Scientists using aerial drones to compare northern and southern whale behaviour

Scientists using aerial drones to compare northern and southern whale behaviour

VANCOUVER — A University of British Columbia scientist says he was delightedly caught off guard when he spotted a southern resident killer whale calf appearing to use a fish as her teething ring and swimming with her mother this summer.

“We saw this female calf with its mom and what really caught my attention is that on the two days we saw her, she had a fish in her mouth,” said Andrew Trites in an interview Monday.

Trites led a team of scientists over three weeks in August and September monitoring pods of southern and northern resident killer whales in the Salish Sea and off the central coast of B.C. The team is using aerial drones and sonar to study whether endangered southern residents are getting enough of their preferred prey, chinook salmon.

He said the calf holding a fish in her mouth was about three months old and they only drink milk at that age.

“Whether or not the calf was teething or learning to be just like mom … these are some of the things that we observed and we talk about, and wonder and speculate on, and helps us get a bigger and more complete picture of the lives of these whales.”

The scientists are comparing the eating habits of the southern and northern resident killer whales.

Like southern residents, the northern whales feed primarily on chinook and chum salmon and face many similar threats from water and noise pollution, increased shipping traffic and reduced abundance of food, Trites said.

But unlike their southern counterparts the northern population has increased significantly, he added.

The southern resident killer whales number 73 while their northern counterparts stand at about 300.

So, one of the things scientists want to compare is which of these mammals has better habitat in terms of food.

“Are they getting enough fish to know where are the fish? How many are there? Are they deep, are they shallow, far from shore, near to shore?” Trites asked.

“And we have to get all this information to answer the question: Are there enough fish here for the southern resident killer whales?”

Mei Sato, a research associate who is using sonar equipment similar to that used by fishing boats, is helping scientists figure out how the dinner plate for killer whales is set.

Initial results show deeper waters hold bigger fish, she said.

But Trites said whales expend greater amounts of energy when they dive into deep waters to get their meals.

Another question that scientists are looking to answer is why the orcas are not frequenting the areas around the Salish Sea and San Juan Islands.

Trites said that for the last three years the southern residents have not come back to the Salish Sea as often as they used to in spite of there appearing to be plenty of fish this year.

On their trip, Trites and his team observed southern residents in the Salish Sea where they were catching fish, breaching and indulging in social behaviour that suggested that they were feeling pretty good, he said.

“But then they left. They didn’t stay. That was surprising,” he said.

The scientists have a theory.

The killer whales may be running a trapline, he said.

“Maybe a little bit like a hummingbird where you put your feeder out and the bird doesn’t guard it all summer,” he said. “The bird comes and takes a few sips and goes somewhere else.”

The orcas’ trapline could run from Vancouver Island all the way down to California, he said.

Another explanation could be linked to the death of the oldest female of the group, also known as Granny, almost four years ago, Trites said.

Granny would lead her pod to the Salish Sea to feed all summer but after her death, her daughters may have decided they would summer elsewhere, he said.

“It’s possible that this summer in particular it’s not that something was wrong here but something was much better elsewhere,” Trites said.

“There’s a story here and our job as scientists is to piece that story together.”

Scientists want to go back on the waters again next summer to collect more data.

But they hope to analyze the data they have by spring next year to build a comprehensive picture of resident killer whale feeding behaviour to inform conservation and recovery efforts, he said.

Trites said another observation that pleasantly surprised scientists was the social nature of the whales.

“We watched mothers and their calves play together. And you see a mother with her two or three-year-old and her calf is whacking its mother with its tail and the mother is pushing it,” he said.

“And I hadn’t appreciated, as a scientist, how tactile the animals were. Touch … is so important to killer whales. And I hadn’t appreciated that until I sat on the ship and saw this for the first time.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 4, 2019.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

Killer Whales

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dwayne Buckle, 40 of Red Deer finished a 1,638-kilometre walk, in honour of his family. The 12-week, 82 day-journey wrapped up in Port Hardy, B.C. on Monday. Facebook photo
Red Deer man completes 1,638 km hike for cancer research

Dwayne Buckle, a Red Deer firefighter returned home Friday after his 12-week journey

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine deliveres to Canada are being delayed because of complications at their European distribution facility. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Delays of Pfizer vaccine delivery to impact Alberta’s vaccination plans

Alberta has administered 74,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine so far

Two inmates at Bowden Institution have tested positive for COVID-19. (Black Press File Photo)
2 Bowden inmates test positive for COVID-19

A pair of inmates at Bowden Institution have tested positive for COVID-19.… Continue reading

Salons and barbershops are able to open on Monday, the Government of Alberta announced this week. (Photo courtesy Pixabay)
Red Deer salon owner “relieved” business can re-open next week

The owner of a Red Deer salon says she’s “definitely relieved” her… Continue reading

Red Deer Valhalla Pure Outfitters owner Darren Schaedeli has seen a significant increase in those looking to tackle winter experiences. Some are trying their hand at "hot tent camping" as he did in the West Country several weeks ago.
Photo contributed
Central Albertans enjoying the great outdoors this winter

Stir crazy and beach-deprived central Albertans are embracing the great outdoors this… Continue reading

Lesser Slave Lake UCP MLA Pat Rehn. (Facebook)
Updated: Jason Kenney kicks Lesser Slave Lake MLA out of caucus

Pat Rehn will not be permitted to run for UCP nominations

Manchester United's Tobin Heath celebrates scoring against West Ham United during the FA Women's Super League match at Victoria Road Stadium, London, Sunday Oct. 18, 2020. (John Walton/PA via AP)
Double 1st: Man U men, women leading 2 leagues, play champs

Double 1st: Man U men, women leading 2 leagues, play champs

A group of Buffalo Bills fans from Toronto pose for a photo while tailgating in the parking lot of New Era Field before an NFL football game between the Bills and the New York Jets, Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, in Orchard Park, N.Y. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Adrian Kraus
Being unable to attend Bills playoff games due to pandemic pains Canadian fans

Being unable to attend Bills playoff games due to pandemic pains Canadian fans

FILE - Chicago Cubs' Kris Bryant runs the bases after hitting a solo home run in the sixth inning during a baseball game against the Cleveland Indians in Cleveland, in this Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, file photo. Bryant is among roughly 125 players who entered Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, eligible to exchange salary arbitration figures with their teams. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak, File)
Lindor, Bryant, Bellinger, Seager get big-money deals

Lindor, Bryant, Bellinger, Seager get big-money deals

Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash points during the third quarter of the team's NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in New York. (Brad Penner/Pool Photo via AP)
More NBA games off, as league continues struggles with virus

More NBA games off, as league continues struggles with virus

Washington Capitals' Jakub Vrana (13) is congratulated for his goal during the second period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)
Vanecek makes 28 saves in NHL debut, Capitals sweep Sabres

Vanecek makes 28 saves in NHL debut, Capitals sweep Sabres

Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Collin Delia (60) makes a save after Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat (18) fell down during the first period of an NHL hockey game Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Stamkos, Palat lift Lightning over Blackhawks again

Stamkos, Palat lift Lightning over Blackhawks again

Canadian women's soccer team member Rhian Wilkinson is seen during a training session in Vancouver, B.C. Wednesday, April 21, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Former Canadian international Rhian Wilkinson leaves Canada Soccer coaching job

Former Canadian international Rhian Wilkinson leaves Canada Soccer coaching job

Tkachuk, Senators down Maple Leafs 5-3 in 1st game in 10 months

Tkachuk, Senators down Maple Leafs 5-3 in 1st game in 10 months

Most Read