In celebration of Oceans Day, the Mayne Island Conservancy hosted a three-part event on whale conservation efforts in the Salish Sea on June 29, where we learned how connecting people to the ocean through art, innovation and citizen science can motivate protection of marine ecosystems.

Amy Zimmerman. Photo by Robin Walsh.

To open the evening, island resident Amy Zimmerman described her development of “Critical Distance,” an augmented reality experience which premiered at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History on Sept. 29, 2021, and won a Tribeca Film Award the same year. “My hope with this project is that it will not only lessen our impact on these creatures, but perhaps it can captivate and inspire more orca advocates. I fell in love with this beautiful family, and it inspired me to take action.” says Zimmerman. “Critical Distance” allows audiences to interact with Jpod of the Southern Resident orcas through augmented reality. “We have created an XR experience using Hololens technology,” she says. “It immerses audiences under the Salish Sea and puts you face to face with this critically endangered pod, allowing us to experience firsthand what our human impact can cause within their waters.” Amy explained how shocked she was when she heard the hydrophone recordings in the Interim Sanctuary Zones near Saturna and Pender Islands. The vocalisations of the whales are drowned out whenever ships pass overhead, and the noise travels much faster under the sea, reducing the whales’ ability to echolocate by up to 90%.

Excerpt from Port of Vancouver vessel noise infographic. See the full graphic and hear a recording of whales attempting to vocalise over ship noise.

Amy hopes that by developing immersion technologies like these, she can encourage our empathy for other creatures and involve more people in conservation efforts. This type of virtual reality gives a simulated access to oceans to those living inland, and may eventually replace the practice of keeping animals such as whales and other species in captivity.

Next we heard from Willi Jansen and Morgan Van Kirk of the Whale Protection Unit (Dept of Fisheries and Oceans Canada). This unit is fairly new, having been established in 2019, but marks a real change from the policy of killing orcas which was going on until the 1960s. Willi described how they monitor the Interim Sanctuary Zones to keep boats out of these areas, and explained the four main factors affecting the southern resident orcas: loss of prey species, loss of protected habitat, noise pollution, and chemical contaminants. We learned how robust the Bigg’s orcas (sometimes called Transients) are in comparison, largely due to their more varied diet and their living further away from the Lower Mainland. The Southern residents have a high mortality rate as the mothers pass contaminants on to their calves. Autopsies have shown very high rates of chemicals in the males and calves in particular. The audience had questions about whale watching vessels, and Willi and Morgan explained the legal procedures they are able to follow if rules are broken by these and other boaters.

Lastly, we heard from Saturna Island resident Susie Washington-Smyth, coordinator of the Southern Gulf Islands Whale Sighting Network, a citizen-science group who observe, record, and identify cetaceans from land, with particular interest in the new travel patterns of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales, the increasing population of Bigg’s killer whales, and the return of the humpback. They do this through direct observation and data collection, including visual reports, photographs, and the use of range finders and hydrophones. They are able to identify both pods and individual whales. The data collected is shared with various governmental organisations who make decisions about human activity in the Salish Sea. This group of concerned citizens are hoping to discourage boat disturbance to whales which disrupts their feeding activity and affects their health. The group is seeking more volunteers to track these animals in our waters. If you are interested in learning more about volunteering, please contact the Mayne Island Conservancy: info@mayneconservancy.ca.

Orcas and freighter. Image courtesy of Southern Gulf Islands Whale Sighting Network (SIMRES).

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