Are Whales Impacted by Human Behaviour?

Dr. Christoph Richter’s email signature reads, <<C’est assez,>> dit la baleine, <<je me cache à l’eau>>, which translates as, “‘That’s enough,’ says the whale, ‘I’m going to hide in the water’”.

Richter, a Ph.D in marine science and zoology, explains that this signature is a mnemonic to remember the names of whales in French.

“‘C’est assez’ sounds like cetacean, which is the scientific term for whales. Baleine is the French name for baleen whales, and ‘cache à l’eau’ sounds like cachalot, the French name for sperm whale”, says Richter. This mnemonic also serves to remind us of something more troubling: whales may change their behaviour when they come in contact with humans, and scientists like Richter do not want that.

On February 11, 2016, Dr. Richter will deliver a U of T In Your Neighbourhood lecture at Swansea Town Hall in Toronto. In the lecture, “From Moby Dick to Sperm Whale Codas: How Whales Respond to Human Activity,” Richter will discuss how climate change, whale watching, noise pollution, and other human activities affect whale behaviour. Richter says that it will not be a “technical” lecture and will be easily accessible for all audiences. “I’m planning to give a rough overview of some of the issues that researchers are looking at in terms of how whales are impacted by human behaviour”.

Consider whale watching. Richter describes it as the fastest growing sector in the eco-tourism industry. Sometimes the whales are viewed from shore but most often guests are taken in a boat to see the whales. Less frequently, they may fly over the whales in a small plane or helicopter.

“Where I did my Ph.D research in New Zealand, you literally go on a boat and ten minutes later you’re right where the whales are”, said Richter. In other areas, however, it can take up to an hour before the whales are located. For whale watching enterprises, finding the animals can be a challenge but a necessary one in such an important industry.

“In a lot of places it is the most important or one of the most important sources of income. In Kaikoura, New Zealand, it is literally the main business. There’s not much else”, said Richter. “Even in Canada, if you go to some places in Newfoundland or if you go out to the west coast of Canada, there are communities where whale watching is important for the economy. It brings in a lot of tourism”.

Richter, who teaches biology at U of T Mississauga, studied sperm whales in Kaikoura.  Whale watching there is heavily regulated in terms of the number of whale watching trips allowed per day and the number of boats or planes permitted.

“What the New Zealand government wanted to learn from us is with the current level of whale watching taking place, s there an impact on the whales?”, asks Richter. He and his team observed the number of times whales blow through their blowholes, their diving patterns, and their vocalization behavior, called their echolocation clicks, when they are in the presence of humans.

“The question is, do they do things differently when they’re by themselves or when there’s one boat, two boats, or two boats and a plane?”, said Richter. The answer to that is inconclusive, he says. There does not appear to be a lot of change in their behaviour. Still, there is cause for concern.

“We have no good measure of what [change] means for whales. We can’t ask them if they are being stressed by human behaviour. There are methods that allow us to get an idea of whether our behaviours are increasing their stress levels or not, but so far what we usually do is observe whales to note if their behaviour changes, and if it does then we say that that change was probably due to our whale watching activities. We don’t want that. Whales should be behaving in the same way as when we are not there”. Whales may, for example, become less successful foragers because they have been driven away from areas where they feed.

“There might be a difference between individual whales. But are the changes short term? And how much change in behaviour is too much? We don’t really know”. Richter uses an analogy to help clarify the situation: “If you’re somewhere near the lake, sitting around a fire and all of these mosquitos and bugs surround you, it’s going to make you uncomfortable. It might get on your nerves, but it doesn’t really harm you in any other way. Or it may be something that drives you so mad that you have to leave. So that’s the question, are we doing something that whales can cope with to some extent, and it results in short term interruptions to their behaviour, or is it something that leads, for example, to them foraging less because they leave an area where they usually forage?”

It is also hard for scientists to determine what would happen if a particular species of whale completely disappeared as a result of human interference. Richter says, however, that there would be a huge effect because ecosystems are very complex, with organisms connected to multiple sets of other organisms in various ways.

“All of the whales are part of an ecosystem, which means that lots of other species interact with them in various ways. They might be prey for whales. They might be using whales to move between habitats. Whales usually have lots of parasites living on them. If you remove one of those parts of an ecosystem, the ecosystem has to change because you’ve taken whales out of it and the connections have to be rearranged”. For example, Richter points out that there are whole communities of organisms at the bottom of the ocean that live off of the corpses of dead whales.

“When a whale dies, they sink to the ocean bottom where these communities live on the corpses and consume them until there’s almost nothing left in an amazingly short time”.

According to Richter, the attitude of humans toward whales has shifted. We used to see them as resources to hunt and exploit for such industrial uses as soap, oil, and perfume manufacturing. At the beginning of the 20th century we realized that whale populations were shrinking. However, the concern was more about losing an economic resource than the whales’ wellbeing.

“Then eventually in the ‘60s came the concern that we’re reducing a population size that we should be protecting,” said Richter. “So we started to have the attitude that we do not want whales to be hunted any more. We would like to protect them as much as we can.”

When asked if the Canadian government is doing enough to protect whales, Richter says, “There could always be more done. And especially now with concerns about global warming and the possibility of the Northwest Passage being navigable year round. There’s definitely concern about many whale populations up there, and species that are strictly Arctic. Until now they’ve experienced very little traffic. That could change significantly”.

The two most obvious ways that the government has made an impact in this regard are in the Bay of Fundy and in The Gully. In 2003 in the Bay of Fundy, shipping lanes locations were moved further east, away from where right whales congregate.

“It makes travel times somewhat longer for the ships, but they now avoid the area with the highest concentration of whales”, explained Richter. In 2004 the government also declared The Gully, off the coast of Nova Scotia, a marine protected area, meaning that there is a limit on the kinds of activities allowed there; searching for oil or natural gas, for example.

“That was specifically set up to protect sperm whales and northern bottlenose whales, which are a deep sea species like sperm whales. The Gully seems to be one of the crucial places for the species because there are always bottlenose whales there”.

Richter’s In Your Neighbourhood lecture will be held on February 11, 2016 at Swansea Town Hall in Toronto from 3:00 to 5:00pm. Contact for more information.