Trap-Feeding – A new humpback feeding behaviour!

One of the best things about researching individual whales is that, no matter how long we study them, we keep being reminded of how much more there is to learn…

In 2011, MERS researchers observed a humpback whale named “Conger” (BCY0728), a whale that we have documented off northeastern Vancouver Island since 2009, doing something that we had never seen a humpback do before. Conger was remaining at the water’s surface with his mouth wide open, and he stayed like this for an extended period of time.


With his mouth open, he spun slowly in place for about a minute, and then used his flippers to push fish toward his mouth!


After observing this feeding behaviour several more times, we named it “trap-feeding”, because it reminded us of the way that Venus flytraps catch flies. Humpbacks were remaining stationary and waiting for prey to enter their mouths. By studying the behaviour further, we have learned that, in addition to often using their long flippers to direct fish toward their mouths, humpbacks also benefit from diving birds that are chasing the same prey. While trying to escape the birds, the small fish appear to school in or next to the whales’ mouths.

We know of only two whales who used this trap-feeding behaviour in 2011 –  Conger and “Moonstar” (BCY0768), who was three years old at the time. But by the end of 2015, sixteen of the humpback whales that feed off northeastern Vancouver Island had been documented using this strategy at least once. In some cases, humpbacks even trap-fed side-by-side!


Aided by the many people that have contributed photos, videos, and sightings of trap-feeding over the past six years, MERS researchers have concluded that when whales trap-feed, they are feeding in the same locations and on the same prey species (juvenile herring) as when they lunge-feed. BUT there is a big difference in the size and density of the schools of fish that humpbacks consume when they trap-feed vs. when they lunge-feed…


The schools of herring that humpback whales trap-feed on are much smaller and less dense than the schools that they lunge-feed on.  We believe that trap-feeding is an energetically efficient way to feed on these smaller schools of fish. When whales are lunge-feeding, they accelerate toward their prey, then open their mouths – an energy-intensive strategy that only makes sense if schools of fish are large and dense enough to result in a net energy gain for whales.  But while trap-feeding, whales open their mouths while stationary or near-stationary, and therefore use much less energy.

If you see humpback whales exhibiting this feeding behaviour, we would love to know! Sightings and photos can be sent to

Additionally, MERS researchers are in the process of publishing a study focused on trap-feeding – so a lot more information about this new humpback whale feeding strategy will be available soon!

~ Christie, Jackie, Jared and the MERS Team

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MERS Presentations on Humpback Whales

From urban centres to remote communities, if you live on BC’s coast, we are striving to be of use to you.

We’re going far and wide to share our work on the return of Humpback Whales from the brink of extinction – all the good news, their remarkable feeding strategies, and the need for raised awareness for the sake of whale AND boater safety.

Presenter is MERS Education Director and Humpback Researcher – Jackie Hildering.

April 4th – Powell River; 7 PM; Cranberry Seniors Centre; host Malaspina Naturalists; (all welcome; donations welcome).

April 5th – Sechelt; 7 PM; Sunshine Coast Arts Centre; host Sunshine Coast Conservation Association; (all welcome; entry by donation). 

April 8th – Gabriola Island; 7 PM; The Roxy; hosts Gabriola Rescue of  Wildlife Society, Gabriola Streamkeepers, and Gabriola Land & Trails Trust; (all welcome; free entry).

April 11th – Nanaimo; 7 PM;  Vancouver Island University’s Malaspina Theatre; host Vancouver Island Sustainability; (all welcome; free entry).

April 26th – Courtenay; 8 PM; Florence Filberg Centre – Upper Floor Hall;  host Cape Lazo Power and Sail Squadron AGM.

April 27th – Duncan; 7 PM;  Vancouver Island University Cowichan – Lecture Hall; hosts Cowichan Naturalists, Cowichan Watershed Board, VIU Cowichan.

April 28th – Nanaimo (Nanaimo Yacht Club members and invitees); 7:30 PM; location and host Nanaimo Yacht Club; (all welcome; free entry). 

June17 – Kitimat; 7 PM; location and host Kitimat Valley Institute; (all welcome; free entry). 

June 21, 22 or 23 – Klemtu; 7 PM; location to be finalized; host Spirit Bear Lodge.

June 24 – Bella Bella; 7 PM; location to be finalized; hosts Qqs (Eyes) Projects Society
and Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department.

June 28 – Bella Coola; 7 PM;  Bella Coola Valley Inn.

September 22 – Quadra Island; details to follow; host Sierra Club – Quadra.

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Puzzle Pieces

Want a glimpse into the world of trying to study Humpbacks as individuals?

