I just love the seaside parks around Vancouver, especially the less manicured-looking ones where much has been left in a natural state, like Whytecliff Park and Lighthouse Park on the North Shore. It’s not too surprising then that our story begins with a spontaneous visit to Whytecliff Park in West Vancouver, my absolute favourite place. After spending some time on the beach watching Harbour Seals hauled out on Whyte Islet (which lies in the middle of a marine protected area), my wife Christine and I headed back towards the park’s lookout point, just in time to watch the ferry leave Horseshoe Bay for Vancouver Island as the sun was slowly beginning to set. We had spent several hours at the park already and were just about to get ready to leave when in the distance we spotted something very small that was moving against the current. Before we could get a closer look though it was gone. What was that? We had an idea, though we couldn’t be sure. Could this have been a lone Harbour Porpoise?
My wife and I had been fascinated with these small cetaceans ever since the arrival of “Daisy” at the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, a Harbour Porpoise that was found stranded as a baby, at less than 6 weeks of age. She looked pretty beaten up in the evening news, her skin torn in some places. Malnourished and dehydrated, she became the first Harbour Porpoise to be successfully rehabilitated in Canada. Unable to return to the wild, she was moved to the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre where she quickly won our hearts and that of many Vancouverites that followed her story. She was the first Harbour Porpoise we had ever seen: a small whale with a dark grey back and a white belly, remotely resembling a chubby dolphin, but with a round face and a tiny shark-like dorsal fin.
Given the small size of these animals, spotting a single porpoise among even the smallest waves can be a bit of a challenge. But here we were, staring into the distance, waiting for that mysterious swimming object to reappear. And after a couple of minutes, it actually did. Sure enough, it had what looked like a shark fin, perhaps a bit rounder, much like a tiny triangle. And as the animal resurfaced, before we even spotted it, we heard a sharp exhale (which we knew had given them the nickname “puffing pig” on the east coast). That was our first sighting of a wild Harbour Porpoise, and although we didn’t know it yet, it would set the stage for the creation of a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of this species and its six closely related cousins around the world.
It was in late 2014, about a year after that first sighting, that we met porpoise researcher Dr. Anna Hall in Vancouver, where she gave a talk titled “Shades of Grey: Uncovering the Hidden Complexities of the Lives of Harbour Porpoise”. We had read her PhD thesis and knew about her dedication to studying the local Harbour Porpoise population. We had so many questions.
After all, there’s little to be found in the textbooks when it comes to this species. And she was curious, too, after learning about our regular sightings of Harbour Porpoise from Whytecliff Park. We had returned every couple of weeks since our first sighting, and, now with a trained eye, we had gotten quite good at spotting Harbour Porpoise from any distance. Dr. Hall had spent more than 20 years studying this species; and even though she knew so much, it was obvious that even she had many more questions than answers. And as we discussed other species of porpoise — some of them still mostly a mystery to science, and some even on the road to extinction — it became clear that there was much more to be learned. But porpoises have a reputation for being quite uninteresting, boring really. They don’t make great study subjects. This is a group of animals that often flies under the radar of science as their elusive nature also means that even scientists that do take an interest are faced with the challenges that come with studying an animal that doesn’t want to be seen and spends most of its life underwater. The idea of founding a small non-profit that would dedicate its resources solely to the study of these elusive animals came up, and we wanted to be a part of that. Fast forward to the spring of 2015, we found ourselves among an ever growing group of biologists, teachers, naturalists and general porpoise enthusiasts that shared a passion for porpoises, and together we founded the Porpoise Conservation Society.
What began as a hobby project in Whytecliff Park has since developed into a pilot project for the study of Harbour Porpoise in coastal waters. With the study now in its second year, we have already spent hundreds of hours in the field observing small and large group of Harbour Porpoise, documenting changes in seasonal abundance and behaviours ranging from the expected to the rare and unusual. We have educated school children, park and museum visitors about the seven species of porpoise and taken the first steps to develop a formal education program to bring porpoises into classrooms in Canada, the US and around the world. But there is still plenty of work to do. We are only just getting started.
-Marcus and the Porpoise Conservation Society
Watch the 2014 lecture mentioned here