How Many Humpbacks? (Around northern Vancouver Island in 2019)

[Updated: March 12, 2020]

Here’s our report on Humpback Whale numbers in our study area in 2019 and yes, our updated catalogue is ready to go too. 🙂 

Humpback Whale Ripple (BCX1063) – documented since 2005 (then already adult) and known to have had 3 calves. She’s a trap-feeder.

But first, for clarity, please know that we are not reporting on the entire number of Humpback Whales estimated to feed in British Columbia marine waters.

The estimate for that dates back to research by Ford et al  which concluded:  in 2006, the  abundance for Humpback Whales in British Columbia waters was 2,145 whales.  This estimate did not include 1st year calves.

In is anticipated that soon there will be an updated estimate for the number of Humpbacks in BC waters as a result of the 2018 Pacific Region International Survey of Marine Megafauna (PRISMM). It is important to note that the results of the PRISMM  line-transect survey will be for a much larger area than that which led to the 2006 estimate. 

How many Humpbacks did there used to be off our coast? As you can imagine, there is poor data for this as no one was studying whales as individuals prior to the early 1970s. The estimate is that a minimum of 4,000 Humpback Whales existed just off the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1905. Legal whaling for Humpbacks ended by international agreement in 1966 and it is estimated that, by the 1970s, there were only ~1,400 Humpbacks in the WHOLE North Pacific Ocean i.e. not just off our coast.

Now that that’s all been emphasized, the area for which we are reporting is from the upper Strait of Georgia to northern Vancouver Island and around to northwest Vancouver Island. We identified 161 individuals who were in that area at some time in 2019. There are now over 380 whales in the MERS catalogue for the area. 

Updated catalogue. All those who have previously purchased a catalogue will receive a link via email to download the update. Available for purchase at this link for $25.


The sub-area for which we have the longest dataset is northeastern Vancouver Island (upper Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait and the inlets of the Broughton Archipelago). The graph below shows how sudden the increase in Humpbacks has been. Numbers have increased from just 7 individuals documented in this area in all of 2003, to identifying 93 in 2019 Note too how many of the whales are returnees to the area each year (compare the blue bar in the graph to the red bar). This indicates how strong the site fidelity of Humpbacks is. They generally return to the same area(s) to feed year upon year. 

Number of photo-identified Humpback Whales sighted off Northeastern Vancouver Island – specifically for upper Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait and the inlets of the Broughton Archipelago. Data pre 2000 via Alexandra Morton. Note that we use both dorsal fins and the underside of the whales’ tails to determine ID. 

For the Campbell River / Comox / Hornby Island area, we catalogued 88 individuals that were there at some point in 2019.  Of this number, 
35 were also sighted around 
northeastern Vancouver Island.

Note that the size of this increase in Humpbacks off the coast of BC cannot be population growth alone (post whaling). There must also be a shift from somewhere else. That mystery is something we and our colleague researchers, have not solved, nor what the shift may indicate about changing ocean conditions.

We emphasize how this work would not be possible were it not for the
contribution of photos from naturalists, boaters and others who care
. The photos, together with the location of sightings, not only aid our Humpback Whale population studies but also help in understanding how the whales use the area. 

With the number of Humpbacks so predictably being around central to northern Vancouver Island, it is essential that boaters are aware of how to avoid collision and what to do (and not to do) if entanglement is witnessed. Humpback Whales are much more unpredictable than the Orca many boaters are accustomed too. Please see

We also have a national teaching resource on boaters and marine mammals at This was developed in collaboration with the Canadian Power and Sail Squadron.

For further highlights of our work in 2019, please see this link. 

Note that our research, conducted in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, shows that approximately 50% of the Humpbacks in BC waters have scarring from an entanglement. This indicates how widespread a risk entanglement is but does of course not allow us to know how many whales become entangled and die since dead whales usually sink to the bottom of the ocean.

It is even more difficult therefore to know how often whales die from injuries related to boat collision. It is now thankfully the law that collisions and entanglements must be reported.

