Whale Sighting in the Salish Sea 

Photo by M. Welton from SIMRES

By Nora McCallum B.Sc., CIMA with Saturna Island Marine Research and Education Society (SIMRES)

There is something about that universal sense of glee and awe when we encounter whales. Whether it be a surprise sighting of a pod of orcas surfacing and giving their unmistakable “FWOOSH” as they exhale or hearing their seemingly ever cheerful, pulsed whistles and clicks on audio, it gives a thrill that never gets old. Orcas always make themselves known when out in the water, but the busy and ever-increasing noise resulting from greater and greater numbers of people living and working here on the Salish Sea drown out the orca’s calls. 

We all worry for their future as they may begin to avoid their usual haunts, going elsewhere, to quieter areas where they can more effectively hunt or, more tragically, we may lose them altogether. 

What Can be Done?

How can we even know the full impact we are having due to our behaviours? These questions are the central focus of many groups of dedicated people here on the Salish Sea who have been studying these issues for many years. This dedicated, diverse group includes the Saturna Island Marine Research and Education Society (SIMRES), the Southern Gulf Islands Whale Sighting Network (SGIWSN), Dr. Ruth Joy’s research group at Simon Fraser University (SFU), the Coastal and Ocean Resource Analysis Lab (CORAL) at the University of Victoria (UVic), the Port of Vancouver, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Transport Canada to name a few. 

One measure, initiated by Transport Canada, is the creation of Interim Sanctuary Zones (ISZ) to provide protected areas for the safe movement of marine mammals as they transit through the Salish Sea.  

Has this Helped?

Recorded data for the last two years has provided some insight into the effects of the ISZ. In 2020 there were 51 separate and distinct sightings of whales in Boundary Pass ISZ in the Salish Sea for June through August. As of this summer there has been an explosion of reporting with an increase to over 500 sightings from June to August of 2022 in the Boundary Pass ISZ. This trend is encouraging but there is always room for improvement! There are still big questions that we need the science and the data to be able to answer. 

The dedicated groups of collaborative partners continue to seek answers to the questions using hydrophones, recording of visual sightings, LASER range finders for exact positions of whales and infrared cameras to record videos of whale activity. 

Looking Forward

We continue to watch and listen for those moments of surprise and delight when whales treat us to their presence as they pass by. The opportunity to observe them in their natural environment and record those observations ensures sustainable co-existence here in the Salish Sea for generations to come.