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Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Tangled Tale of Humpback Research

So it was Tuesday morning, and I was one very excited individual. Because it was garbage day perhaps? No, though that's still rather novel here in Sointula. Because it wasn't raining? No, but also a novelty. Could it be the website material I was going to write that day? Um... not quite. No, I was excited because (for a change) I knew exactly what I would blog about that morning.

I was going to tell you about a small but dedicated group of people who are involved in a rather exciting research project. I could allow the people introduce themselves, as they clearly didn't need my help. The project is called the Humpback Comeback Project (and no, it isn't a campaign to get Quasimodo to run for re-election). Rather, it focuses on Humpback Whales, those magnificent 40-ton, barnacle-encrusted rorqual.
Humpbacks are probably best known for their beautiful and complex songs, indeed the longest and most complex in the animal kingdom. If you've listened to whale music (and really, who hasn't), you were probably listening to Humpbacks. Their behaviour is also complex. They care for their young for long periods of time, sometimes nursing them for up to a year. They often 'hunt' in large groups by creating 'bubble nets' around their prey (small fish, crustaceans, and krill), then charging through the captive meal. They are not necessarily 'gentle' creatures, and use their great barnacle-plated flukes (which earned them their genus, Megaptera, or 'giant wings') to defend themselves and their calves. On occasions when they are accosted by killer whales, they fight so vigorously that the only terrestrial parallel which springs to mind is an ill-tempered swan beating the stuffing out of a pack of terriers. Only in this case, the swan is three times the size of an elephant and the terriers are each as large as a moving van (okay, my analogy is starting to stretch a bit).

Like so many other cetaceans before it, the Humpback fell prey to the one predator against which it could not defend itself (I'll give you a hint: they weren't terriers). Shore-base commercial whaling decimated Humpback populations in the Pacific Northwest until it was banned in 1966 (Coal Harbour was the last station to close in 1967). Today, Humpbacks are no strangers to Mexico, Hawaii and Alaska. They are a frequent sight on the north and central coasts of BC, but have only recently begun to return to the waters around northern Vancouver Island.

While the return of the Humpback has proved exciting for local whale enthusiasts, the whales still face many threats. Chief among these are collisions with vessel traffic and entanglement in fishing gear. Entanglements are often fatal, or at the very least make it difficult for the whales to hunt or reproduce. However, many of the entanglements go unobserved, and data on their frequency are very poor.

This is where the group I was going to tell you about earlier comes in. For the past seven years, these individuals have been documenting the return of the Humpbacks and creating a catalogue for their identification. Through this work, they have come to recognize particular types of scarring on the whales that result from entanglement [left (photo by Jackie Hildering)]. By photographing a range of individual whales along the coast and analyzing the photos, they can get a sense of the frequency with which Humpbacks become entangled.

I was so excited to tell you all this because today was the day they would find out about their funding for the project. But alas, it was not to be. The funding was not approved and they must now find alternate means to get this important and timely project off the ground.

Feel let down? Now you know how I felt! But what can you do? Well stay tuned, because something tells me that we haven't heard the last of this determined group, now dubbed the Marine Education and Research Society.

It just goes to show that if there's one thing you can plan on in marine research, it's that nothing will ever go as planned.

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