Captain’s Blog

The Whale Scat Sniffing Canines of the Salish Sea

April 1, 2019

Did you know that the waters of the Pacific Northwest are considered to have the highest concentration of killer whales in the world?  Whale watching tours leaving Victoria are filled with the sights of several species of whales including two types of orcas, humpbacks, minke whales and grey whales. With so many cetaceans found in the area, it is no wonder that this location is a hotbed for whale research.

The Southern Resident orcas are an eco-type of killer whale that only eats fish and are heavily reliant on Chinook salmon.  The Transient or Bigg’s killer whales are another eco-type who feast only on mammals. The two types of orcas never interbreed nor socialize, and they each have their own unique language. This knowledge is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we know about these two populations. We have over 40 years of research to thank for giving us such an in-depth understanding of their lives. Despite the tireless work by scientists over the past four decades, there is always more to learn about these top predators of the sea.

 

(a)                                                                             (b)

Photos: (a) Southern Resident Princess Angeline (J-17) and her young daughter Kiki (J-53) surface in choppy waters off San Juan Island.  (b) A family of Transient or Bigg’s Killer Whales traveling in a tight-knit formation in the Juan de Fuca Strait. Photo Credit: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist

One fascinating way in which research is conducted on the orcas is by whale poop sniffing dogs.  Yes, there are actually dogs trained to smell whale poop! It sure beats the intensity of sniffing out drugs at the airport!  Who wouldn’t want to spend their day trailing behind whales and enjoying the salty spray of the ocean?! Collecting and analyzing what the whales discard gives us a massive amount of information that aids in our understanding of the whales’ health and drives scientifically based conservation efforts.

For many years, the whale watching industry has educated people around the world about one special black labrador retriever named Tucker. Tucker spent years on the water, mostly off San Juan Island, sniffing out the scat of Southern Resident orcas.  While wearing his bright yellow life jacket, Tucker would hang his nose over the bow of the small speed boat and absorb all the complex smells of the ocean. His sniffer was so keen, he could smell a floating mass of whale poop up to a nautical mile away!  Tucker would give the signal that he detected a whale sized #2 and the researchers would collect the scat samples using a long pole with a scoop on the end. Tucker has never been a fan of water but he does love balls, thus as a reward, Tucker was given a ball to play with after his great find.

Photo: Tucker and the research team out sniffing for Southern Resident Killer Whale scat. Photo Credit: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist

Tucker retired a couple of seasons ago to enjoy sniffing around for whatever he wishes.  He had a bit of a rough start to his golden days when he was diagnosed with Primary Hyperparathroidism, which can cause many complications including kidney stones. Tucker needed an expensive surgery that his owner could not afford, so the whale watching community and people from around the world who had seen Tucker on the water rallied together to raise enough money for his GoFundMe campaign to pay for his surgery and recovery costs.  Thankfully Tucker’s surgery went very well and he was back to his old self in good time.  We were all so happy to be able to show Tuck some love when he needed it as we are ever indebted to him for all he has done for orca research.  He was always such a pleasure to see on the water and provided a conservation teaching moment for all of the naturalists and captains. We know that thousands of people from around the world have pictures of an adorable black lab in a yellow life jacket in their photo collections of their visit to the west coast. Tucker will be missed on the water, but he will never be forgotten!

 

Photos: An excited Tucker in his yellow life jacket after detecting whale scat. Notice the researcher off the stern of the vessel using a scoop on a pole to collect a sample. Photo Credit: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist

Our favourite four-legged friends on the water are Conservation Canines or C-K9s.  The C-K9 program is part of the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology. We now see a new whale poop-sniffing dog scouring the surface of the water for the telltale smell that a whale has done its business.  Jack, an Australian Cattle Dog, has taken over the reins from Tucker, helping to collect approximately 150 scat samples a year from the Southern Resident Killer Whales. His previous employment included locating wolverines and Townsend’s Long-eared bats!

Photo: New Whale scat-sniffing pooch- Jack, working hard to detect any whale #2!  Photo Credit: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist

So what do the scat samples tell us exactly?  From the samples, scientists can determine what species of food the whales are eating and in what proportion.  That is how we know that Southern Residents rely on Chinook for up to 90% of their diet. Toxic contamination loads can also be determined, teaching us what chemicals are in the environment and what concentration levels are being found in the whales.  Scat samples have helped scientists discover that J,K and L pods have varying levels of different chemicals in their bodies that can be traced back to the chemical’s source. J-pod whales have higher concentrations of chemicals found in nearshore waters while L pod has higher concentrations of chemicals that are more prevalent offshore and further south, which aligns with sightings data of the two pods.

From the DNA found in the whale scat, researchers have been able to determine the sex of the whale that made the deposit and even do paternity tests.  This information led to the discovery that Ruffles (J-1) who is now deceased, and Mega (L-41) have fathered the majority of all whales sampled within the Southern Resident community who were born since 1990. These samples have also shown that there is no genetic evidence of a male under the age of 25 siring any offspring even though the males are sexually active much earlier.  This leads to important hypotheses about the social dynamics within the population. According to DNA evidence, female Southern Residents may prefer to mate with older, larger males.

   

(a)                                                                              (b)

Photos: (a) Ruffles (J-1) and (b) Mega (L-41), the two males who have sired the majority of all Southern Residents born since 1990. Photo Credit: (a) Corey Vink- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist (b) Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist

Whale scat is so full of information, scientists can detect pregnancy hormones and even determine what stage of pregnancy a given female is in.  They can also measure different types of stress hormones, illness indicators and they can detect bacteria, viruses, or parasites. The best part about collecting whale scat for research is that it is non-invasive. No darts are shot to collect skin samples, which was a method used in the past to collect the same data.  All of this information can be used to make informed decisions about the most effective and appropriate conservation measures to protect this endangered population.

So the next time you come out whale watching with us, be on the lookout for a furry research assistant named Jack.  He is bound to catch your attention, but his attention will be focused on sniffing out the not so subtle smells of that ever important whale poop!

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