A whale of a career that transformed the understanding of killer whales in BC

John Ford, recently retired head of the cetacean research program at Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Pacific Biological Station, turns down his hydrophone as he contemplates how an endangered southern resident killer whale is able to echolocate a dinner of Chinook salmon, with boats passing overhead.

His phone sends out a plaintive whale squeak – a text alert that Ford explains is a call made by one of the northern residents – as he points out which vessels are traversing the critical habitat of southern resident killer whales.

"We need to understand how noise affects the animal. We know it means that whales have to shout when ships are there, but the critical question, the bottom line, is how does noise translate into decreased foraging? Their efficiency may be reduced and they could become nutritionally stressed" he said.

It is the latest in a long line of killer whale questions Ford has pondered during a whale-centred career that has taken him from sweeping up popcorn after shows at Vancouver Aquarium to leading ground-breaking research on killer whale acoustics, social structure and eating habits.

That research has, over four decades, helped change the public view of southern and northern resident killer whales from indiscriminate killers to one of the most beloved west coast symbols.

"As people learned about them and saw them in the wild with their families it turned the tide of public attitude. I like to think that, with my colleagues, we have in some way contributed to that change" said Ford, whose research has extended beyond resident killer whales to the marine mammal-eating transients and mysterious offshores, that Ford and his team discovered favoured a diet of sharks.

Ford retired in April, but whales will continue to be his focus as he moves into the unpaid position of scientist emeritus, a shift that will allow him to concentrate on completing scientific papers on topics such as the shark-based diet of offshore killer whales and identifying which runs of Chinook salmon are most important to the Southern Residents.

"I am leaving a happy ship and I can step back and focus more on the things that I want to complete" said Ford, who is credited by colleagues and associates with nurturing the careers of those younger biologists who showed a similar passion for marine mammals and who now form the backbone of the cetacean research team.

Early days

Ford’s fascination with whales started with his first close-up killer whale encounter when, at nine years old, he was taken to the Burrard drydock to see the ill-fated Moby Doll, the first killer whale captured live.

Moby Doll, who had been shot with a harpoon and dragged from Saturna Island to Vancouver, died after three months in captivity.

"I thought it didn’t look so scary. I had seen them as a younger lad because we had a family summer place out in Sooke and we were terrified when (we were out in a a small boat) and the whales would pass by. They were big and we didn’t know they wouldn’t eat us if we fell out of the boat" Ford said.

In that era killer whales were regarded as ferocious and unpredictable hunters and it was assumed that large populations swam in north-east Pacific waters indiscriminately eating fish and marine mammals.

At a subsequent visit to Vancouver Aquarium, where his mother was a docent, Ford leaned over the railing when no one was watching and patted Skana the killer whale on the head.

"That was pivotal to me" said Ford.

Ford’s natural curiosity, piqued by encounters with two captive whales, developed into 11 years studying zoology at the University of BC, followed by a job at Vancouver Aquarium.

Ford’s evolution over four decades, from a Vancouver Aquarium whale trainer, then marine mammal curator and marine mammal scientist at the Aquarium, to DFO’s go-to expert on wild killer whale behaviour, reflects a similar change in societal attitudes.

Research into BC’s resident killer whales started about 1970, when after decades of fishermen indiscriminately shooting at the whales, the Canadian government became worried about the number of live captures for aquaria.

The research was right up Ford’s alley and inspiration came in the form of Michael Bigg, then head of marine mammal research at DFO, whose innovative idea of cataloguing killer whales by photo-identification, was revolutionizing field studies.

Bigg, who became Ford’s mentor, is now recognized as the founder of modern killer whale research and he concluded that, instead of the thousands of killer whales that people imagined lived in B.C waters, populations were small and captures for aquaria unsustainable.

With growing public and government interest in the whales, Bigg gave Ford a chance to research his theory that killer whale populations had individual dialects and, in 1977, as a graduate student, he was given a grant to study killer whale acoustics.

"I got an old, broken down speedboat – the Brown Bomber – and an old Mercury outboard of dubious history" he said.

The results of the acoustic study were unprecedented, finding that every pod and clan of resident killer whales has a different dialect and individuals could be identified by their language.

