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Captain’s Blog

Marine Wildlife Conservation & Research Contributions

January 27, 2021

Written by: Rachael Merrett, Orca Spirit Adventures Marine Naturalist

At Orca Spirit Adventures, marine wildlife conservation and protection are at the heart of everything we do. We feel the most effective ways to protect local wildlife are through the education of our guests and supporting scientific research and monitoring. With such a diverse array of species living in the Salish Sea, we have so many opportunities to contribute information and sightings data with research organizations and government agencies in both Canada and the United States.

Humpback Mania

Humpback whales have become a very common and exciting species to see on our tours!

We like to call 2015 the “Humpback Comeback” because that summer was the start of humpback mania in local waters. Before 2015, we only saw humpbacks a few times in the spring and then again in the fall and now we see them almost every day!

(a) Split Fin (BCZ0298) (b) Two Spot (MMZ0013)

Photo Credits: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist

Every year, we see new individuals that we have never recorded being here before. New babies also return with their mamas in the spring who we are always excited to meet!

Humpback ID

With so many sightings of Humpback whales, we have been able to submit hundreds of ID shots of their unique flukes to local and international research organizations to support these marine wildlife conservation efforts.

To ID and track Humpbacks around the world, researchers and whale watchers look at the underside of a Humpback’s tail, which is easy to photograph when they lift it high into the air before a big dive. Their flukes have different shapes, unique edges, scars, and pigmentation patterns that researchers use to ID them.

(a) Scuttle (MMX0084) (b) Scratchy (MMY0079) (c) Anvil (MMZ0007)

The above photos are great examples of how different the tails of individual Humpbacks can be and why they can be used for identification. (Photo Credits: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist)

Our images can also help determine the sex of many individuals with photos of Humpback bellies, where the shape of and markings around the genital area allow us to determine if a Humpback is male or female.

(a) Tulip (MMX0012) (b) Yogi (BCY0409)

These photos of Tulip (MMX0012) breaching and a close-up of Yogi’s genital area allow whale watchers and researchers to determine the sex of individuals by showing differences in the shape of the genital area and the presence or absence of mammary slits. Tulip is a female and Yogi is a male! (Photo Credit: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist)

Humpback Whales of the Salish Sea ID Guide Contributions

To help support marine wildlife conservation in the Salish Sea, Orca Spirit naturalists submit ID photos of Humpback whales to contribute to the “Humpback Whales of the Salish Sea” ID guide created and updated by Mark Malleson and Tasli Shaw, two fellow whale watching industry members.

This ID guide includes Humpbacks that have been documented in the Salish Sea and is made up of ID shots taken by members of the local whale watching and research communities.

These photos were taken by Orca Spirit naturalist Rachael Merrett and are included in the latest version of the Humpback Whales of the Salish Sea ID Guide.

The photo of MMX0249 was the first image of this whale submitted to science! These two whales have yet to be given common names.

Happy Whale Contributions

If you’re inspired to help with tracking and research efforts, we have good news – you can help too!

One of the platforms we submit Humpback ID photos to is called Happy Whale and it engages citizen scientists to help identify individual marine mammals that can be used for science or to satisfy people’s curiosity about who they saw and where they go.

How It Works:

  • You submit photos of your whale encounters.
  • Happy Whale identifies your whale(s) by their unique markings.
  • Happy Whale tracks your whale(s) around the world.
  • You get email alerts letting you know that your whale(s) have been identified and you get to see a map of all the locations your whale(s) has been seen!

It’s Whale-y Easy!

Below is a screenshot from Happy Whale of the movements and report of Humpback Raptor (BCY0458) in the Salish Sea!

Here is another screenshot from Happy Whale showing the migration of a Humpback named Bond (MMX0007) from the Salish Sea to Hawaii!


Marine Education and Research Society Contributions

Another important way we contribute to Humpback research and tracking is through photo ID submissions to a local organization called the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS), located on Vancouver Island. MERS focuses their work on Humpback whales and Minke whales off the coast of British Columbia.

A very important component of the MERS’s work is to educate the public about the different species of whales off the BC coast and to inform people about safe boating practices to prevent vessel strikes.

They have created an effective outreach program called, “See a Blow, Go Slow” to help people remember to slow down on the water when whales are or may be present to keep both the whales and boaters safe.

Orca Spirit also sponsors a Humpback named Argonaut annually through the MERS Humpback Whale Sponsorship Program! Funds raised through the program help the society continue its research, education and response efforts.

Here is our sponsored whale, Argonaut! Source: Northern Vancouver Island Catalogue (2020)- Marine Education and Research Society, by Jackie Hildering and Christie McMillan

Naming the Whales!

One of the most rewarding and fun aspects of being involved with whale research is the opportunity to help give the whales common names!

Orca Spirit naturalists have named both Bigg’s (Transient) and Humpback whales in the past few seasons.

  • Archer the Humpback (MMX0023), named by Leah Vanderwiel
  • Chip the Bigg’s Killer Whale, named by Leah Vanderwiel. Chip’s nick in his dorsal fin reminded Leah of the Disney character Chip from Beauty and the Beast, which inspired his name.
  • Shrapnel (MMX0178), named by Talia Goodyear.
  • Teardrop (MMZ0071), named by Talia Goodyear.
  • Bokeh (MMX0219), named by Talia Goodyear.
  • Albatross (MMZ0072), named by Talia Goodyear.
  • Panthera (T60) the Bigg’s Killer Whale, named by Talia Goodyear. She chose Panthera because her left saddle patch has deep rake marks (scars)that look like a classic cat scratch and her left eye patch looks like the side profile of a big cat.
  • Storm (T36A3), a Bigg’s Killer Whale born in 2015, named by Talia Goodyear. The lightning bolt-shaped mark in its left saddle patch inspired the name.


Bokeh (MMX0219)

Contributing to science and research efforts is something Orca Spirit is very proud to be a part of. Collaboration is a successful way to advance marine wildlife conservation and protection and we are excited to continue to contribute this coming season.

Are you curious to learn more? Do you want to snap your own pictures to contribute to science? Join us on a whale watching tour this year! Get 20% off your summer tour when you book before March 31st, 2021.





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