The lives and language of whales

The Cetacean Conservation Research Program studies the biology, ecology, and behavior of whales and dolphins.

As scientists, the questions we ask are designed to improve our efforts to ensure good living conditions for these mammals (their habitat) and improve their resilience in the face of a growing list of anthropogenic threats.

Ears below and eyes above the water: Livestream from Pender Island 

In 2023, we installed a permanent monitoring station that hosts an underwater hydrophone and above water video camera on the southwest shore of Pender Island. This area of the Salish Sea was chosen because of its importance to members of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population as a frequently used place to forage for salmon. Because of its value to the Southern Residents, the area has been designated as a seasonal Interim Sanctuary Zone (ISZ) by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 

This station will allow us to identify the presence of whales in real time by listening for their characteristic vocalizations (calls, clicks, squeaks, and whistles), save the recordings to analyze the calls, and evaluate underwater noise levels over time. It will also allow us to monitor vessel violations, increase incident reporting and compliance, and to livestream both whale vocalizations and videos to the public through our Raincoast Whale Sanctuary Livestream

Eyes in the sky: Aerial photogrammetry

We completed another year of our annual monitoring program to assess the health of whales. Each year, we take aerial photos of individual Resident killer whales with minimally invasive drones. We then use photogrammetry to accurately measure the whales’ body condition and growth rates, and to determine whether they are pregnant. Our measurements, compared with data available since 2014, provide a direct indication of the whales’ nutritional status, and allow us to draw reliable inferences about their overall health. This research has become invaluable in allowing us to link salmon abundance with the whales’ reproduction and survival.

NoiseTracker

NoiseTracker is a collaborative acoustic monitoring initiative that aims to tackle one of the most pervasive threats to our oceans: noise pollution. NoiseTracker participant organizations include non-profits, First Nations stewardship associations, government agencies, and private companies. We plan to launch NoiseTracker’s online platform in 2024 to inform the public about underwater noise generated by boats, ships, and other human activities, and secondly to empower governments, industry, communities, and organizations to make decisions and enact policies to reduce its impacts on marine animals.

The songs of humpback whales 

Humpback whales sing elaborate songs that are learned socially, are culturally transmitted, and gradually evolve year to year. Little is known about the extent to which song practice is shaped by habitat use, social interactions, and vessel noise. This gap will be addressed through a collaborative study with the North Coast Cetacean Society that will use historical and current recordings of humpbacks from a network of hydrophones across North Pacific feeding grounds. Our goal is to investigate song development, and to measure the impacts of underwater noise on seasonal song development. 

This is an excerpt from our annual report, Tracking Raincoast into 2024.

Tracking Raincoast into 2024, annual report, cover and inside pages.

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.