Wildlife

Working with whales through Direct Action

Sydni Long writes about her experience using citizen-reported sightings for the Ocean Bridge program

  • Feb 12, 2021
  • 969 words
  • 4 minutes
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For as long as I can remember I have wanted to work in ocean conservation. Gaining relevant experience in the field, however, remained a mystery. Like a planktonic jelly adrift in the ocean, I was in the right place but unsure of my direction. Then, along came the Ocean Bridge Direct Action program, an immersive opportunity to work with a marine conservation organization and gain experience in the field I am passionate about. I was given a placement with the North Coast Cetacean Research Initiative (NCCRI) in Prince Rupert, researching local populations of whales, dolphins, and porpoise and assisting the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network.

Prince Rupert is in the Northern Great Bear Rainforest, in the heart of the Coast Ts’mysen traditional territory, and is known as one of the rainiest cities in Canada. The rain, however, has not dampened my spirit. I feel very fortunate to be living and working in such a beautiful place with the small but mighty NCCRI research team.  

My placement began in September, which also marks the end of the summer field season due to severe fall and winter storms. Luckily, I was able to head out on the water with the team for their seasonal fieldwork. We were fortunate enough to observe humpback whales, harbour porpoise and killer whales. The stormy days allowed for ample office work, which included whale photo identification and mapping cetacean sightings. During this time, I gained appreciation for the power of spreadsheets and the importance of gathering citizen sightings through the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network (BCCSN). Together, this information can provide powerful insights into the distribution of cetaceans, or whales, dolphins, and porpoises in B.C. 

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Photo: Karina Dracott

The BCCSN is a citizen science program that collects whale, dolphin, and porpoise sighting information from reports along the coast of B.C. But what is citizen science?

Citizen science is the practice of public participation and collaboration in scientific research. In the case of the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, the citizen scientists are the residents of the B.C. coast that are submitting whale sightings and contributing to a vast database that hosts more than 130,000 sightings! The BCCSN has been running for over 20 years, and this important data contributes to a wide variety of research projects ranging from environmental impact assessments to species at risk recovery plans. This citizen science project also contributes to analyzing species abundance, distribution, and understanding threats such as underwater noise and vessel disturbance. 

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Photo: Syndi Long

Wondering what happens to your sightings after you send them to us? Well that’s where my role came in.

Going into my placement I was familiar with citizen science; however, I was unaware of not only the contribution it can make to research, but also how well it aligned with my interests.
 
One of the most time consuming, yet very rewarding tasks was responding to the coastal citizens who reported whales. Once the sightings were properly formatted and entered, I would begin responding to the sightings. The process of replying would often take days as I would be responding to more than 500 sightings that came in that month through the WhaleReport App. By replying to the sightings, I became aware of just how much collective effort and desire people have to help protect cetaceans on this coast. Some would respond with a story of their experience with marine mammals, others with pictures. Some write in detail about the hope they have that their children will one day share the same significant experience too. By responding to each individual with either a positive identification of the species they saw, a fun fact, or even relating to my own personal experience, it created a connection with each person and reminds them that they are part of a larger project with a common goal of protecting marine mammals on the coast. This exchange made me hopeful as someone who does care about conservation of the marine environment. I strongly believe that when people have a special experience, such as an interaction with a whale, they care a lot more about the future of it and its environment.

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Photo: Ocean Wise

In my experience working and learning with the marine mammal research team at Ocean Wise, I have observed the effects of citizen science and the work that it can accomplish. Citizen science not only encourages the public to join in the scientific process, but it also provides an understanding of the work that is accomplished by working together. The protection of cetaceans is something I am passionate about, and Direct Action has been an amazing opportunity to work in this field of conservation. The collection of these experiences shaped my placement and has provided me with a greater understanding of citizen science and how it is used. 

You can contribute to the BC Cetacean Sightings Network by reporting your sightings of whales, dolphins, and porpoises (and sea turtles) via the app, via email or online.

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