Caitlin Birdsall is the sole coordinator of Vancouver Aquarium’s North Coast Initiative.

Heart of our City: Caitlin Birdsall’s whale of a living

Caitlin Birdsall has been living on the North Coast since the beginning of 2014 and works on the water as part of Vancouver Aquarium

Saturna Island, located in the Southern Gulf Islands chain of B.C., shares a couple similarities with Kaien Island.

For one, the marine life that tends to visit for residents lucky enough to catch a peek can be found out on the water almost all year-round – including whales (though less of the humpback variety and more of the killer).

Secondly, both Saturna Island and Kaien Island have been called home by Caitlin Birdsall. And it’s likely because of the former that she has found herself in the latter as she continues her career with the Vancouver Aquarium’s North Coast Initiative since she started living in Prince Rupert since the outset of 2014.

“[Saturna Island] is a place my family has owned property for well before I came into this world and my love of the ocean really comes from spending my summers here,” said Birdsall on the phone from Saturna earlier in November.

“This part of the Gulf Islands is on the route that southern resident Killer Whales often take, so I first really fell in love with whales and the ocean spending time here, getting to play on the beaches. It just really sparked a lifelong curiosity and a lifelong interest. The more you know, the more you realize how much we need to protect these systems.”

Birdsall, who was born and raised in New Westminster, B.C. first came to the north to follow her piqued curiosity as an undergraduate student at the University of Northern B.C. (UNBC) in Prince George in 1998. There, she worked towards graduating with her Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Biology.

“I was just really looking forward to a bit of an adventure … so sort of this idea of [being] 17-years-old and pioneering off to the north, which, of course Prince George is not a smaller town but it seemed like it at the time, really appealed to me. They were offering a degree in wildlife biology. It was a smaller school as well, so I thought it would be a great learning environment,” she said, adding she also received a scholarship at UNBC.

Through her schooling and passion for marine life and conservation, Birdsall found herself working on various projects both within the province and internationally and late in 2008, she arrived aboard the Vancouver Aquarium’s research program, taking over a project called the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network.

“It’s sort of a citizen’s science project which uses observers – people who work or live or play on the water to help us gather data on whales and dolphins and porpoises and sea turtles all over the coast of B.C. In late 2013, an opportunity arose to establish a northern office and I thought it sounded great, so I came up to start that off,” Birdsall said.

For the past two years, there has been no such thing as a typical day on the job for Birdsall. Her activities include coordinating outreach programs, training Coast Guard personnel and other mariners in marine mammal identification, running a speaker series, with scientists sometimes appearing at Northwest Community College to lecture on their research, coordinating shoreline cleanups and other conservation initiatives and even getting out on the water herself once per month.

“In the summer we bring up our aquarium research vessel, called the Skana, and do a 10-day survey through Chatham Sound and Dixon Entrance and the various areas [with the Metlakatla Search Group],” she said.

While research and analysis is extensive along the southern coast of B.C., that’s not the case for the North Coast, and Birdsall is pioneering all sorts of new research into B.C. cetaceans, including the Harbour Porpoise, Pacific White-Sided Dolphin, Dall’s Porpoise, Leatherback Sea Turtle, Killer Whale, Minke Whale, Grey Whale, Humpback Whale and Fin Whale.

“In the north, for example, Humpback Whales and Fin Whales are most abundant … in comparison to down south … The north really had a lot less coverage and there was a lot less of a systematic science being done in the north on cetaceans. We were just receiving less data and only a handful of observers in that area. Since coming up north, we’ve been able to form relationships and recruit new observers. We’ve really increased the amount of data in this region so it parallels a little more to … down south,” she said.

Among the many species the North Coast has to offer, one of her favourite cetaceans that Birdsall is studying is the Harbour Porpoise.

While they make their home all across the coast of B.C., they seem especially partial to the North Coast, observed Birdsall.

“They’re one of the smallest species of cetaceans in the world and definitely the smallest species we get in B.C. and there’s really very little known about them. They haven’t been a species that’s really been heavily studied so I’m really excited to record how often they’re in and around the Prince Rupert harbour. In 2016 we’re hoping to … look at their distribution and seasonality. Sometimes they gather in really large groups which we’ve seen in the winter at the mouth of the harbour. They’re a species that can be really impacted by development, so I think learning about them, we can effectively conserve them and perhaps mitigate any threats from our busy harbour,” she said.

All in all, Birdsall is happy as a clam living on the North Coast.

“Right away it was somewhere where [my husband and I] decided we would stay for awhile. We bought a house last year and it’s just got a really warm community and that’s what we noticed right away. People were really welcoming and friendly. Things are always happening and its fun to get to know the culture of Prince Rupert,” she said.

Birdsall would like anyone who spots any cetaceans on the water to contact her with information on the species, date and time, location, number of animals, behaviour and sea state and wind speed and visibility.

You can report the sightings at www.wildwhales.org, emailing sightings@vanaqua.org, calling 1-866-I.SAW.ONE (472-9663) or you can download the WhaleReport app on Apple and Android phone devices.

 

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