Our Scientists – From Coast to Coast to Coast – John Ford

Learn more about our research into marine mammals.


My name's John Ford and I'm a research scientist here at the pacific biological station in Nanaimo, and I head up the whale research program for fisheries and Oceans Canada in the Pacific region and our primary role here in my group is to study all the different whale, dolphin and porpoise species on the west coast of Canada especially the species that are listed as endangered or threatened under the species at risk act so our task is to try and get out on the water, find the whales, estimate how many there are, find out where their habitats are and how they use the habitats, what they feed on and so on so that we can better protect them.

So there's various techniques we use, a big one is called photo identification where we get a big telephoto lens on a camera and drive parallel to the whale; not close enough to disturb it but close enough to get a very high quality photograph, and using natural markings that occur on each individual we can actually do a mug shot for each animal and track it from year to year.

A big part of my work is also underwater acoustics so we have submerged recorders that we put out for a year at a time and they tell us how often and where whales like blue whales and fin whales tend to be.

With killer whales it's even better because killer whale sounds tell us what population of killer whale it is and there's different populations on our coast and even what family group is present because each family group of the salmon eating residents type of killer whale has a unique dialect and we can actually identify it, right down to the family group, whose out there acoustically.

What we were just listening to is the underwater dialect of a killer whale pod that lives off northern Vancouver Island.

This other example that I'll play now is a different pod that lives off southern Vancouver Island, it doesn't mix but you can hear the different dialects here.

I got kind of turned on to whales when I was a young lad growing up near Victoria and seeing killer whales swimming by the boat, and of course we were all terrified because everybody knew in those days that they were dangerous animals and they would tip the boat over and eat you right away and of course that was part of the whole mythology about killer whales which we new know is completely wrong.

So for the last 40 years of my career being able to work in the early stages of this scientific awakening of what these killer whales are all about to the point now that we know so much more about them - still lots to learn but its been such a fortunate opportunity over my career to have been part of that.

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