Click here for examples of the severity of  human injuries and material damage resulting from collisions with Humpback Whales. 


Ford J.K.B., Rambeau A.L., Abernethy R.M., Boogaards M.D., Nichol L.M., and Spaven L.D. 2009. An Assessment of the Potential for Recovery of Humpback Whales off the Pacific Coast of Canada. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2009/015. iv + 33 p.

The Good You Gave – highlights of MERS work in 2019

This is for all of you who helped our efforts in 2019: 

  • Donors;
  • Data contributors;
  • “See a Blow? Go Slow!” sign sponsors and those who help position the signs; 
  • Humpback Whale sponsors 
  • Auction sponsors and supporters; 
  • Fundraising trip sponsors and participants; 
  • Ocean Store customers; and/or
  • All those who help amplify our education / conservation messaging. 

Thank you for being part of our community and investing in the work of the Marine Education and Research Society. We take this trust and support very seriously and, with 2019 winding to a close, we are therefore reporting back on what your contributions have help make possible.

Please see below and  . . . . for 2020 and beyond, we wish you a world of whales and wellness. 

Highlights of what has been achieved by MERS in 2019:

Educational and Outreach

  • Development of the guide “Marine Mammals and Boaters” for use nation-wide with the Canadian Power Squadron in the #BoatBlue campaign; 
  • 106 additional See a Blow? Go Slow!” signs for strategic positioning on British Columbia’s coast to educate boaters on how to reduce risk to whales; 
  • 21 presentations aimed at reducing risks to whales, reaching 1,200+ people from coastal BC; 
  • 95 people trained through two Marine Mammal Naturalist Courses with information including actions to reduce risk to marine mammal and what do to in case of incidences of disturbance / injury / entanglement; and
  • For the first time, having an office space (in Port McNeill), which allowed for educating boaters through window displays and by directly engaging with the more than 750 people who visited the office. 


  • Over 1,200 data entries for sightings of Humpbacks in 2019 (please note that sightings are not only obtained through our survey efforts; we are highly reliant on a community of data contributors many of whom are whale watch naturalists);
  • Further data collection and analysis of scarring in Humpbacks Whales indicative of a previous entanglement (study conducted in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada);
  • Data collection for research into Humpback Whale feeding strategies;
  • Continued collaboration with colleagues also documenting Humpbacks off the coast of British Columbia to update the BC province-wide Humpback catalogue (for completion in spring 2020); and
  • Publication of research on sightings rates of Minke Whales.  

Marine Mammal Rescue and Response

  • Ongoing data collection to inform areas of high entanglement risk off northern Vancouver Island and the central coast of BC; 
  • Monitored whales during 6 days when commercial fisheries overlapped with areas of high whale density, to improve reporting of incidents, and to respond or support responses when needed; and 
  • Communication / coordination for 17 incidents. 


  • Winner of the 2019 ECOSTAR Awards for Ecological Stewardship (non-profit) and Educational Leadership (individual). 

Gifts With Depth

 Please see this link for a summary of what we have been able to achieve in 2019  in our work to reduce risks to whales.  

We could not have achieved this without the support of those who believe in us and the value of the work.  It’s that simple.

With this being a time of year when, in particular, gifts and donations are being considered, below we provide 4 ways through which your support also leads to meaningful gifts for loved ones. 

  1. Honorary donation
  2. Sponsor a Humpback Whale
  3. Sponsor a sign to reduce risk to whales
  4. Select gifts from our Ocean Store

1. Honorary Donation

MERS is a registered Canadian charity whereby donations are tax deductible. When you indicate your donation to MERS is  a gift, we’ll send your giftee a message revealing your thoughtfulness and what work the donation supports. 

Please know that monthly donations (click here) are especially valuable. These reoccurring donations are reliable income thereby allowing more effective planning and budgeting and being able to indicate in-kind support when applying for grants. 

All contributions directly support our research, education, and marine wildlife response activities.

2. Sponsor a Humpback Whale 

For just $48 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 every year about the sponsored whale.
Click 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.

