Gulf Island Whale Watchers Collect Data and Create Community

Joining the Southern Gulf Islands Whale Sighting Network eased my feelings of helplessness about environmental threats.

An orca peeks above the water in the Boundary Pass international shipping channel, near the BC coast, near a cargo ship.
Photo by Maureen Welton

An orca swims past a cargo vessel in the Boundary Pass international shipping channel.

It was 9:10 p.m. when my phone lit up with a text message: “2-3 large orcas moving East. If they stay where they are they may come down the channel.” 

The sun had just set, but blue-tinged light still seeped through the windows at my dad’s house on Saturna Island, the easternmost of BC’s Gulf Islands. I felt a sense of duty: my friend had travelled around the world from Scotland to visit me, lured by the tenuous promise of a whale sighting, and we’d yet to see anything. I grabbed our coats and ushered her out the door.

It was May 2023, three years after the creation of the Southern Gulf Islands Whale Sighting Network, a coalition of citizen scientists and researchers watching for the whales. In messages and reports, we tracked the whales’ movements through the straits and channels, hoping not just to catch a glimpse, but also to help protect them.

Our hopes were high as we followed the phone message’s directions and climbed the hill to East Point, a nose of grass and rock that juts out towards the BC and Washington State mainland. We climbed the stairs down to the beach, waiting for the orcas to make their way through the channel between Saturna and nearby Tumbo Island. On the white sand, we found Sarah-Dawn, who had sent the original message. We kept vigil with her as the light faded from the sky, our phones flashing with notifications as our neighbours tracked the whales’ movements along the shore.

Sound carries over water, so we heard the orcas for half an hour before they arrived at the beach. It was frustrating, hearing their exhales crack like gunshots through the channel as the night grew completely dark. It wasn’t until after 10 p.m. that the whales finally arrived. We followed them around the point by the sounds of their breathing and the quiet whoosh of their fins slicing through the water. We couldn’t even make out their shapes in the darkness.

On the way home, my friend said she was still happy to have been in the presence of whales, even if she didn’t get to see them.

Since 2015, when my dad moved to a house on Saturna perched on a cliff overlooking the water, I’ve spent a lot of the summers feeling helpless as I watched the critically endangered southern resident killer whales (SRKWs)—as well as the transient (or Bigg’s) killer whales and humpbacks that call this area home—swimming by our windows. 

Of course I was thrilled to see them, but buried beneath was another feeling, a deeper sadness, watching them search for food in a sparser and sparser ocean, seeing them hemmed in against the rocks by whale-watching boats and cargo ships. I could watch them, but it didn’t feel like there was much I could do—until our neighbour Susie Washington-Smyth helped to found the Southern Gulf Islands Whale Sighting Network. 

The idea for the network first arose in 2019, when the federal government announced an Interim Sanctuary Zone for the SRKWs that ran outside our window. As of December 2023, there are only 74 southern resident orcas remaining. The zone is a protected area for whales, which vessels—both motorized and non-motorized—are barred from entering. Both the design of the zone and the lack of public consultation raised questions for Susie and other Saturna residents.

We followed them by the quiet whoosh of their fins slicing through the water.

“That got me thinking that [my neighbours and I] all watch whales,” Susie says. “And we all have a real interest in the health of the various populations, not just the southern residents, but all of the whales. Frankly, they’re our nearest neighbours, and we have an unusual relationship with them. So I decided that I would call in my [scientist] friends and see what we could do.”

By 2020, Susie had set up the sighting network to train and connect whale-sighters on Saturna. Since then, the network has expanded to include Pender, Mayne, and Galiano Islands, with over 80 trained citizen scientists recording their observations, including my dad and me. Suddenly, there was something I could do to help, a network that could amplify my voice into something stronger.

The network runs over Discord, an online messaging platform originally used by gamers that became popular for communities to use for connection during the pandemic. “One of the things that was really important to me,” says Susie, “is that we developed a horizontal organization rather than a vertical one, and that everybody took ownership. But to do that, everybody had to have access to information, and so Discord has provided that.”

Within the Discord app, there are separate channels for sightings and photos from each of the different islands, a specific channel for SRKW sightings, general discussion, and even keys for identifying individual whales for members who want to dive deeper into their observations.

An orca swims near the rocky coast of Saturna Island, taking a breath and spraying up a mist of water.
Photo by Maureen Welton
An orca forages close to the sandstone shoreline off Cliffside on Saturna Island. Lush kelp beds in this area have diminished significantly due to the effects of climate change.

As I experienced on the night that my friend and I tried to catch a glimpse of the whales, the network allows sighters to alert each other to the whales’ presence and the direction they’re headed—not just on one island, but between the islands as well. It’s not unusual to see a message on the Saturna channel from a sighter on Pender letting us know that a group of whales are headed our way.

Susie says the network has been able to gather evidence of the whales’ patterns of local waterway use that she doesn’t think existed before.

“I think [what we knew] was probably anecdotal more than it was observational, and I think that’s really been a game-changer,” she says.