It’s key to everything we do. If we can’t recognize the whales as individuals, we can’t count them; or know their range; or determine rate of entanglement; or study what feeding strategies they use, etc. etc. etc.!

Often it’s easy. Sometimes it’s not.

In this blog we share two examples of how puzzle pieces come together so that we can better understand Humpback Whales. It’s hoped that these examples give a sense of how much effort and collaboration is involved in studying these far-ranging giants and – how the contribution of sightings can provide us with essential puzzle pieces.

Puzzle #1 

On the evening of August 25th two Humpbacks were in Comox Harbour and generated a lot of concern. Boats and jet skis were reportedly travelling at high speed near the whales. Public concern about the safety of the whales led to media attention and additional opportunities for us to provide education about safe boater behaviour around Humpbacks. We are so grateful too that people cared enough to sponsor MERS “See a Blow? Go Slow!” signage for Comox Harbour.

It was an important sighting and we hoped to be able to determine who the whales were. Thankfully, Peter Hamilton of Lifeforce contacted MERS with photos of the whales.

The following fluke shot allowed Alison Ogilvie of MERS to ID one of the whales.

fb-memes-005The photo shows enough features of the whale’s tail for Alison to recognize “Towers” (BCX1239).

We nickname the Humpbacks for distinctive features. In this case, see the two distinctive peaks on the right side of the trailing edge of the tail that inspired the name “Towers”? (See our ID photo above).

But the second whale – who was s/he? While we can often recognize individual Humpbacks from their dorsal fins, we had never documented a whale with this dorsal fin before.

Whale #2. Even though the whale has a very distinctive dorsal fin, we could not ID the whale as we had not documented it before.

Whale #2. Even though the whale has a very distinctive dorsal fin, we could not ID the whale as we had not documented him/her before.

Months passed. Then, on December 11th, we got reports of two Humpbacks travelling past Alert Bay to the north. Jared Towers of MERS and volunteer Muriel Halle were able to get ID photos. Look at the distinctive dorsal fin! It’s the same whale that had been in Comox Harbour on August 25th.

fb-memes-001They were able to get a fluke shot whereby we now have the ability to recognize this whale in the future (see below). S/he has been nicknamed “Bullet” for the distinctive circle-like shape on the trailing edge of the right fluke (upper third).

fb-memes-009Even though this is an adult Humpback, the August 25th sighting in Comox Harbour may be the first known documentation of this whale. To date we do not know of any prior sightings by our colleagues studying Humpbacks in other areas on BC’s coast. We anticipate however that we will get more pieces of the puzzle in the future.

Puzzle #2

Here’s a puzzle with pieces dating back to 1996! That’s the first known documentation of “Kappa” (BCX0158). The knowledge comes from a photo given to MERS by data contributor, Bruce Paterson. Kappa was nicknamed by for the “K” marking

Through the work of others we know :

  • Kappa migrates to Hawaii! Documented in March 2004 in Maui as part of the SPLASH Project.
  • Kappa is female! She was sighted with a calf in Maui in 2004 and was seen repeatedly with the calf in BC as well from July to September 2005. This includes documentation off SW Vancouver Island by Brian Gisborne for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
  • Addition sightings include her repeatedly being in Washington State.
    • The first documentation there was in October 1997 as reported by the Cascadia Research Collective (catalogued as CRC-13576).
    • The last known documentation of Kappa in Washington was on December 4, 2016 by Heather McIntyre of Maya’s Whale Watching as relayed to the citizen science site known as “Happy Whale“.

And then .  . then there was this past December 30th. Again we got reports of two Humpbacks traveling past Alert Bay, heading north. Again, Jared was able to get photos.

When those photos were relayed, one of us may almost have fallen off her chair. It was Kappa, the first known sighting of her around NE Vancouver Island in 20 years!

See below for the ID photos resulting from that sighting.


Kappa was nicknamed  for the marking in the shape of a “K” on the lower left part of her tail.  Kappa is Greek for the letter K. See the marking?

BUT who was the whale with her on December 30th? That whale didn’t fluke. We only have a flank shot.

Sound familiar?

Here we go again –  another puzzle we will hopefully be able to solve.

Piece by piece by piece  . . .  contributing to the important and intriguing picture of understanding – and protecting – North Pacific Humpbacks.


Unknown Humpback traveling with Kappa (BCX0158) on December 30, 2016.

[Update: As a result of this blog, another puzzle piece has been delivered. “Bullet” was documented off Port Angeles, Washington on July 29th, 2016. S/he was photographed by Alethea Leddy of Island Adventures. Information was relayed by Tasli Shaw.]

