The old whaler’s cry “There she blows” rang in my mind as we watched huge spouts of water and spray distantly rising from the waters of the Georgia Strait. Giant tail flukes showed briefly as two humpback whales dived in unison. This was an incredible sight: these whales are some of the very first to return to the strait after a hundred-year absence, and now they no longer need to fear the whaler’s harpoon.
One of the great delights of living on the West Coast is the opportunity to spot whales and dolphins. Who does not get excited about seeing orcas, grey whales, or the slim, dark minke? Throughout our local waters, there is a good chance for alert observers to see wild cetaceans, despite many pressures on the marine environment. Now, the long-awaited return of humpback whales to the Salish Sea is an encouraging indication that recovery of ecosystems is possible.
The Salish Sea, a collective name for Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia, and the Juan de Fuca Strait, is a very rich ecological area, visited in season by many different marine mammals. Most famous perhaps are the killer whales or orcas (actually a species of large dolphin) of which there are distinct populations: the southern and northern “resident” communities and “transients”, or Bigg’s killer whale. In addition to orcas, grey whales, minke, California and Steller sea lions, Pacific white-sided dolphins, harbour seals, and Dall’s and harbour porpoises are all regularly observed here. Adding to this incredible marine wealth, humpback whales are once again swimming throughout the Salish Sea, a hundred years after their original population was wiped out.
At 12 metres long and weighing 40,000 kilograms, humpbacks are an awe-inspiring sight, and dwarf other animals in our local waters. Extirpated from the B.C. coast by intensive whaling in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, humpbacks only started returning to the Salish Sea in the 1990s. Mark Malleson was with the Prince of Whales whale-watching company at that time and started photographing and cataloguing the whales, particularly their huge tail flukes, which have clear identifying patterns. What was once a side interest has become a full-time passion and work project for Malleson, who is now on contract with Fisheries and Oceans Canada keeping track of whale populations. One humpback in particular has caught his eye: Big Mama (#BCY0324). “2003 is the year the humpbacks really started to show,” he said, “and in the years since 2003, Big Mama has brought five calves back with her.” This pioneering whale is regularly sighted in Haro Strait off the southern Gulf Islands and in Juan de Fuca Strait, and has recently been venturing further north into the Strait of Georgia. Malleson’s tally of individual whales using the inland waters has reached 130, with some groups of 15 to 23 animals congregating off Sooke. The numbers seen grow each year: 39 individuals visited in 2013, 50 were photographed last year, and although no big groups have as yet been seen this year, four have already been recorded from the Strait of Georgia. Generally the whales are arriving earlier and staying later in the year, finding the local waters a good feeding area with plenty of krill, herring, and pilchard.
John Ford, director of Fisheries and Ocean Canada’s Cetacean Research Program, and author of Marine Mammals of British Columbia, considers humpback populations to now be doing “really well”. He said that humpbacks were among the first whales to be commercially harvested, as they swam close to shore and were widely distributed along the coast. In the 1870s, sailing schooners were used to hunt them in Howe Sound and off the east coast of Vancouver Island and the oil was rendered at shore-based stations such as Blubber Bay, Texada Island. The introduction of steam-powered boats and explosive-fired harpoons at a Nanaimo whaling station in 1907 was the final death knell for the Howe Sound and Georgia Strait whales, which were wiped out within a couple of years. For many years, until all whaling ended in 1965, humpbacks were very scarce in the North Pacific, with some occasionally seen in Hawaii in the 1970s, increasing gradually through the 1980s and 1990s.
Not a single humpback whale was seen in the Salish Sea for nearly a hundred years. About twenty years ago, occasional reports began to filter in from boaters, shore-based observers, and the whale-watching community. Whales were sometimes alone, sometimes in twos or threes. From 2004 to 2006, the Cetacean Research Program, supported with funding from the Canadian Species at Risk Act, participated in the SPLASH project studying North Pacific humpbacks, “one of the largest international collaborative studies of any whale population ever conducted”. By systematic surveys and documentation of tail fluke patterns with photographs, the researchers were able to get a population estimate from the proportion of repeat sightings within the study period. Ford says the Cetacean Research Program calculated that, as of 2006, there were 2,145 humpbacks on the B.C. coast, with a population growth rate of about four percent per year, up from 1,500 in 1965. Photographs of 7,971 unique individuals were catalogued by SPLASH in the North Pacific Ocean, and the total population was then considered to be nearly 20,000. The positive trend has continued since the SPLASH count and researchers now estimate the North Pacific humpback population at 22,000, about the same as before industrial whaling began.
These beautiful, gentle whales become sexually mature at five to nine years old and can live to be over 60. They eat mostly krill, but also small schooling fish such as herring. They roam across both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and have some of the longest migrations of all animals. They are maternally-directed and show strong site-fidelity to certain feeding and wintering areas: once mum has shown the way, young ones will also go there in future. They do not live in a family structure but sometimes group together to hunt concentrations of schooling fish by blowing bubbles that herd the fish into bait balls.
