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Killer whale in SE Alaska --Photographer: Ben Weitzman/USGS
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Field Journal: Nearshore Project Vancouver Expedition - Predator Encounters

Researchers from USGS, Monterey Bay Aquarium and other institutions recently returned from an expedition in British Columbia, Canada, to study sea otters as part of the Pacific Nearshore Project investigating coastal health. During their voyage, researchers shared their research camp life with us through journal entries that they sent home regularly.

Pacific Nearshore Project
British Columbia Expedition - 16 July 2011
From Tofino, British Columbia
Tim Tinker, Project Co-Leader

Fieldwork for a wildlife biologist can often be cold, wet and challenging, and some days seem like a lot of effort expended for a few precious data points.

This is the case right now as a low pressure system moves over coastal British Columbia: sea otter captures are particularly challenging with 20-knot winds and driving rain. And yesterday, we made four challenging dives that each took hours of painstakingly careful set-up, but only one resulted in a successful capture (two adult females), and we arrived home late in the evening exhausted and drenched to the bone. 

But then there are other field days that act as powerful reminders of why we became wildlife biologists. A few days ago I had just such an experience, one that highlighted just how connected terrestrial and marine habitats can be.

At about 8 AM, Jim BodkinLinda Nichol and I were working our way north from Tofino in our 20 foot skiff, searching for prospective capture opportunities. Jim and Linda dropped me off on a small island in the La Croix archipelago, and I scrambled up to a promontory to scan for otters. 

USGS sea otter field work for the Pacific Nearshore Project on the 2011 Vancouver Expedition --Photographer: Ben Weitzman/USGS
A Nearshore Project team member prepares a spotting telescope during the Vancouver expedition. Image credit: Ben Weitzman/USGS.

To the east I could see a large kelp bed dotted with emergent rocks, many with harbor seals perched on them, but no sea otters. In order to scan to the west I had to cut across the Island, making my way through a narrow ravine with dense brush and moss-covered cedar trees overhead. 

As I came out into the open on the west side of the island, a sudden movement caught my eye. Looking to my left I found myself face to face with a large grey wolf, which was standing about 25 feet away from me. 

Both of us were startled: a wolf was the last thing I had been expecting to see on this small offshore island, and he had not detected me coming as I had approached from downwind.

But before I could react, he had turned and sprinted across the large boulders lining the intertidal, disappearing around a bluff. 

After my pulse had returned to normal, I resumed my scanning for sea otters. Soon I found a few resting far offshore, and I radioed to Jim and Linda for pick up.

They brought the skiff up close enough for me to jump on board, and we were just pulling away from the Island when we noticed a peculiar object working its way across the channel towards shore: it was the wolf swimming from our small Island to the larger one next door. 

As we marveled at how fast he was covering the distance, two sleek dorsal fins broke the waters’ surface nearby. A mother killer whale and her calf were carving their way through the kelp bed along the edge of the Island -- where moments before the wolf had entered the ocean. 

Killer whale in SE Alaska --Photographer: Ben Weitzman/USGS
Killer whales, such as this one in southeast Alaska, also hunt the waters off Vancouver Island. Image credit: Ben Weitzman/USGS.

We mused about how extraordinary it would have been for these two iconic predators to have come face to face. While this might seem a very unusual meeting, we realized that both predators, furry and finned, had probably been seeking the same prey along the shores of that small Island: the harbor seals I had seen hauled out on the rocks.  

Having the opportunity to see big predators like wolves and killer whales up close tends to make a strong impression on us, however familiar with wildlife we may be. Together with sea otters, killer whales and wolves are increasingly recognized as iconic ambassadors of the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. Yet these three large mammals have far more important roles to play than adorning posters or attracting eco-tourists. As summarized in a recent study in the journal Science, each of these apex predators has profound influences on their respective ecosystems. Ecologists now realize that wolves, killer whales and sea otters can exert strong “top-down” effects on terrestrial, oceanic and nearshore food webs

Our nearshore project is based around the recognition that all three of these systems are inexorably linked: seeing these three predators together in such close proximity was a poignant reminder of that fact.  

-- Tim Tinker 

Tim Tinker is a co-leader of the Pacific Nearshore Project and the lead scientist at the Santa Cruz Field Station of the USGS Western Ecological Research Center. He also leads the annual population census of sea otter populations in California.

Studying and understanding the nearshore waters from California to Alaska requires the tremendous coordination and collaboration of more than 30 scientists from 16 institutions. Learn more about the team here.

The Pacific Nearshore Project is a multinational, multiagency project investigating sea otters as health indicators of coastal waters and marine resources from California north through Canada and Alaska. The project is led by the U.S. Geological Survey with key research partners from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Seattle Aquarium, University of California, University of Idaho, University of Wyoming and California Department of Fish and Game. For a full list of sponsoring agencies, research blogposts, otter photos, please visit the project homepage at

USGS sea otter field work for the Pacific Nearshore Project on the 2011 Vancouver Expedition --Photographer: Ben Weitzman/USGS
The kelp forests of the Pacific nearshore ecosystem serves a crucial function at the intersection of terrestrial and marine environments. Image credit: Ben Weitzman/USGS.

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