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Whale Species at Risk and the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Project

As a result of the November 29th announcement by Prime Minister Trudeau giving conditional approval to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Project, we have been receiving questions about what this might mean for whale species recognized to be at risk and protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA).

We have written the following in order to answer these questions related to the potential increase in tanker traffic and whale species at risk by summarizing available information from federal documents including Recovery Strategies and Action Plans.

In addition to this review of federal documents, MERS research on Humpback Whales and the risk of vessel strike is pertinent to the potential of increased tanker traffic. Our extensive experience with Humpback Whales provides us with the knowledge of how incredibly unaware Humpbacks can be of boats and how very unpredictably they can surface. This has made our “See a Blow? Go Slow!“campaign a necessity to raise awareness about reducing the risk of collision for the sake of whale and boater safety. Our work with Humpback Whales makes us all too aware that large vessels like tankers cannot divert course fast enough to avoid hitting humpbacks.

The more vessel traffic, the greater the risk becomes.


What are the specifics of the tankers – size, number and route?

  • The Aframax tankers proposed to serve the pipeline are 245 m long and 42 m wide.
  • There would be an approximate sevenfold increase in the number of tankers – from 60 to 408 tankers annually.
  • The tankers would carry diluted bitumen to Asian and Californian refineries along the route in the figure below. Note that tanker route (red line) is shown relative to acknowledged critical habitat for the endangered southern resident killer whale population (purple area).
Figure 1: Red line is the tanker route. Purple area is acknowledged critical habitat for the endangered southern resident killer whale population. Click to enlarge. Source:

Figure 1: Red line is the tanker route. Purple area is acknowledged critical habitat for the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale population. Click to enlarge. Source: Wilderness Committee.

How important is the tanker route area to whale species at risk?
The following whale species are recognized to be at risk and are commonly present along the tanker route. They are protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

  • Southern Resident Killer Whales – Endangered
    Area is designated critical habitat (see Figure 2)
  • Transient / Bigg’s Killer Whales – Threatened
    Area is proposed critical habitat (see Figure 3)
  • North Pacific Humpback Whales – Threatened
    In addition to the designated critical habitat (see Figure 4) there has been a recent dramatic increase in humpbacks in the Strait of Georgia and the Juan de Fuca Strait.

You will note that the area through which increased numbers of tankers would transit is designated or proposed critical habitat for all three at-risk whale species.

“Critical habitat” is defined under SARA as “the habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of a listed wildlife species that is identified as the species’ critical habitat in the recovery strategy or in an action plan for the species” (SARA s.2 (1)).”

Figure 2: “Critical habitat for southern resident killer whales. The hatched area in US waters shows the approximate areas designated as southern resident critical habitat under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA). Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2011. Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series, Fisheries & Oceans Canada, Ottawa, ix + 80 pp.

Figure 2: “Critical habitat for Southern Resident Killer Whales. The hatched area in US waters shows the approximate areas designated as Southern Resident critical habitat under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA).” Source: Recovery Strategy for the Northern and Southern Resident Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) in Canada.

Figure 3: “Map showing the habitat considered necessary for meeting recovery objectives for inner coast WCT killer whales [West Coast Transient]. Area includes marine waters bounded by a distance of 3 nautical miles (5.56 km) from the nearest shore. This area includes the locations of over 90% of all individual identifications and predation events documented in BC waters during 1990-2011.” Source: Ford, J.K.B, E.H. Stredulinsky, J.R. Towers and G.M. Ellis. 2013. Information in Support of the Identification of Critical Habitat for Transient Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) off the West Coast of Canada. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2012/155. iv + 46 p.

Figure 3: “Map showing the habitat considered necessary for meeting recovery objectives for inner coast WCT Killer Whales [West Coast Transient]. Area includes marine waters bounded by a distance of 3 nautical miles (5.56 km) from the nearest shore. This area includes the locations of over 90% of all individual identifications and predation events documented in BC waters during 1990-2011.” Source: Information in Support of the Identification of Critical Habitat for Transient Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) off the West Coast of Canada.

Figure 4: “Locations of the four critical habitat areas [for humpback whales]: a. Southeast Moresby Island, b. Langara Island, c. Southwest Vancouver Island, d. Gil Island (DFO 2009). The existence of other areas of critical habitat for Humpback Whales in B.C. is likely.” Source: Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2013. Recovery Strategy for the North Pacific Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. x + 67 pp.