The network makes their reports through the conservation organization Ocean Wise’s WhaleReport Alert app, which then notifies nearby ferries, cargo ships, and other commercial vessels about the whales’ presence. This system is particularly important in areas like Boundary Pass, where frequent whale routes overlap with shipping lanes, leading to acoustic and physical disturbance for the whales, and, in the worst cases, vessel strikes. 

It is a community of retirees and students and scientists and islanders coming together to make a difference.

My first day on Saturna in the summer of 2022, the southern residents came by to greet me. My dad and I rushed out on the deck to watch them surface under the early summer sun, puffs of misty air catching the rays. As the orcas headed east, I saw my neighbour Maureen watching from shore with a person who looked about my age.

“That’s Lauren, one of the new summer students,” my dad said to me. He waved and shouted over to her. “Lauren, this is my daughter Sofia I was telling you about!”

We waved enthusiastically to each other. It’s always nice to meet other young people on Saturna, an island of only about 400 full-time residents, nearly half of them over 65. Luckily, Simon Fraser University (SFU) has been sending marine biology students over to do whale research every summer since 2020. And the sighters network has worked closely with the summer students, comparing data, sharing observations, and working together to record whale sightings as well as vessel infractions.

Says Lauren, “I don’t think I had ever met anyone as passionate as the sighters network: the complete love for whales and wanting to protect them and the environment, and how everything was just started by community members.”

In 2022, Lucy Quayle—the SFU master’s student who was working on Saturna in 2020—created a website called Spyhopper alongside volunteer whale observer Dereck Peterson. The site tracks the reports made by the network, the Saturna Island Marine Research and Education Society, and the SFU researchers. Spyhopper displays the data graphically, including reports per month since 2020, reports per whale species, and reports per sighter. You can even see when specific whales were last spotted.

In late September 2023, Susie invited me and my dad to a party at the bistro at the Saturna vineyard. It was a wrap-up celebration for the work the sighters network did over the summer, complete with local wine, wood-fired pizza, and more whale enthusiasts than I’ve ever seen together in one room. It was nice to finally put faces to Discord usernames. I saw Kathleen, a.k.a. Octopusboots—a sighter from Pender Island who manages the Discord—and felt like I was meeting a celebrity, as I’d seen her name flash across my phone screen so many times that summer.

I sat at a table with 2022 summer students Lauren and Olivia, along with the summer students who had taken over for them for the 2023 season. Lauren was buzzing with nerves: she and the other researchers were going to give a presentation on the data collected by the network since April 2020. 

The summer students got up to talk about their findings, and I was struck by what the candy-coloured bars on the PowerPoint showed: the network had made over 800 whale reports in 2023, and over 3,500 reports since it first started. While the federal government’s Interim Sanctuary Zones are only in effect during the summer, the network’s reports showed that whales—including SRKWs—swim through the Southern Gulf Islands year-round. The network’s data looking at vessels in the zones also showed that there were still hundreds of boats entering the prohibited areas each summer.

Community science builds relationships—among humans, and between humans and their neighbours of other species.

I looked around the room. There were scientists from SFU and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation nodding along with the results. There were islanders seeing their own work reflected in the charts on the screen. And there were representatives from Parks Canada, Transport Canada, and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) sitting among them, taking that work seriously. 

“We aren’t shy to criticize, but our approach is we want to be as collegial as we can with the federal government, because we think that we’re all supposedly working for the same thing, which is to protect the cetaceans,” Susie says. “We want to work with them, we think that that’s the most effective way that we can begin to effect change. And we also think that it’s easier for us to be in the tent with them, rather than out of it and throwing stones.”

Susie tells me that the sighters have a direct line to the DFO enforcement division for reporting sanctuary zone violations and marine mammal infractions, and that Transport Canada is even using their data.

What strikes me about the sighting network is that it is a project running 24/7, 365 days a year. It is a community of retirees and students and scientists and islanders of all stripes coming together to make a difference for their neighbours, the whales. It is a group of people who have always observed the whales, who have always taken note of their patterns and behaviour, who are now putting that knowledge down on paper and working directly with researchers and government agencies to make sure the data is put to good use. Community science like this is important not only because it complements government science, but also because it builds relationships—among humans, and between humans and their neighbours of other species.

So if you’ve looked out your own window and noticed fewer birds coming to your feeder, consider joining the Christmas Bird Count this year. If you miss seeing butterflies and other pollinators on your morning walks, you could join the David Suzuki Foundation’s BC-based Butterflies in My Backyard (BIMBY) project, or its Canada-wide Butterflyway project. If you’ve been noticing ill-looking sea stars when you go beachcombing, you could report this to the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network (MARINe) so they can add it to their Sea Star Wasting Syndrome map. More broadly, you could join a local naturalists’ club, check out the Government of Canada’s Citizen Science portal to find something that interests you, or just start recording your observations on the iNaturalist app. 

The point is, we don’t have to feel powerless. As a community, we can come together to make a difference.

It’s still hard to watch the SRKW population dwindle, to see whale-watching boats getting too close and cargo ships looming menacingly in the distance. It can be hard to think about climate change and warming water and disappearing salmon stocks. But when the whales come, the members of the sighting network will be out there on our decks, making reports and sending messages. As the whales pass by our windows, we will be there to greet them along the way, trying to protect them in the best way we know how.

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