"It added a whole new layer of understanding to how these whales actually have individual cultures" said Jackie Hildering, a whale researcher with the Marine Education and Research Society.

That realization, together with the photo ID program showing the individual markings and scars, started shifting attitudes, Hildering said.

"We went from the early 1970s when orcas were still perceived to be bloodthirsty abundant pests who all ate salmon in addition to marine mammals, to the understanding of how social, intelligent, cultured and at risk these sentient beings are" she said.

Lance Barrett-Lennard, who succeeded Ford as head of the cetacean research program at Vancouver Aquarium, worked as a lighthouse keeper for several years before becoming Ford’s Master’s student.

"I used to phone John from my lighthouse and play recordings of passing killer whales on my hydrophone and he would tell me which whales they were. We always tried to catch him out and record something that wasn’t a whale or a whale in the wrong place at the wrong time, but he was amazing. He always got it right" Barrett-Lennard said.

Ford began working with research technician Graeme Ellis and they rapidly recognized their common passion for whales. The work they did at that time – including slogging through weekends and their holidays to continue the photo ID program after government funding became scarce - sparked the start of the Ellis/Ford research partnership that has held fast over the decades.

"John would help with money through the (whale) adoption program (at the Aquarium) to keep the long term monitoring alive. That sort of dedication and collaboration with all sorts of other people is one of his most important contributions" Ellis said.

The Ford and Ellis duo is legendary, Hildering said.

"They are like the two muppet guys, Statler and Waldorf, and they are the most fabulous research team I know" she said.

DFO days

Ford moved from Vancouver Aquarium to Bigg’s former position with Fisheries and Oceans in 2001 and became Ellis’ boss. It was at this time Ford and his team made the ground-breaking discovery that Chinook salmon form the vast majority of the diet of resident orcas – information that has had a major impact on recovery strategies as southern resident numbers continue to dwindle.

"I think one of the most important things that John has done in recent years is the paper that showed mortality rates in resident killer whales are highly dependent on the abundance of Chinook salmon. That changed everything" said Barrett-Lennard.

Resident whales are Chinook specialists and, when Chinook abundance drops, they do not seem able to easily switch to alternatives, said Ford, who is continuing to mull over why southern residents are doing so poorly compared to their northern relatives.

Both southern and northern residents rely largely on Fraser River salmon, but, while northern residents are thriving with more than 300 animals, the southern residents have been reduced to 76 animals, with increasing evidence that food limitation is a major problem.

A partial explanation may be that there are higher contamination levels in the southern residents and toxins in the blubber are mobilized when they are nutritionally stressed, while, simultaneously, increasing boat noise in the busy marine corridors of the Strait of Georgia and Juan de Fuca Strait is making it difficult to find prey, Ford said.

Southern residents are also facing competition for Chinook from their northern cousins, with acoustic recorders showing northern residents are recently spending more time than expected in southern territory.

Another piece of the resident killer whale puzzle was recently added by Ford and his team when they found that the whales share prey with family members.

Researchers knew from scales floating on the water that the whales often ripped apart fish, but had assumed it was because large chinook are more than a one-bite meal.

"We started looking really intensely and it suddenly dawned on us that they were sharing the salmon" Ford said.

Mothers share with their offspring and offspring share with their mothers and other relatives within the matriline, he said.

"It helped us understand how these incredibly stable family groups can stay together without competing with each other. It seems an important tradition for these whales to share their prey even when times are tight."

Prey-sharing may be why recent southern resident deaths have not been limited to the young and old as, when food is in short supply, everyone goes hungry, Ellis said.

"They are hard-wired to (share prey) and, when it’s lean times, it means everyone goes a bit short" he said.

Each study seems to galvanize more interest in resident killer whales, not only from scientists, but also from the general public and, since the proliferation of whale-watching, people are no longer satisfied with simply seeing a whale, they want to know about the individual animal and its’ history.

Much of that public fascination can be attributed to Ford and his team, said Barrett-Lennard.

"They have broadened our understanding that we are dealing with a very complex animal that can learn completely different suites of behaviour in different contexts" he said.

Ford is planning to take a break with his wife Beverly before starting his emeritus work, but it is likely to be a working holiday.

"I am off to study whales. We’re going to the Sea of Cortez to get more recordings" he said.

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