Figure 4: “Locations of the four critical habitat areas [for Humpback Whales]: a. Southeast Moresby Island, b. Langara Island, c. Southwest Vancouver Island, d. Gil Island (DFO 2009). The existence of other areas of critical habitat for Humpback Whales in B.C. is likely.” SourceRecovery Strategy for the North Pacific Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Canada.

What risks are associated with increased tanker traffic?
Below, we have summarized associated risks as specified in the SARA Recovery Strategies or Action Plans for whale species at risk (click to enlarge).

Figure 5: Summary of risks associated with tankers as specified in the SARA Recovery Strategies or Action Plans for whale species at risk. Click to enlarge.

Figure 5: Summary of risks associated with tankers as specified in the SARA Recovery Strategies or Action Plans for whale species at risk. Click to enlarge.

Further language from federal Recovery Strategies specifically referencing oil spills and/or tankers:

  • Resident Killer Whale Recovery Strategy (2011): The threat of a spill of oil or other toxic material within the areas of critical habitat pose not only an immediate and acute risk to the health of resident populations  . . . but have the potential to make critical habitat areas un-inhabitable for an extended period of time. . . . While the probability of either northern or southern resident killer whales being exposed to an oil spill is low, the impact of such an event is potentially catastrophic [Note that this Recovery Strategy dates back to 2011]. Both populations are at risk of an oil spill because of the large volume of tanker traffic that travels in and out of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia (Baird 2001, Grant and Ross 2002) and the proposed expansion of tanker traffic in the north and central coast of BC. In 2003, 746 tankers and barges transported over 55 billion litres of oil and fuel through the Puget Sound (WDOE 2004). If the moratorium on oil and gas exploration and development is lifted in British Columbia, the extraction and transport of oil may put northern resident killer whales at additional risk.
    Killer whales do not appear to avoid oil, as evidenced by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska. Less than a week after the spill, resident whales from one pod were observed surfacing directly in the slick (Matkin et al. 1999). Seven whales from the pod were missing at this time, and within a year, 13 of them were dead. This rate of mortality was unprecedented, and there was strong spatial and temporal correlation between the spill and the deaths (Dahlheim and Matkin 1994, Matkin et al. 1999). The whales probably died from the inhalation of petroleum vapours (Matkin et al. 1999). Exposure to hydrocarbons can be through inhalation or ingestion, and has been reported to cause behavioural changes, inflammation of mucous membranes, lung congestion, pneumonia, liver disorders, and neurological damage (Geraci and St. Aubin 1982).”
  • Transient Killer Whale Recovery Strategy (2007): “Killer whales do not appear to avoid toxic spills, as indicated by the behaviour of a group of transients in the vicinity of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 in Prince William Sound, Alaska (and described in Section This spill was associated with unprecedented mortality of both transient and resident killer whales, which likely died from the inhalation of petroleum vapours (Matkin et al. 1999). Spills on a smaller scale have occurred in British Columbia, such as the Nestucca oil spill (875 tonnes in December 1988) in Gray’s Harbor, Washington, which drifted into Canadian waters, and the more recent spill of 50 tonnes of bunker fuel into Howe Sound from a ruptured tanker in August 2006. There is currently a considerable amount of tanker traffic in and out of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia, which poses a risk for killer whales (Baird 2001, Grant and Ross 2002). If the proposed 30-inch 400,000 barrel/day Gateway Pipeline is built near Kitimat, the risk of an oil spill associated with tanker traffic running from inshore waters to California and Asia will increase significantly.”
    [Note the Recovery Strategy was finalized prior to the announcement rejecting the Northern Gateway Project and developments with the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Project].
  • Humpback Whale Recovery Strategy (2013): “The recent oil platform blowout in the Gulf of Mexico released an estimated 5.2 million barrels of oil (Crone and Tolstoy, 2010) is a poignant reminder of the potential for failure in engineered infrastructure in the marine environment. Even with very low odds and excellent safety records, catastrophic events can lead to undesirable outcomes. Proposed pipeline projects, associated tanker traffic, and possible offshore oil and gas exploration and development in coastal British Columbia all increase the likelihood of toxic spills in Humpback Whale habitat in the future, and underscore the importance of protecting critical habitat and supporting mitigation measures and plans.
    In 1989 and 1990, following the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Humpback Whales in Prince William Sound were monitored for resulting effects. A change in abundance could not be determined, no change in calving rate was observed, and distribution varied by year, possibly related to changing prey abundance or distribution. Since there were no reports of Humpback Whales directly exposed to the spill (i.e. swimming through oil slicks), or of dead stranded whales (Dahlheim and von Ziegesar 1993), it is difficult to conclude whether Humpback Whales are vulnerable to oil spills or whether there were simply no whales in the vicinity at the time of the spill. However, other cetaceans such as Killer Whales do not appear to avoid toxic spills, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill was associated with unprecedented mortality of both Resident and Transient Killer Whales, likely resulting from inhalation of petroleum vapours (Matkin et al. 2008). Toxic spills have occurred impacting marine habitat along the B.C. coast. For example, the Nestucca oil spill (1988) resulted in 875 tonnes of oil spilled in Gray’s Harbor, Washington. Oil slicks from this spill drifted into Canadian waters, including Humpback Whale habitat. In 2006, a tanker ruptured in Howe Sound, B.C. spilling approximately 50 tonnes of bunker fuel into coastal waters. In 2007, a barge carrying vehicles and forestry equipment sank near the Robson Bight-Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve within the critical habitat for Northern Resident Killer Whales, spilling an estimated 200 litres of fuel. The barge and equipment (including a 10,000L diesel tank) were recovered without incident. When the Queen of the North sank on March 22, 2006, with 225,000 L of diesel fuel, 15,000 L of light oil, 3,200 L of hydraulic fluid, and 3,200 of stern tube oil, it did so on the tanker route to Kitimat, which is currently the subject of a pipeline and port proposal and within the current boundaries of Humpback Whale critical habitat . . .
    Strong avoidance reactions to underwater noise by Grey, Humpback and Bowhead Whales has been observed at received levels of 160-170 dB re 1 µPa (Richardson et al. 1995; Frankel and Clark 2000; McCauley et al. 2000; Stone and Tasker 2006). The level of noise from a tanker may be as high as 190 dB re 1 µPa, and bathymetric features that reduce sound dissipation would further increase the level of disturbance. For this reason, fjords or channels may be particularly sensitive to noise propagation from vessel traffic. The disruption of access to these areas would limit or reduce foraging opportunities or alter behaviours that support other life processes, such as resting, socializing, and vocal interaction.
    Humpback Whales exhibit strong site fidelity for feeding along the B.C. coast (DFO 2009; Ford et al. 2009) and increased acoustic disturbance in these areas may be detrimental to the quality and accessibility of the feeding grounds.”