Sponsorship whales are KC, Twister, Slash, Moonstar and Argonaut.

3. Sponsor a Sign

“See a Blow? Go Slow!” signs are needed all along BC’s coast. Over 100 signs have already been positioned but many more are needed. The signs are essential for both whale and boater safety.  Please see the example below. 

Signs costs approximately $70 each  (price depends on shipping costs) and the sign would include dedication text for your gift recipient (or the logo of your choosing). 

For signs with dedications, a donation can be given in the amount of the sign’s value leading to your getting a tax receipt. See below and contact to discuss dedication and confirm price. Signs are made of durable dibond with dimensions 18.5″ x 24″ (~47 cm x 61 cm).

4. Select Gifts from Our Ocean Store

The Ocean Store also serves as our office space in Port McNeill, BC. The sustainable, local and marine-themed goods are also available at our online store at this link. 

It’s the ideal place for gifts that support local marine research, education and conservation (and local artists and businesses). 

Examples of items available at the online store.

With great thanks to you for any consideration you
can give these gifts with depth. 

Any questions? Please contact us via this link. 

A Humpback With 11 Birds in His Mouth?

A Humpback With 11 Birds in His Mouth?
Humpback Whales and Their Bycatch

Over the years we at MERS have documented several cases of Humpback Whale bycatch; that is other animals that inadvertently end up in their mouths. This often occurs because Humpback Whales approach dense schools of Pacific Herring at great speed while other species are also feeding on them.

Juvenile Pacific Herring being pushed to the surface by Common Murres (diving birds) feeding on them from below. Gulls feeding on the Herring from above.

The other animals can thereby end up engulfed with the Herring. Then what happens? Consider that anything the size of a Gull or larger cannot be swallowed since the throats of Humpbacks are narrow and because, as baleen whales, they do not have teeth for chewing prey into smaller pieces.

We’ve previously shared the footage below of a Pacific Harbour Seal escaping from the mouth of a trap-feeding Humpback Whale. 

Video by Gord Thompson and Dennis and Stephanie Parsons.

We’ve also documented Humpback Whales opening their mouths to release birds like Common Murres. See photos below of a Common Murre escaping from Guardian the Humpback Whale’s mouth.

On many occasions, we have also documented bycaught Gulls. The afternoon of October 18th was no exception. 

From our research vessel Merlin we noticed in the distance an adult Humpback we know as Backsplash lunge feed at the surface on a large school of Herring that was being fed on from below the surface by Common Murres and from above by Herring and California Gulls.

When we arrived about three minutes later Backsplash was slowly circling the remains of the school of Herring and then lunged on it again, effectively capturing all or most of the remaining fish that were left over from the first lunge. Seconds later Backsplash opened his mouth at the surface, vigorously shook his upper jaw and 11 Gulls came floating up to the surface.

By-caught Gulls discarded from Backsplash’s mouth. Note the Herring scales on the surface. Photo ©Jared Towers, MERS. 

We approached the scene and could see all Gulls were completely saturated – 9 appeared dead (from impact or drowning), and 2 were clinging to what appeared to be their last moments alive. We immediately grabbed the two survivors, both immature Herring Gulls, and wrapped them in a dry towel that I happened to have aboard.

Elysanne Durand drying and warming the two immature Herring Gulls. ©Jared Towers, MERS.

We then noticed that one of the birds we previously thought was dead was resting itself on the floating body or another. There was no room in the towel for this bird, a young California Gull, so I texted our colleagues at nearby OrcaLab on Hanson Island and we raced over for some support.

Gulls that had been in Backsplash’s mouth. Photo ©Jared Towers, MERS.

Moments later we were met on shore with towels and over the next little while dried off the birds while sitting next to the wood stove. We ended up leaving one of the Herring Gulls and the California Gull with our friends at OrcaLab and took the other Herring Gull back home to Alert Bay.

John Totterdel picking up the immature California Gull. Photo ©Jared Towers, MERS..

