Studying killer whales in the wild is expensive work. Transportation, equipment costs, boat maintenance and fuel are just some of the many daily costs faced by researchers in the field. By taking out a membership in the BC Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program, you’ll help defray these costs and become a key partner in the killer whale research effort.

Field Work in British Columbia


The Vancouver Aquarium hired Dr John Ford as its first on-staff marine mammal scientist in 1985. John had a freshly-minted PhD from the University of British Columbia and a long history of weekend and summer jobs with the Aquarium. Initially, John was responsible for supervising the Aquarium’s marine mammal training staff as well as conducting research on the vocal behaviour of killer whales.   After several years, a marine mammal curator was hired to take responsibility for the Aquarium’s whales so that John could spend more time on field trips, studying killer whales along remote stretches of the British Columbia coast.  John left the Aquarium to head up Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Marine Mammal Program in 2001, and Dr Lance Barrett-Lennard was hired to replace him. Lance continues to expand and diversify the field research program John started.



The Aquarium’s field research program has the following objectives:

  • to monitor the health and status of marine mammals in British Columbia. Lance and his team at the Aquarium collaborate closely with John and other scientists from Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Cetacean Research Program to meet this long term objective. The primary focus is on killer whales, but they also collect data on humpback and minke whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall’s porpoises, harbour porpoises, and sea otters. The ultimate purpose is to identify emerging conservation issues early on, so that they can be addressed before they become severe. Data collected are tabulated and stored by the BC Cetacean Sightings Network.  
  • to study genetic relationships of resident , transient and offshore killer whales in BC and southern Alaska .   In the field, Lance uses ultra-light biopsy darts to obtain tiny samples of skin from killer whales, from which DNA is later obtained. For more details about this project, click here.
  • to better understand the ecological role of cetaceans in BC and Alaska.  This objective focuses primarily on killer whales, which as top predators strongly influence the abundance, distribution and behaviour of their prey.    Recently Aquarium staff and students have begun also investigating the impact of Pacific white-sided dolphins on fish abundance, and visa versa.

The Fleet

The Vancouver Aquarium is dedicated to “…effecting the conservation of aquatic life through display and interpretation, education, research, and direct action”. As part of its commitment to research, it maintains two vessels solely for marine mammal studies.  They are:



The first was the Tsitika, built in 1990 with funds donated by Chevron Canada and Rudy North. Used mostly around northern Vancouver Island, the Tsitika has logged tens of thousands of kilometres over the years. The Tsitika has been used extensively by Aquarium research associates Kathy Heise and Volker Deecke as well as by Lance and other research staff. At just over 5 metres, it has no sleeping accommodation and bases out of a camp or field station.



The second research boat, the Skana, was donated by Matt Campbell in 2008. The Skana is diesel-powered, 8.2 metres long and can sleep two comfortably -three at a pinch. The Skana is used on BC’s south and central coast primarily, and logged over 4000 km in 2010 alone.


From the Field:

Want a quick glimpse of being in the field with Dr. Barrett-Lennard on the Skana?  Check out this video!  To learn more about field research, check out 'A Day in the Life...' here.