What mitigation measures has the federal government put forward?
On November 7th, the federal government announced the “Ocean Protection Plan” for which “Canada will invest $1.5 billion over five years in long-needed coastal protections, with an action plan to deliver results for the coming decade. This Plan will engage communities, first responders, and governing authorities to work together effectively to respond to emergencies.” Many details have not yet been released.

The announcement includes the following plans to address specific risks:

Collision: “The Government of Canada will . . .. Work with partners to implement a real-time whale detection system in specific areas of the species’ habitat to alert mariners to the presence of whales, which will allow them to better avoid interactions with this and other marine mammal species.”

Noise: “The Government of Canada will . . . Take action to better understand and address the cumulative effects of shipping on marine mammals, such as the southern resident killer whales pods . . . This includes work to better establish baselines for noise and consideration of options to mitigate these effects.”

Oil spills: “The Government of Canada will fund improved research capacity to seek safe, reliable, and more effective technologies to clean up oil spills. Research into new clean-up technologies is an essential part of a world-leading marine safety plan.
New investments will fund research to help improve emergency response to marine pollution incidents on the water drawing on the expertise and experience of the science community both in Canada and abroad.
New international partnerships will give Canadians access to the best technology available for spill clean-up. A program will build on the work of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s world-leading Centre for Offshore Oil, Gas and Energy Research and will encourage collaboration on scientific research with Indigenous and local communities, international research facilities and industry.”

Federal documents that have informed the above:

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Because you care . . .

Below, as requested, we have bundled the various ways support can be provided through meaningful gift-giving.

Please know that we could not do it without you . . . our work to understand and reduce risks to whales . . . the entanglement and feeding research; the education regarding how to reduce risk of collision and what to do if entanglement is witnessed; and our marine wildlife rescue efforts. It’s because of people like you  – data contributors; sponsors; donors –  that our small team can achieve what we do.

Thank you for caring so much about something much bigger than yourself!  🙂

  1. Sponsor a Humpback! 

For just $43 we will send a Humpback Whale sponsorship package with a personalized message to the gift recipient. The package includes a card featuring a photo of your chosen whale; a USB stick with a biography of your whale with photos and recordings of Humpback vocals; AND you and the giftee will receive at least two email updates on the sponsored whale every year. Yes, that’s right, there are no renewal fees.  See here for details and during checkout indicate that the sponsorship is a gift. We will then contact you about personalizing the letter that accompanies the sponsorship package.


