This week, SpringTide owner Dan Kukat was in the news concerning a somewhat unexpected ally in whale conservation: the Royal Canadian Navy. The Navy, whose Pacific base of operations is right here in Victoria, is a very important presence in town. Victoria is proud to be home to our servicemen and women, and the Navy is a large part of the marine industry here. SpringTide and other whale watch operators have a good working relationship with the Navy on and off the water, and we’ve recently taken another step toward working together to protect our endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

One of the most common places that we find marine mammal wildlife on our tours is around Race Rocks, an ecological preserve to the southwest of Victoria harbour. Adjacent to Race Rocks is a Naval training facility on Bentinck Island, and during certain times of the month there are scheduled drills that keep the Navy crew ready for combat. These include blasting drills, which involve very loud ‘booms’ from explosives set off on land. Last week, these drills were taking place at the same time that a group of killer whales were transiting the area. Nearby whale watching boats rushed in to inform the Naval scout boats that whales were in the area, and after a few minutes, the blasting was ceased. However, there was some concern that the reaction time could have been much faster. As the liaison between the Pacific Whale Watch Association and the Navy, Dan has spent a lot of time in the past week trying to put in place a better system that will allow the whale watching industry to get directly in touch with the naval base and have blasting operations ceased before the whales get close. This is an exciting step for the cross-industry cooperation that we have enjoyed with the Navy for several years, and will hopefully have positive consequences for the whales.

 

Smoke rising from a blasting charge set off on Bentinck Island during Naval training exercises. Photo courtesy of www.racerocks.ca.

By now, you’re probably wondering what the problem might be. If the blasting charges are being set off on land, what is the danger to the whales? The answer, as it often is with killer whales and other marine mammals, has to do with hearing. While they may not be in danger from the explosions themselves, the sound from the blasting drills can be a huge detriment to their health. Many marine mammals, and killer whales in particular, have very sensitive ears. This allows them to hear sounds emitted from miles away, so they can keep track of other whales, find prey, and find their way around using echolocation. Constant low-level noise from human sources, such as boats and machinery, can impact their ability to hear important signals in their environment in the same way that having dinner in a crowded, noisy restaurant can impact your ability to hear your friends over the din. You may have to talk louder, or resort to hand gestures and other ways of communicating. This change in behaviour, called the Lombard effect, has been documented in lots of different whale and dolphin species, and can contribute to decreased overall health over time.

Toothed whales like killer whales have complex hearing organs and very sensitive ears. This is a diagram showing how echolocation works (from Wikipedia).

On the other hand, short and very loud sounds, such as those made by calving glaciers, seismic exploration, or those Navy blasting caps, can have immediate and direct effects on whales’ eardrums, in much the same way that loud noises from fireworks or gunshots can impact our hearing, sometimes permanently. A killer whale that can no longer hear is at a great disadvantage, and may eventually die. I have personally been out several times round blasting drills, and the sound from even a mile away is loud enough to reverberate through your chest like bass speakers at a rock concert. That decibel level is harmful to people up close, and can certainly hurt killer whales if they are close enough. With the Southern Resident killer whales already critically endangered, they don’t need any other potentially harmful obstacles in their environment.

It’s very exciting to hear that the Navy is willing to work closely with whale watchers to avoid putting whales in harm’s way. Their respect for wildlife and their neighbours on the water is encouraging, and might pave the way for even more cooperation in the future.

 

Kat Nikolich

Onboard Naturalist