Over 70% of our Earth’s surface is covered by water, yet we currently have limited knowledge about our oceans, which are crucial to our survival, and the diversity of habitats and species they support. Earthwatch research focuses on highly threatened coastal habitats such as mangrove forests and coral reefs, which represent the most productive regions of the oceans. They remain highly threatened as a result of overharvesting of fish stocks, commercial shipping, pollution, and coastal development. The challenges of supporting a sustainable marine environment are in many cases different from those of terrestrial environments. Our ocean research includes:
Whales of British Columbia
Lead PI: Dr William Megill
This project's primary goal is to understand the interdependency between grey whale (Eschrichtius robustus) and their food resources, particularly mysids. Earthwatch volunteers photograph individual whales for photo-identification and record location and behavior data on daily surveys. Sampling techniques such as sediment coring and diver-collected mysid samples are used to examine the behthic environment. The team also uses sonar units, underwater video cameras, and the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Seabiscuit, for their research.
From 1994 to 2008, a total of 126 grey whale individuals were identified in the waters near Cape Caution - approximately a third of which were seen regularly (i.e. during almost every field season). Grey whale distribution and abundance in Canadian waters was well-known and predictable each summer until 2004, when their status appeared to change with a quantifiable shift in foraging behavior. The Earthwatch scientists hypothesize that this was due to a decline in traditional prey resources, encouraging whales to become opportunistic and exploit new areas and food resources, rather than relying on the long-established feeding areas indentified in the initial years of the research. Historically, mysid prey were recorded in the research area in spatially and temporally stable swarms, which were large and extremely dense, with a mean abundance of 440,000 per m³. However, in 2005 and 2006, the mysid “crop” failed and the whales did not return to their usual grounds. In 2007, the mysids started to reappear and, by the end of the season, whales had returned. In 2008 the situation improved further, as the mysid population boomed again, Holmsimysis sculpta returned as the dominant mysid species and grey whale was resident again for extended periods.
Earthwatch documentation of the presence of grey whales in Cape Caution has lead to the establishment of a Provincial Park which encompasses all of the shoreline upland of the whales’ feeding area. Earthwatch data have been used by the US Government’s National Marine Fisheries Service to establish management plans in the event of the international ban on whaling being lifted.