Researching the biology, ecology and behavior of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Photo by Lance Barrett-Lennard / Ocean Wise.

Working in collaboration with Indigenous communities and other organizations, Raincoast’s Cetacean Conservation Research Program focuses on how cetaceans use sound, trends and impacts of underwater noise, killer whale health and nutrition in the face of ecosystem change, and beluga whale communication and behaviour. 

Cetaceans in BC waters

Canada is home to nearly 30 marine mammal species. The majority of these cetaceans (porpoises, dolphins and whales), were historically supported by abundant and diverse fish prey living in largely undisturbed offshore and coastal habitats. Sadly, many of these iconic species – considered by scientists to be indicators of ecosystem health – are at risk as a result of historical harvesting, a legacy of industrial pollution, reductions in their prey, and underwater noise and disturbance.

Indicators of ecosystem health

The Cetacean Conservation Research Program will study the biology, ecology and behavior of cetaceans through various projects helping us address and answer questions that illuminate both their susceptibility and their resilience to anthropogenic threats, and that contribute to the development and assessment of mitigation efforts. 

At the top of the food chain, cetaceans are often keystone species, making them a good indicator of ecosystem health. Long term studies of cetaceans offer the unique opportunity to track individuals over time, which enables us to gain a deeper understanding of population health, social systems, and life history traits.

Photo by NOAA, Ocean Wise NMFS permit 19091.

Research to inform change

This research program, led by Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard and Dr. Valeria Vergara, fills a niche that complements the capacities, strengths of academic, ENGO, and government research programs in British Columbia and Canada, and collaborates with them as much as possible. We recognize the value of combining knowledge, skills, capacities, and resources and experiences of multiple parties when conducting field research and interpreting data. Our team includes both experienced senior scientists with a long view of conservation and research and younger scientists with cutting edge technical skills.

Photo by Lance Barrett-Lennard / Ocean Wise (SARA permitted).

Killer whale swimming with a ferry in the background and a zodiac in the foreground.
Photo by Alex Harris.

NoiseTracker: a coast-wide integrated underwater noise monitoring and mapping initiative 

Underwater noise from anthropogenic sources is known to adversely affect essential life processes such as foraging, social behavior and communication for aquatic species at risk such as Southern and Northern Resident killer whales, and is recognized as a significant ocean conservation concern. To improve our understanding of the coastal acoustic environment and potential impacts of human-produced noise on marine species, Lance, Valeria and collaborators from the BC Coast-Wide Hydrophone Network have been working on a new initiative called NoiseTracker. NoiseTracker is an effort to cement a partnership of existing hydrophone network operators to monitor underwater noise along the BC coast and communicate findings to the public on a shared platform using standardized metrics. 

NoiseTracker will involve the development and implementation of a public-facing, user-friendly website and noise visualization tool building on acoustic data from existing monitoring networks. This shared, real time, coast-wide information system will make it possible to identify seasonal and multi-year trends in noise levels along the coast to inform and facilitate mitigation measures and management decisions. Overall, it will provide a much-needed standardized approach to foster collaboration and communication in service of a healthy ocean.

Photogrammetry of Killer Whales 

In 2014, Lance worked with Washington-based research colleagues, Drs. John Durban and Holly Fearnbach, to develop a photogrammetry-based method of assessing the body condition of killer whales using aerial photographs from minimally-invasive, boat launched drones. The study was a key recommendation of a US/Canadian panel attempting to assess the impact of salmon fisheries on Southern Resident killer whales. The project grew into an annual monitoring program, with John and Holly leading the work on Southern Residents and Lance, then based at the Ocean Wise Conservation Association, leading a parallel program on Northern Residents, with both teams collecting photogrammetry images of Bigg’s killer whales opportunistically. Comparing the two populations, one in perilous condition and the other recovering, has helped make it possible and practical to determine when killer whales are nutritionally stressed, and to assess the impacts of such stress on survival and reproduction.  Lance continues to collaborate and work closely with the experienced photogrammetry team that he led at Ocean Wise:  Brittany Visona, Dr. Amy Rowley and Gary Sutton.  

Findings from the photogrammetry research thus far helped motivate increased restrictions on sport and commercial fisheries in Canada, as well as the creation of sanctuary zones where the whales can forage without disturbance by boats. It also provided valuable insights into Chinook stocks of greatest importance to Southern Residents—an analysis we plan to begin shortly with Northern Residents. The time series of body condition measurements on both populations becomes more valuable with each passing year.

Brittany and Lance holding up a large drone while standing on a boat.
Pod of beluga whales in bright blue water.
Photo by Valeria Vergara.

Beluga whales: a sound centered species in today’s noisy world

​​Belugas whales, nicknamed “Sea Canaries” are one of the most acoustically active cetacean species, using sound to communicate, maintain contact, navigate, detect prey, and avoid predators. Not only is this fact fundamental in terms of evaluating the effects of underwater noise pollution on this species, but it is also a key consideration in terms of designing methods to monitor their populations effectively.

The beluga acoustic research project is aimed at deepening our understanding of beluga vocalizations and impacts of noise and disturbance on beluga communication and behavior. Our most recent study showed that masking of the quiet calls of newborn belugas by noise can impair mother-calf contact. We work primarily in the St Lawrence River Estuary, Quebec, in close collaboration with the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM), and in the Churchill River Estuary, Manitoba. Our studies involve the synchronization of underwater recordings and drone footage. This ability to pair simultaneous aerial imagery and underwater acoustic data is an innovative marriage of technologies that can shed light on beluga communication and behavior with an unprecedented level of detail.

A major scientific output expected from this multi-year, multi-site project is to identify individuals, groups, and communities of female belugas acoustically (Valeria has already published preliminary evidence that beluga contact calls may be individual vocal signatures, much like “sonic name tags”). Recognizing and thus monitoring belugas acoustically has important consequences for the conservation of some declining populations. In addition, this project informs our ability to predict group activity and group composition (such as the presence of females with neonates) simply by listening. This can inform our interpretation of Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) data, and provide a non-invasive tool to assist monitoring efforts in beluga habitats worldwide, including those that face threats from new development projects.