 25 years, the global moratorium on whaling has given these species an opportunity to recover, but for reasons not fully understood, their populations have been slow to rebound in the North Pacific.

Because a census of many of B.C.’s marine mammals has not been done, Raincoast recently completed six years of systematic surveys from Vancouver Island to the Alaskan border. Aboard  our research vessel, Achiever, a team of scientists recorded observations of all marine mammals, seabirds and garbage.

To date, Raincoast has surveyed over 14,000 kilometres of ocean and logged over 1,100 sightings of whales and dolphins. For every two sightings of cetaceans, we had one sighting of garbage.

When the final calculations of density are complete, garbage may be the most abundant “species.” We are working in conjunction with Duke University to complete our analysis of animal abundance and distribution. Later this year we will release our final report on marine mammals, seabirds… and garbage.

A version of this article first appeared in the Seaside Times August 2009 Issue

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Raincoast’s in-house scientists, collaborating graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and professors make us unique among conservation groups. We work with First Nations, academic institutions, government, and other NGOs to build support and inform decisions that protect aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, and the wildlife that depend on them. We conduct ethically applied, process-oriented, and hypothesis-driven research that has immediate and relevant utility for conservation deliberations and the collective body of scientific knowledge.

We investigate to understand coastal species and processes. We inform by bringing science to decision-makers and communities. We inspire action to protect wildlife and wildlife habitats.

Coastal wolf with a salmon in its month.
Photo by Dene Rossouw.