Meet Lance Barrett-Lennard, Senior Research Scientist and Co-Director of Raincoast’s new Cetacean Research Program

Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard has joined our team as Senior Scientist and co-Director of our newest research program focusing on cetaceans.

Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard is a renowned cetacean researcher who served as a research scientist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada before starting as senior research scientist and director of the Marine Mammal Research Program at the Coastal Ocean Research Institute (Ocean Wise Conservation Association) in 2001. One of his principal current projects is a study of body condition in relation to prey abundance in Southern and Northern Resident killer whales using drone-based aerial photogrammetry, a second is a study of genetic variability in 12 killer whale populations in the NE Pacific. He has served on many marine mammal recovery teams and authored many peer-reviewed papers and book chapters.

We posed some questions to Lance to get to know him better. 

First off, can you please define a cetacean? 

Cetacean is the scientific term for whales, dolphins, and porpoises.  Cetaceans fall into two groups that split into two groups early in their evolutionary history.  One group,  known as mysticetes, use baleen to filter small prey from the water, the second group, odontocetes, have teeth and feed on larger prey.  The odontocetes are particularly diverse, including  sperm whales 15m or more long, marine and freshwater dolphins less than 2 m in length, and many whale, dolphin and porpoise species in between.  

Can you tell us about your extensive experience and the scientific bonafides that you bring to our team and this program?

In the early part of my career as a biologist I was fascinated by evolutionary biology– the study of the origins of life and biodiversity. In the case of animals, I was particularly interested in the evolution of behaviour, especially behaviours associated with finding food, avoiding predators, and living in social groups. When I learned  that killer whales off the BC coast live in populations that feed on fundamentally different prey–fish vs marine mammals–and furthermore, that those populations overlap in range but don’t associate with each other,  I was hooked. The scientific consensus at the time was that new species formed only after populations were divided by geographic barriers that eliminated gene flow between them. Our killer whale populations seemed to be diverging nicely in the complete absence of physical barriers. I had to know more. 

I spent most of the following 30 years doing exactly that—spending summers in a boat studying various aspects of the behaviour, biology, and ecology of killer whales–their use of echolocation, how they choose mates, how they avoid inbreeding despite spending their lives with close kin, the strategies they use to hunt prey, when they innovate behaviourally and when they rely on what they learn from their relatives. In the last decade or so I’ve become more and more interested in, and concerned about, their resilience in the face of stresses imposed on them by humans, especially depletion of their prey resources and underwater noise from vessels. 

At Raincoast, my long-time colleague Valeria Vergara and I lead the Cetacean Conservation Research Program. At the time of writing, the program is just getting started, so it’s an exciting time for us! Raincoast had many years of experience and many successes advocating for killer whale conservation long before we joined.  Our plan is to add a committed research program to the mix, to better understand and mitigate threats to the species’ survival and recovery. An important part of understanding and mitigating  threats is knowing what it is to be a whale–how they find food and communicate with sound for example. Those things,which Valeria and I are both intensely curious about anyway, will be central to the program.

What can the health of cetaceans tell us about the environment? 

Cetaceans are situated at or near the top of marine food webs.  For them to thrive, phytoplankton (tiny marine algae) populations have to be healthy. Phytoplankton provide food for a host of very small animals called zooplankton, which in turn support small fish and invertebrates, and so on up the food web. If cetaceans are present and healthy and their populations are robust, it tells us that those other elements of the ecosystem are also robust and healthy.

On a personal level, why is this work important to you?

First, my work helps satisfy the intense curiosity I have about the natural world. I love asking out of the box questions and sometimes, just sometimes, finding answers.  Second, nature  is my religion, it’s what I believe in, it’s where I find comfort. Helping save it and helping it recover where it’s been damaged is tremendously gratifying. I feel very fortunate that I lucked into work that marries both of the things that motivate me–curiosity and conservation.

What was your best wildlife encounter?

My first encounter with killer whales in the wild wasn’t terribly dramatic or unusual, but  it affected me more than any other experience I’ve had with wildlife before or since. I lived on a small island on the northern BC coast for three years when I was in my early 20’s. One calm, foggy morning a friend in a sailboat came by and anchored a couple of hundred metres offshore. I paddled out in a tiny dinghy for a visit. Halfway there, I heard explosive sounds like rifle shots in the distance. I couldn’t see the source through the fog, but the sounds slowly got louder, and suddenly six or seven large dorsal fins appeared, slicing through the water towards me. The sounds I’d heard were their blows.  I’ve never felt so small and I froze—concerned that they’d knock me into the water or their wake would swamp me. They swam straight to me, and one of them circled the dinghy underwater—I could see her looking up at me through the clear water. She then joined the rest of the group and they continued on their way, quickly disappearing into the fog again. I could hear their  blows slowly fading into the distance for what seemed an eternity. It was a profound experience; I’d been checked out by a group of the most powerful predators on the planet, had been the subject of interest to them momentarily and then they’d moved on, leaving me in peace. 

You can help

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.

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