2. Sponsor a Sign!

We are striving to have “See a Blow? Go Slow!” signs all along BC’s coast to reduce the risk of collision for the sake of both boater and whale safety. This is essential now that Humpback Whales have thankfully returned from the brink of extinction and because they behave very differently from whales like Orca that boaters are more used to seeing on our coast. The awareness of how to reduce the risk of hitting a Humpback serves the other whale species well too. Sign costs are $65 to $85 including taxes (price depends on shipping costs) and the sign would include the name of your gift recipient (or the logo of your choosing). See below and contact Signs are made of super durable dibond with dimensions 18.5″ x 24″ (~47 cm x 61 cm).


Example of a sponsored sign in Comox, made possible by

Example of a sponsored sign in Comox, made possible by the Flying Dragons Dragon Boat Team. 

3. Make an Honorary Donation

Make a donation, indicate that it’s a gift, and we’ll send your giftee a message revealing your great thoughtfulness and what it supports. Oh, and YOU get a Canadian tax receipt.
MERS is a registered Canadian charity whereby donations are tax deductible. All contributions directly support our research, education, and marine wildlife response activities.

From the depths, thank you for considering MERS in your gift-giving and donations. 

KC sponsorship package

Example of a MERS Humpback Whale Sponsorship package. Five whales to choose from and the accompanying letter can be personalized for your giftee. See link here.


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Two Months and Two Humpbacks Entangled at the Same Location – What Can We Learn?

[UPDATE: November 29: Another Humpback Whale has died in open-net fish farm gear. This is the 2nd Humpback Whale dead at a fish farm in two weeks and the 3rd that is known to have been entangled in fish farm gear in 2.5 months. See this link for information on the latest death (at Grieg Seafood’s Atrevida farm in Nootka Sound).]

As a result of our research to understand and reduce risk of entanglement for Humpbacks and our efforts to increase awareness about what to do if an entanglement is witnessed, we’ve been getting a lot of questions about the latest known Humpback entanglement on BC’s Central Coast. Many of the questions were generated by Marine Harvest’s November 17th release “Whale found dead at empty aquaculture site”.

For the sake of efficiency and awareness raising, we’ve strived to answer the questions below and will update this information as we learn more. Our aim is to help ensure that what is learned from entanglements leads to measures that reduce the risk.


1. Was the November 15th entanglement at the same site as the September 12th entanglement?
Marine Harvest has reported that both whales were entangled on the same anchor system at the fallow Sheep Passage open-net farm site near Klemtu.

2. Why was the anchor system not removed?
The latest entanglement is under investigation by Fisheries and Ocean’s Canada (DFO). We are striving to find out if the results will be made public and if the results may inform policy and regulations around open-net fish farm anchor systems.

3. Did the whale entangled at this site on September 12th survive?
The Humpback caught up in the same anchor system on September 12th was disentangled by those with training (disentanglement must be coordinated by DFO and done by those with training, see #9 below). This was a very complex entanglement (see photo and video below) but all gear was successfully removed from the whale. It is not possible however to definitively say that the whale survived the injuries as there have been no documented re-sightings.

4. How did the whale found on November 15th die?
Whales are mammals and therefore need to come to the surface to breathe. They will drown if they are anchored to the bottom because of being trapped in ropes or fishing gear. It is hoped that the DFO investigation will provide insight into the specifics of this anchor system and how the Humpback died. Wherever there are lines or fishing gear in the ocean, there is the potential for entanglement, especially in areas where Humpbacks are feeding. They feed on krill and small schooling fish like herring and it can be expected that these prey are in the same areas as open-net fish farms. It is essential to realize that Humpbacks do not have the biosonar that toothed whales like Orca have and they can be extremely oblivious of boats, let alone fishing gear.
Also note that if whales have enough mobility to swim away, entanglement also can also cause death due to the fishing gear in which they are wrapped leading to serious injuries and infections, and/or because the gear makes it impossible for them to travel and feed effectively.

5. How often to whales die from entanglement on BC’s coast?
Preliminary research conducted by the Marine Education and Research Society and DFO supports that 47% of Humpbacks have scarring on their tailstocks that indicate that they have been entangled and survived, i.e. almost one in two Humpbacks that feed on BC’s coast have been entangled at some point in their lives (>1,000 Humpbacks). This indicates how widespread the risk of entanglement is, but does not indicate how many Humpbacks die due to entanglement. Dead whales most often sink to the ocean bottom whereby their deaths cannot be documented. If their bodies do wash ashore on BC’s vast coastline, often they are so decayed that cause of death cannot be determined.