Once completely dry all birds were released at the shoreline. They each took to the water and then the sky, although the final fate of the poor California Gull is apparently unknown because it subsequently escaped attack by a Bald Eagle but then moved out of sight while the hunt was still in progress, as if being captured by a Humpback Whale wasn’t already enough!

I’m a strong believer that we should always be conscious of our impact on the environment and its inhabitants and this often means not interfering in interactions between predators and prey. However, in a case such as this where the by-product of a feeding predator happens to be some incidentally captured Gulls I have always felt compelled to help out, even though the Gulls typically appear resentful and aggressive as soon as they are warm and dry again.


Read more:

Photo used with permission – Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images. Read about this Humpback Whale and sea lion encounter at this link.

A Whale Named Terry

Blog written by MERS team member – Jackie Hildering
Education and Communications Director, Humpback Researcher, MERS Co-Founder 

Try to stop the tears from welling up in your eyes.
I couldn’t.
Because this is where hope, whales, and children intersect. 

Terry Fox during the “Marathon of Hope” 1980. Photo from © Gail Harvey, United Press Canada from the Royal BC Museum website.


If you were in Canada in 1980 and of an age to understand the magnitude of what Terry Fox was striving to do, just an image of him will already make you emotional. 

Terry Fox was a beacon of hope, courage, integrity, positivity, strength and defiance of cancer. He was only 18 when he lost most of his right leg to bone cancer. 

He was 21 when he dipped his artificial leg into the Atlantic Ocean and began his “Marathon of Hope” on April 12, 1980. He planned to run across Canada, from Newfoundland back to his home in British Columbia, to raise money for cancer research

He ran for 143 days, covering 5,373 kilometres and then Terry had to stop. The cancer had spread to his lung. He had run as far as Thunder Bay, Ontario. 

He was one month short of turning 23 when he died on June 28th, 1981.


BCX1100 is a Humpback Whale. This is one of the Humpbacks that has been seen this year near Port Alice on NW Vancouver Island.  The whale was documented travelling with Humpback “Whiskers” and her 2019 calf by photographer Darrell McIntosh. As is the case for so many areas off British Columbia’s coast, we have a second chance with these giants. The whales off Port Alice are part of a Humpback comeback to where they used to be whaled (up to 1966). 

BCX1100 with damaged right fluke. Photo by Darrell McIntosh, September 2, 2019.

Note in the photo above that Humpback BCX100 has an injured fluke. The right side is limped over. We do not know the cause. The injury dates back to before 2010 and possible causes include vessel strike and entanglement. 

“Whiskers” is the nickname for Humpback BCZ0200 (photo below). Catalogue designations like “BCZ0200” are difficult to remember so we nickname the Humpbacks for distinctive features. See what looks like a cat face on Whiskers’ tail?

Sure you do!

Marine Education and Research Society catalogue photo for Whiskers, BCX0200 by Jared Towers, MERS, MML-42. For more on the cataloguing and nicknaming of Humpbacks please see this link.

These nicknames allow for the potential for greater public engagement and thereby, conservation. The nicknames also really, really help us recognize the whales which is the foundation of all our other research. 


When we learned that Whiskers had a calf this year and had been sighted outside Port Alice, we of course wanted local children to suggest nicknames. Then Darrell also documented the other whale with mom and calf, whereby we asked the children to suggest a nickname for both Whiskers’ calf and BCX1100.

Students of Sea View School, Port Alice. They can see often see the Humpbacks from the school playground. Photo: Natalie Stewart.

There are just 37 students at Sea View School in Port Alice. I had a video call with them while we were on the water on the other side of Vancouver Island doing Humpback research. In the call I helped explain how the nicknames were like a clue for who the whale was. We discussed the most identifiable features of the two whales and they asked questions that reflected concern for the whales and how the whale with the injury  might not be able to swim as well as other Humpbacks. 

And then it came – the message that the students had come up with their suggestions. They thought that BCX1100, the whale with the injured right fluke who was able to make it all the way to Port Alice from Hawaii or Mexico despite a handicap, should be nicknamed . .  “Terry”. 

