Restoring a quiet environment for whales
Canada’s protected waters are home to many at-risk whales. Keeping waters as quiet as possible is key for their survival. This is where Parks Canada, in collaboration with partners, play an important role.
A world of sound
Sound is very important for toothed whales like Narwhals, Killer Whales, and Belugas. They use sound to navigate, hunt and communicate.
Underwater noise can mask sounds that whales use to navigate, hunt, and to socialize. Southern Resident Killer Whales and St. Lawrence Estuary Beluga Whales live and travel in some of Canada's busiest and noisiest waters.
Boat noise can lead to changes in animal behavior, risk of collision, hearing loss and, in some cases, serious injury or death. Parks Canada works with partners to restore a calmer environment for whales. By protecting habitats from underwater noise, we are helping endangered whales recover.
The mouth of the Saguenay is an important summer habitat for the St. Lawrence Estuary Beluga, an endangered species. They go here to feed, to meet a partner or extended family, or to go to a quiet place. It is also the busiest section of the Marine Park, where each year thousands of boats travel in the Beluga’s habitat.
The endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales live seasonally in the protected waters off British Columbia. Some of these areas include the waters around Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.
The St. Lawrence Estuary Beluga Whales are local residents of Quebec. Over 75% of the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park is important Beluga habitat. The Marine Park and its surrounding areas are also important summertime habitats for other marine mammals.
The Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) is an important seascape in Nunavut. The area is known around the world as a natural treasure, where whales like the Bowhead, Narwhal, and Beluga are protected.
Whales speak up
Whales depend on protected areas as refuges from disturbances, like underwater noise. Both Southern Resident Killer Whales and St. Lawrence Estuary Belugas have been shown to communicate more loudly when boat traffic is near.
Loud underwater noise can mask calls between female Belugas and their calves. Areas that are important for whales need the most protection from noise disturbance.
Working together to protect whales
Parks Canada collaborates with other groups to create and manage protected waters that help at-risk whales and the entire ecosystem. This includes working closely with Indigenous groups and other federal departments. Research partners, non-governmental organizations, and locals are also involved. Together, we take action to improve the conservation of whales and their habitats.
Actions in the water
Parks Canada is doing marine research in many places to protect whales, including British Columbia, Quebec, and Nunavut.
See what it's like to do marine mammal surveys at Gulf Islands National Park Reserve!
Field Notes: Recovering Southern Resident Killer Whales
[Meaghen] My name is Meaghen McCord. I'm a marine ecologist here at Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, on the traditional unceded territory of the Coast Salish Nations.
[Bronwyn] My name is Bronwyn. I'm a marine management officer. Right here I'm putting up our marine research flag that lets other boaters know that we are allowed to research the Southern Resident Killer Whales.
[Meaghen] The first thing we're going to do is head out to Saturna Island Interim Sanctuary Zone. And it's here that we're hoping we might have our first sighting of Southern Resident Killer Whales.
[Bronwyn] Batteries on. Now we're going to make sure that our boat is actually working today.
[Boat motor starts] [Bronwyn] That's a good noise.
[Bronwyn] Just leaving the harbour...
[Meaghen] Here we are right now at the entrance to Active Pass, a component of our transect survey where we stop, look and listen for Southern Resident Killer Whales. While we're doing our surveys, we're also deploying these acoustic hydrophones to monitor the amount of noise that we're hearing in the ocean environment. [Loud boat noises] What you can hear now is the sound of a small vessel with
[Meaghen] This noise actually prevents them from communicating with each other while they're socializing or hunting. So we hope by recording some of the vessel traffic and really better understanding the types of noise that we have here in the Southern Salish Sea that we'll be able to identify potential areas as no-go zones. So, areas where boats are not allowed, where whales can hunt and socialize as we know they love to do
[Bronwyn] We’ve got some pinnipeds off to the left side there.
[Bronwyn] We're going to be doing some visual surveys of Pinnipeds like harbor seal and sea lion. and these photographs are going to be shared with our partners, such as Fisheries and Oceans Canada, as part of a multi-agency approach to monitor species within the Southern Resident Killer Whale habitat.