6. Have there only been two Humpback Whales entangled in Marine Harvest open-net salmon farms in the last 30 years?
Yes, specifically at Marine Harvest farms, and specifically for this marine mammal species, there have been two reported cases of Humpback entanglement. There was another documented case of a dead Humpback Whale at an open net fish farm in March 2013 near Tofino at a Mainstream Canada site (now Cermaq). The statement regarding “30 years” in “Whale found dead at empty aquaculture site” must be weighted out against the reality that Humpbacks were extremely rare on BC’s coast even 15 years ago. Humpbacks were whaled in BC waters up to 1966. To give an indication of how Humpback numbers have increased since then, our research shows that in the islands outside Telegraph Cove on NE Vancouver Island alone, we documented just 7 Humpbacks in 2004 and, this year to date, we have documented 83 individuals (some just passing through). The population estimate for Humpbacks feeding in BC waters is at least 2,000 individuals. With more Humpbacks, there is more risk of entanglement. 

7. Are there regulations around the gear left at fallow fish farms?
No, there are not. It is hoped this will be an outcome of what is learned from these entanglements. See #10 below for what regulations do pertain to aquaculture and marine mammals.


8. Is the ID of the dead Humpback known?
No, it is not known. It is hoped that as part of the investigation, Humpback researchers like ourselves may be able to be of use in trying to identify who this whale was.

9. What should be done if someone witnesses an entanglement?
• With great urgency, report the entanglement with location to the DFO Incident Line / VHF 16. 1-800-465-4336.
• If at all possible, remain with the whale at a distance until trained help arrives or another boat takes over tracking, otherwise the chances of relocating the whale are greatly diminished
• Take whatever video/photos are possible but maintain a distance that doesn’t stress the whale (at least 100 metres).
Do NOT attempt to remove any fishing gear or rope from the whale as it risks human and whale safety (has led to human death). Professional training and equipment are needed to assess the entanglement and proceed safely with the greatest chance of success. Often, much of the fishing gear in which the whale is entangled is not visible at the surface. If well-intentioned members of the public remove the gear at the surface, it is made much more difficult to: (1) recognize that the whale is entangled; and (2) disentangle the whale even if it is relocated. Trailing gear at the surface provides the opportunity for trained responders to attach a tag to track the whale and/or to attach floatation to maintain contact with and slow down an entangled whale. Loss of this gear can significantly reduce rescuers’ ability to save the whale.

For more information regarding reducing the risk of vessel strike and entanglement, see

10. What regulations are there around reporting and reducing the risk of entanglement at finfish aquaculture sites?
In the Pacific Aquaculture Regulations, marine mammals are regulated under the term “nuisance fish” and there is obligatory reporting on “the number and species of nuisance fish that die as a result of the aquaculture facility’s operations.”
• Section 10 of the Marine Finfish Aquaculture License specifies conditions around “management of Marine Mammal Interactions” and includes “The licence holder must notify the Department [DFO] of any marine mammal drowning mortality or entanglement (live or dead) not later than 24 hours after discovery.”
• The Marine Mammal Regulations state that there is to be no disturbance of a marine mammal but “disturbance” is not defined. Specifically the language in section 7 is “No person shall disturb a marine mammal except when fishing for marine mammals under the authority of these Regulations.”
• Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, North Pacific Humpbacks are recognized as a threatened population. General prohibitions include “No person shall kill, harm, harass, capture or take an individual of a wildlife species that is listed as an extirpated species, an endangered species or a threatened species.”

An important development in the United States is that as of January 1, 2017, foreign fisheries must adhere to the provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) which address the incidental mortality and serious injury of marine mammals. These include: 

  •  With respect to foreign fisheries, section 101(a)(2) of the MMPA states that the Secretary of the Treasury shall ban the importation of commercial fish or products from fish which have been caught with commercial fishing technology which results in the incidental kill or incidental serious injury of ocean mammals in excess of United States standards. For purposes of applying the preceding sentence, the Secretary of Commerce shall insist on reasonable proof from the government of any nation from which fish or fish products will be exported to the United States of the effects on ocean mammals of the commercial fishing technology in use for such fish or fish products exported from such nation to the United States. (16 U.S.C. 1371(a)(2))
  • Section 102 (c)(3) of the MMPA states that it is unlawful to import into the United States any fish, whether fresh, frozen, or otherwise prepared, if such fish was caught in a manner which the Secretary of Commerce (Secretary) has proscribed for persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, whether or not any marine mammals were in fact taken incident to the catching of the fish. (16 U.S.C. 1372(c)(3)).

