These young Canadian researchers are trying to protect whales from the effects of climate change

This story is part of Coastlines, an original series with the CBC Creator Network exploring Canada’s oceans. You can watch every episode of the series here.

Canada has the longest coastline on Earth, so it’s no surprise that we are home to the largest animals on earth: whales.

Whales and other cetaceans thrive on each of our coasts, making the most of the biologically rich waters that surround us. In fact, we all have a chance of seeing these cetaceans from almost any marine shoreline in the country.

These marine mammals have followed the same patterns and life cycles for thousands of years and have become an intrinsic part of the marine ecosystem, as well as the traditions and cultures on all three of our coasts.

But today, these species are having to adapt to a rapidly changing ocean environment, which is putting their populations at risk.

Luckily, young Canadian researchers are developing new ways we can protect whales in our waters and better understand their complex and highly intelligent lives.

Up and close and personal with massive mammals

At the forefront of cetacean research, Delphine Durette Morin is an assistant scientist at the Canadian Whale Institute in Nova Scotia.

Each summer, she spends time out on a research boat, collecting information on the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

“Being up close to them, it’s such a special feeling,” she said.

On a typical day on the water, Morin and her team collect oceanographic data that shows which prey species the North Atlantic right whales are feeding on.

Delphine Durette Morin has found North Atlantic right whales are occupying parts of the ocean they haven’t in the past. (Gina Lonati)

This gives the team a clearer picture of what habitats the whales are looking for and where they spend most of their time.

“Since 2010, there has been a shift in their distribution,” Morin explained.

This means right whales are no longer using historically important sites, which have been designated as protected areas, to keep the whales safe from large ships and entanglement from fishing gear.

Instead, they are moving to new and unprotected areas, putting them into conflict with humans.

“That’s in part due to a shift in their food. That’s a direct example of climate change in action,” Morin said.

Unique killer whales

North Atlantic right whales are not the only cetacean species to be impacted by a shortage of food.

Along the southern coast of BC lives a unique population of orcas, the southern residents.

Here, documentary filmmaker and activist Gloria Pancrazi is working to highlight how the climate crisis is impacting this population.

“There are only 73 of these whales left. They have their own language, diet, culture and we even know each individual by name and personality,” she says.

Gloria Pancrazi hopes that by documenting the lives of southern resident orcas, she can get people to think about how climate change is affecting them. (CBC Creator Network/Courtesy of Coextinction)

Southern resident killer whales rely on salmon, specifically chinook, as their food source and climate change is putting that at risk.

Salmon are a temperature sensitive fish, and so warming waters are having a huge negative impact on salmon populations. This in turn impacts the killer whales.

The loss of salmon in their home range means that the southern residents are almost “starving to death,” Pancrazi said.

She does not, however, want us to give up hope. Through her work she hopes to promote bold climate action, which she says includes showing up as allies and amplifying Indigenous voices, and taking action in our own lives to reduce our environmental impact.

Pancrazi believes that this can lead to the changes we need to make to tackle the climate crisis, and the whales themselves provide inspiration for this.

“I hope that we can learn from these orcas, because they work together through anything that comes their way, and this solidarity is key to taking on these big global issues we are facing,” she said.

About this series

Coastlines is an original series with the CBC Creator Network that dives into the future of Canadian coastlines and marine life, and the young researchers who are trying to protect them.

Co-hosted by wildlife conservationist and educator Connel Bradwell of Vancouver Island, and commercial fisher and science technician Erica Porter of Nova Scotia, every episode of Coastlines features researchers from the West, North and East coasts.

You can watch every episode of Coastlines on cbc.ca.

About the Creator Network

The Creator Network amplifies the voices of the next generation of Canadian storytellers and connects them with CBC platforms, where they tell compelling stories and share unique perspectives that reflect the country in all its diversity. Learn more.

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