Meet Amy Rowley, Raincoast’s new Cetacean Research Scientist

Amy has joined the Raincoast Cetacean team to examine how ecological and social variables interact to influence the body condition and reproductive success of Northern Resident killer whales.

Amy has joined Raincoast’s Cetacean Conservation Research team as a research scientist. She holds a BSc from the University of Exeter and a PhD from the University of Manchester, where she investigated how sexual selection shapes the evolution of reproductive traits in sharks and rays.

Since moving from the UK to the west coast of Canada in 2019, Amy has applied her analytical toolkit to a variety of pressing environmental issues, ranging from sea lice outbreaks in aquaculture to the health of killer whale populations. She loves to find the story in the data and has a particular interest in creative data visualisation. Amy’s current work examines how ecological and social variables interact to influence the body condition and reproductive success of Northern Resident killer whales, with the ultimate goal of informing effective, evidence-based protective measures. She is experienced in marine fieldwork and, when she isn’t counting pixels or crunching numbers, enjoys getting to know the coast and its wildlife.

We posed some questions to Amy so you can get to know her better. 

Can you please share more about your background and how you got into this field?

Sure! I grew up in a pretty nature-depleted part of the UK, so I fully blame David Attenborough documentaries. I studied for my bachelor’s degree in zoology at the University of Exeter, then went on to a PhD at the University of Manchester and Stockholm University. My PhD work focused on the evolution of reproductive traits in sharks, rays, and occasionally bony fishes. After graduating, I knew that I didn’t want to go down the academic pathway, and I moved to Canada in 2019. I worked as a naturalist in the ecotourism industry for a summer, which was a great way to get to know the whale populations here on the BC coast, and a welcome change of pace from the months spent hunched over my desk writing my thesis! After that, I did some short-term contract work for a project assessing sea lice prevalence in salmon farms, then started working for the BC Cetacean Sightings Network. And I’ve been in whale research since then!

At its core, science is just a method for figuring out how the world works, and I think that’s what interests me the most. It’s very cool when your data can tell you something real about a species or an ecosystem that no one knew before. And then, hopefully, we use that new information to make things better.

How has your experience studying the evolution of reproductive strategies in sharks helped you in your studies of killer whales?  Are some of the study methodologies similar?

There’s been a surprising amount of overlap, for two very different taxonomic groups. The techniques we use to measure killer whales from drone photos now are very similar to the ones I used to measure shark sperm cells (it’s a long story) from photos taken under a microscope for my PhD. Just on a radically different scale!

A lot of the challenges around data collection are also similar. When you’re studying species that are widely dispersed, live underwater and, at least in the case of resident killer whales, have very small population sizes, you have to put in a lot of effort for each data point. Sometimes that’s fun – lots of boat-based field work in beautiful places!  And sometimes it’s very frustrating – lots of hours staring through binoculars at a totally empty sea! 

How do you measure body condition in killer whales?

The first step is taking aerial photos of the whales during our annual summer field season. We launch a drone from the research vessel, pilot it directly above the whales at a height of 30 meters, and take still images with the drone camera while matching their speed and direction as they swim at the surface. This is easier said than done!  

When we get back from the field, we sort the best photos for measurement and ID the individual whales using distinct markings on their dorsal fins and saddle patches. Then we can assess body condition using a technique developed by scientists John Durban and Holly Fearnbach alongside Raincoast’s Lance Barrett-Lennard. Essentially, the angle of the white eye patches on either side of a killer whale’s head is indicative of how much fat is stored behind the cranium. In a healthy killer whale with lots of fat, the eye patches will angle outwards. When a whale is in poor condition, the eye patches will be closer to parallel, or even angle inwards, giving the whale a concave or ‘peanut-head’ appearance. 

This technique allows us to collect valuable information about the health of killer whales while maintaining a respectful distance and minimizing any disturbance to them. The aerial perspective is also just an incredible window into what it’s like to be a whale. With marine species, so much of their lives are hidden below the surface; drone technology is letting us see more of their behavior than ever before.

How will your current research help with efforts to recover and conserve killer whales?

The aim is to understand which factors impact the whales’ health, reproductive success and, consequently, their continued survival. Some of those are aspects of their physical environment, like how much prey is available for them to eat. But they also live in a complex social environment, and research from our friends and colleagues in the wider community has shown that those relationships can also have an important effect on survival and reproduction, both of which are necessary for a threatened species to increase its population size.

Our ultimate goal is to inform policy that will allow the whales the conditions they need to thrive. We’ve seen from the story of the humpback whales on this coast that nature is resilient – things come back, if you get out of their way.

Can you share with us a favorite field story? 

It feels kind of sacrilegious not to pick a killer whale encounter, but it’s for sure seeing and hearing bubble-netting humpback whales off the central coast. 

We’d had a long and difficult day in the field that culminated in a catastrophic doom spiral for both the drone (physically) and me (spiritually). Our most essential piece of equipment lay damaged on the deck. While we were attempting drone CPR and trying not to pitch ourselves into the sea, Achiever captain Drew Graham was quietly steering toward a group of humpback whales we’d seen from a distance earlier in the day.

We dropped the hydrophone into the water to listen for them. From working on the busier south coast, I always expect to just hear static or engine noises, but this time, deep, resonant whalesong flooded through the speaker. Somewhere below us, a humpback whale was directing its podmates in a synchronized underwater ballet. As the calls became shorter and more urgent, we looked around trying to predict where they were going to surface. Suddenly, we heard a piercing whistle and a dozen gaping accordion mouths erupted out of the water. That trip was the first time I’d ever seen them feeding cooperatively, and it’s probably the most awe-inspiring thing I’ve ever experienced. 

The whole day really captures the emotional rollercoaster of working in the field for me. Things go wrong, equipment breaks, you’re tired, seasick, grouchy. But at the end of the day, it’s such an immense privilege to witness how animals live their lives in the wild.

Our annual report is out now!

Get highlights from the year, our science, flagship projects, staff and volunteers, as well as a peek at what’s in store for the coming year.

Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.