Northward Migration: Seeking whales and whale stories on B.C.’s north coast

Written by Caitlin Birdsall, Vancouver Aquarium Coordinator, North Coast Initiative
Originally posted on the Vancouver Aquarium’s Aqua Blog.
It’s early January and I’m heading north up the coast of British Columbia to Prince Rupert.  As someone who studies whale populations in B.C., this is not a normal migration. In fact, many whale species have left the north coast for the year.  Most of the grey, fin and humpback whales that spend the summer and fall months feasting in these waters have headed south until next spring.
So, instead of heading north to find whales, I am heading north to find people.  That is, people who live, work and play on the water of the north coast. People who can act as the eyes and ears of this wild area to help us better understand the whale populations within it. It’s these people who will play an integral part of the Vancouver Aquarium’s newest initiative: the Vancouver Aquarium’s North Coast Field Office located in Prince Rupert.

Close up of three southern resident Killer whales (Orcinus orca) moving through the waters at Active Pass, British Columbia, Canada © Natalie Bowes / WWF-Canada
Close up of three southern resident Killer whales (Orcinus orca) moving through the waters at Active Pass, British Columbia, Canada © Natalie Bowes / WWF-Canada

Asking mariners and coastal residents to act as whale observers is not new for the Vancouver Aquarium.  As far back as the 1950s, the Aquarium collected anecdotes of whale encounters from enthusiastic mariners and coastal residents.  In 1999, the Aquarium, in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, created  the BC Cetacean Sightings Network (BCCSN) to formalize this story-collecting and began soliciting, verifying and archiving thousands of cetacean (whales,  dolphins, and porpoises) sightings each year.  In the 14 years since it started, the BCCSN has collected over 75,000 sightings from 4,000 observers.
The BCCSN now curates one of the largest cetacean databases on the coast – a data source provided to dozens of research, conservation and environmental assessment projects each year, including efforts focused on recovery planning and critical habitat identification.  Essentially, we use citizen scientists to better understand the distribution and occurrence of cetaceans. However, the northern reaches of our coastline has remained an area with little observer coverage and participation – we hope to change this with the new North Coast Field Office.
Our goal is to create a community-based cetacean research program in the north that will allow for better long-term monitoring of an area that has had less intensive research than more southerly areas of the coast.  We hope that by providing outreach, education and training, we can engage locals in a way that the Sightings Network hasn’t been able to previously.  Having a North Coast Field Office will be one more piece of the puzzle in the highly collaborative field of cetacean research and conservation in this province.
The north coast is a special area for cetaceans.  Hoards of humpbacks bubblenet cooperatively in areas like Work Channel, large porpoise aggregations can be found in inland waters, and killer whales take advantage of the plentiful salmon runs that use the Skeena and Nass Rivers early in the summer. I am itching to hear from the people that live amongst these animals, and to take their experiences and turn them into valuable data.
Learning about the cetaceans in this area right now is particularly timely.  As an increase in industry and development on the north coast is being touted, it is especially important to increase the baseline knowledge of these animals and to create capacity for consistent long-term monitoring of cetacean abundance and habitat use.
So northwards I go, saying goodbye to my office in Vancouver, packing up my golden retriever and heading off on a 20 hour drive.  If you’re a north coaster – I hope to meet you soon.  If you spot a whale, dolphin, porpoise (or even a sea turtle!), report it to  Stay tuned on our Facebook page for upcoming events and workshops or contact me at [email protected].
Caitlin Birdsall is a biologist and educator specifically interested in citizen science. She has worked with the Vancouver Aquarium’s Cetacean Research Program since 2008 and recently relocated to Prince Rupert to head up the newly establish North Coast Field Office.