Humpbacks generally winter in warmer waters, such as Hawaii and south to Panama, and summer in the cooler Northern Pacific but they are individualistic creatures. As Howard Garrett of Orca Network told me, “they are very unpredictable and they do whatever they want.” For thirteen years, Orca Network has acted as a clearing house for the public’s records of whale and other marine mammal sightings from all around Puget Sound and the southern Salish Sea. Garrett noted that people get pretty excited about seeing humpbacks and are keen to send in photos and videos of their encounters, so the charity has a fine collection of archives illustrating the recent growth in population. Very occasionally, he receives reports of a humpback “mugging”, a situation where a whale closely approaches a boat and lingers beside it, smoothly rolling over or resting at the surface, “a thrilling and awe-inspiring experience”. If this happens, the correct procedure is to shut down the boat’s motor and wait it out.
Other whales, once common in the North Pacific are not doing so well as humpbacks, but may, with time, make a recovery. Pacific right whales were a popular early target of nineteenth century whalers and were soon extirpated from most of the ocean: there are now probably fewer than fifty in the world, Ford said. After 1951, none were seen for years, yet suddenly two individuals appeared off the B.C. west coast in 2013. Blue whales are still very rare after decades of being hunted, but with a North American population of 2,500, there is some chance for optimism. Fin whales, the second largest whale after the blue whale, are also very slowly returning. In September 2012, one was seen in Johnstone Strait and near Nanaimo. Sometimes, their presence sadly only becomes known when they are hit by a ship, which has happened more than once in B.C. waters in recent years. Sei whales were relatively abundant up to the 1960s, when hundreds were still hunted in the Pacific, but are now incredibly rare with only two sightings since the 1970s.
Grey whales have a better history and their populations are rebounding to near historic levels. Having suffered the same hunting fate as other whales from the second half of the nineteenth century, they were protected in 1917. Their numbers slowly recovered over the next hundred years and these “gentle giants” are now regularly seen from their breeding grounds in Baja along the west coast of North America up to their summer feeding grounds in Alaska. Grey whales regularly come into the Salish Sea, especially around Boundary Bay, near the mouth of the Fraser River.
Resident Chinook salmon-eating orcas were initially hunted, and then, in the 1960s, taken by aquariums and sea shows for live exhibit. The southern population is now critically-endangered. Their food source has declined precipitously and industrial pollution has affected their health. With a tiny population of about 80 animals, their future remains bleak. In contrast, seal and porpoise-hunting transient orcas are on the increase. Malleson said that the population of transients is growing at about five percent a year in the Salish Sea, and that hunting groups are bigger, cubs more common, and rare groups are becoming more regularly seen.
Other animals were also targeted in hunts. Elephant seals were reduced to fewer than 100 animals on the North American west coast. Steller sea lions, wrongly considered to be major consumers of salmon (they eat mainly hake, herring, and other forage fish), were killed in the tens of thousands prior to 1968. Sea otters, hunted for their fur, were extirpated from the west coast of Vancouver Island and the sea urchins they once ate multiplied dramatically, with enormously negative consequences for the kelp beds. The loss of all these animals at the top of their food chains had profound impacts on marine ecosystems, causing imbalances that reverberate today.
What will be the impacts on the overall ecosystem of returning whale populations? It is difficult to tell, but as Ford said “humpbacks are re-establishing their former and natural role in the ecosystem; it should be for the better”. Restoring species to a food chain can have dramatic impacts. Once sea otters were re-introduced to the West Coast, they consumed the sea urchins that had been destroying the kelp beds, the kelp re-grew and the fish and other species associated with the kelp began to return. Returning wolves to Yellowstone National Park had a similar keystone effect. The impact of humpbacks and other whales in the ecosystem could be equally regenerating for the broader spectrum of organisms.
During the last five decades, conservation-oriented, science-based attitudes slowly prevailed and are leading to the restoration of some of B.C.’s most iconic marine species, although others still struggle against extinction. Humpbacks and other whales remain very vulnerable to such issues as food supplies, pollution, noise, disturbance by boats approaching too closely, and the steady increase in shipping (the many port expansions planned for the Lower Mainland are a serious concern). The rules require that whale-watchers never chase whales, but stay back 200 yards (in the U.S.) and 100 metres (in Canada). The organization Wild Whales cautions boaters “to approach areas of known or suspected marine wildlife with extreme caution” and to “reduce speed to less than 7 knots when within 400m/yards of the nearest whale. Avoid abrupt course changes”. Boaters should be aware of the possibility of one of these marine giants surfacing suddenly: boat drivers have been injured in impacts. Check the Wild Whales’ “Be Whale Wise” information sheet for many other good suggestions.
If you see whales, it is helpful to take photographs and record sightings, as long as you can do it without endangering your own or the whale’s safety and well-being. Clear images of humpback tail flukes are particularly helpful for identifying individuals and assessing population numbers. Send your sightings to the Cetacean Sighting Network and/or Orca Network.
The State of Washington has declared June to be Orca Month, in recognition of the state’s importance as habitat for these rare and beautiful mammals. It would be fitting if B.C. could follow Washington’s lead, as neighbours and co-caretakers of the invaluable Salish Sea.