Contact information: For further information regarding the work of MERS to understand the risk of entanglement to Humpbacks: Email Phone  250-956-3525 or 250-230-7136.

Posted in Conservation, Humpback whales | Tagged , | 2 Comments

What a Fluke!

Written by Marissa Morison, MERS Research Assistant (thank you Canada Summer Jobs for making the position possible).

On a chilly Tuesday morning we prepare to depart from a quaint little dock in Telegraph Cove. I eagerly await a day on the ocean with Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) Humpback Whale researchers Jackie Hildering and Christie McMillan.

I am here as a summer Research Assistant for MERS, expecting mostly to be fulfilling small daily tasks and computing data into entry. But today, today is different . . . Today will be my first time out on the west coast ocean since being a young girl, a long anticipated moment. I’ve bundled myself in multiple layers of clothing (I’ll admit I came rather ill-prepared for the weather) and take a seat near the bow.

Yes this happened! Please read on for explanation. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Yes this happened! Please read on for explanation. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

I brace myself as we coast out of Telegraph Cove. Moving from the prairies the landscape seems foreign to me, but strangely familiar in the same breath. The view is amazing. Actually, the view is greater than amazing. It is awe-inspiring! There is a distinct calm that falls over everything, and my senses heighten to adapt to the overwhelming array of new sensations. The air is crisp, clean, and cool as it wisps through my hair and nibbles at my cheeks. A fine mist is spraying up from the water, settling on my face, and leaving a salty taste on my lips. This place is as close to perfect as perfect comes.

Today’s objectives include documenting a female Humpback and her new calf. In order to be able to identify the calf in the future, it is essential to get photos of the calf’s dorsal fin from both sides and a photo of the underside of the tail (the fluke) that clearly shows the trailing edge. I learn that the pigmentation of Humpback calves’ flukes can change quite a bit over time whereby it is so important to get a photo of the fluke’s trailing edge.

The mother Humpback (BCY0177) has been nicknamed “Slash”, and I know that she unfortunately earned this nickname as a result of being struck by a vessel prior to 2006. She now bears distinctive scarring from the boat’s propeller.

Slash breaching (while emptying water from her mouth). Note the vessel strike scars along her back? Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Slash breaching (while emptying water from her mouth). Note the vessel strike scars along her back? Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

With the help of a report from a Stubbs Island Whale Watching vessel, we are able to quickly locate the pair.

That moment, that moment the calf surfaces, it is remarkable! I feel an excitement so great I can’t speak. I sit, just trying to comprehend the immense flood of emotion rushing through my mind, body, and soul. A stinging sensation develops above my nose and between my eyes as I fight the tears trying to escape. It is just that beautiful. But, it doesn’t stop there. Slash suddenly emerges next to her calf, and my breath is taken away, once again. The sheer size of her is something incomprehensible until witnessed by oneself. She is massive! I see the scars she wears and feel deeply saddened that we can so negatively affect these beautiful beings through carelessness or lack of awareness.

But, this is only the beginning of the excitement. Now as we are idling along having photographed the calf’s dorsal fin but still hoping for the fluke to be fully lifted, something ignites a change in behaviour in the twosome and they catapult up, out of the water, and then smash back down. They are breaching!  Again and again! I must admit it was slightly terrifying to witness such enormous animals rising from the water, but my fear soon turns to admiration and awe.

Mother and calf breaching and pectoral fin slapping. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Mother and calf breaching and pectoral fin slapping. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

As I watch in fascination time seemingly stands still. I’m informed this is not something seen on every journey out on the water, that such acrobatic behaviour is largely unpredictable. Knowing this makes my appreciation of the experience grow even deeper.
And, during the repeated breaching and pectoral fin slapping, the calf lifts his/her tail. Bingo! The photograph of the fluke is obtained that will allow the calf to be identified in the future.

The calf's fluke which will allow re-identification in the future. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

The calf’s fluke which will allow re-identification in the future. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

What a fluke! All of it. To be present when these giants happened to erupt out of the water, to see the interaction between mother and calf, to be there when the ID photos were obtained . . . I am deeply grateful that I was there in those moments, to experience the wild. Since then, I have had the opportunity to experience and share in a growing number of equally remarkable moments. This place is full of surprises and I find enjoyment in simply being here for the ride.

More photos of the remarkable encounter: 

Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Mother - Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Mother – Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Mother - Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Mother – Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Mother - Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Mother – Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Posted in Humpback whales | Tagged , | 2 Comments