[Meaghen] We’re trying to find a good location here at the Java Islets where Wynnie can hop off and see if she can find some harbor seal poo. One of the most important things to remember when you're working with pinniped or seal or sea lion poop, is that it's really smelly. So bringing your trusty gloves along is really important.
[Bronwyn] So we're here on the Java Islets and I am on the hunt for scat. One of the more glamorous sides of biology is we often will look for fecal residue from various animals that we are studying in order to get a better understanding of their diet, the population dynamics. And it just gives us a better sense of how Pinnipeds are interacting with their environment...
[Bronwyn] ...what their populations look like and what they're eating, which is very important as they are a large part of the food web within the Southern Resident Killer Whale habitat. All right. So sometimes science doesn't always work out. We've done our initial survey and I can't seem to find anything that is really going to be useful for testing for the variables that I mentioned earlier. So I think it's time to get back on the boat.
[Meaghen] We are about to deploy our baited remote underwater video system, which is comprised of two cameras and this really wonderful canister, really, that we're going to fill with our kilogram of herring. What we're hoping to do here is to deploy the B.R.U.V. and monitor the types of fish that are using the kelp forests of the protected waters in the Park Reserve.
[Meaghen] So our study here today is really aimed at understanding this complex environment that the Southern Resident Killer Whales call home and hoping to document the species that occur here and create this long lasting archive of the incredible fish that call the Pacific Northwest and the waters of Parks Canada and Gulf Islands National Park Reserve home.
The marine ecology team in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve carries out marine mammal surveys onboard a boat called the K'aka'win — the Nuu-chah-nulth word for ‘Killer Whale’. The team:
- records underwater sounds to identify whales, dolphins, and porpoises by their unique calls
- documents sightings of Southern Resident Killer Whales using visual surveys and photography
- documents the number and location of Southern Resident Killer Whales that are present during the year
This information helps Parks Canada identify important areas that the whales use to rest, socialize, and to eat. We also use it to inform protection measures that help Southern Resident Killer Whales. These include slow-down and distance measures as well as no-go zones for boaters. Parks Canada also leads education programs to inform boaters about these rules.
The conservation team at the Saguenay—St. Lawrence Marine Park, in Quebec, studies whales from the shore, and on-board their research boat. Using mainly visual observations and hydroacoustic monitoring, staff work to:
- better understand the distribution patterns of each species present in the Marine Park
- identify and estimate the abundance of the main prey species (krill, capelin, sand lance)
- describe and count boat types and activities, and characterize interactions with marine mammals inside the Marine Park.
This data is used to improve our knowledge about how Belugas and other whales use the Marine Park. As well as to guide the management of the marine protected area. This allowed us to establish protection measures, like the temporary navigation closure area in a bay that is highly used by Beluga mother-calf pairs, and to establish a commercial excursion-free section. The shipping industry has also agreed to voluntarily reduce ship speeds in whale feeding grounds to reduce the risk of collisions.
Measures to reduce speeds also help restore the tranquility of the Beluga’s habitat. Marine Park staff use a Marine Spatial Planning approach to conserve and restore the marine soundscape. This provides quiet areas for Beluga Whales. The team has also collaborated to create an online training for mariners and boaters on respecting the whales and the regulations in force.
Find out other ways that Parks Canada is helping humans to better live with Beluga whales.
Parks Canada and partners are researching the effects of underwater noise on whales at Tallurutiup Imanga National Marine Conservation Area in Nunavut. Parks Canada uses Inuit traditional knowledge to help inform this study by working with partners like the Qikiqtani Inuit Association’s Nauttiqsuqtiit Inuit Stewards. Using underwater microphones, they track the source and characteristics of underwater noise, including noise from ships, to determine how underwater noise may affect marine life.
Up to 75% of the global population of Narwhal use Tallurutiup Imanga NMCA as a migration corridor and summering area. Narwhals are known to be sensitive to increasing levels of underwater noise.
Watch the deployment of an underwater hydrophone by Clare Kines, Parks Canada staff near Arctic Bay, Nunavut
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