The tears. Oh the tears. To get personal here, I was 16 when Terry Fox began his Marathon of Hope. I graduated from high school shortly after he died. His life ended. My adult life was just beginning.

To this day, at age 56, I have the paper on which my 16-year-old hand wrote this quote from Terry:

“How many people do something they believe in? I just wish people would realize that anything’s possible if you try – dreams are made if people try”. Terrence Stanley Fox.

He had an undefinable yet undeniably large impact on who I am and the strength for which I strive to stand for what I believe in: nature, whales  . . . children. For me it is always about the best chances of lives of hope and meaning for children. 

Tomorrow, on September 26th, the children in Port Alice and across Canada will participate in the 38th annual Terry Fox School Run.

From the Terry Fox Foundation webpage: “Terry showed us all that the impossible is possible. He reminded us all that we can make a difference in the world and change people’s lives for the better.”  

The children of Port Alice are certainly making a difference. 

They have also become a force in educating adults about the whales and safe and responsible boat operation around them (see  

They give us something to believe in. 


Some of the adults who made this all possible:

  • Friend, school secretary and driving force – Natalie Stewart.
    We are hoping there will be media interest in this story.
    Please contact Natalie at, (250) 284-3315.
  • Photographers – Darrell McIntosh, David Love, Douglas Bradshaw
  • Principal of Sea View School – Gloria Gadacz
  • Teachers:
    • Heather Jack – Grades K/1
    • Rebecca Herbert – Grades 2/3/4
    • Brenda Karch and Rhiannon Heim – Grades 5/6/7 & 10
  • Kathleen O’Reilly – North Island Eagle
  • Many other Port Alice community members:

And what was the nickname chosen by the students for Whiskers’ 2019 calf? Poseidon!

Notice the distinctive white lines on the calf’s tail that look like Poseidon’s trident? The students understood that this was the most distinctive marking that would likely still be discernable as the calf aged. The light white colouration on the tail will likely fade. 

Whiskers’ 2019 calf now nicknamed Poseidon. The calf will stay with Whiskers for a year and then may come back to the very spot where s/he learned to feed with mother. That would be right outside Port Alice.

Make a Difference in the World of Marine Conservation – Apply to Join our Board Today! (Volunteer)

Are You the Next Member of Team MERS?

In the height of summer, when MERS research, education and response work is at its peak, and our new office is full of busy summer staff, it is hard to believe that this organization started a mere nine years ago as a group of friends wanting to better understand and protect marine mammals in British Columbia (with our core study area and base being Northeastern Vancouver Island).

We have grown so much in nine years and there is so much more to come.

It’s time to grow our team once again! To help support and nurture MERS, we need more hands-on-deck.  Could this be you?

MERS board members and directors. For biographies of team members see this link. Missing from photo: Jared Towers. Photo: Derek Harnanansingh.

This fall, we are looking to add up to two new volunteer board members to help guide this organization into its second decade of operation and make an even bigger positive impact on marine conservation along B.C.’s coast. 

Interested? Here are the details:

Board Member at Large – potentially two positions available

Board of Directors position / unpaid

MERS Marine Education and Research Society

Preferably British Columbia, but candidates from other areas considered

A Little About Us:
The Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) is a registered Canadian charity dedicated to promoting conservation and understanding of marine ecosystems through scientific research, environmental education, and marine wildlife response. We are based on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and incorporated in 2010.

Our team is comprised of marine biologists and educators highly dedicated to marine conservation. While based on Canada’s west coast, team members have worked in many countries and oceans. Click here for background on our team.

We are a small organization doing big work.

Our research is primarily focused on investigating Humpback and Minke Whales, and that the threats that impact them in British Columbia. We also provide marine wildlife monitoring and incident response. Education is key to our strategy to reduce risks to marine species. Our work includes the See a Blow? Go Slow! campaign to reduce the risk of collision between whales and boaters and How to Save a Whale which educates about whale entanglement. MERS educational activities also include a comprehensive outreach plan of presentations, workshops, training sessions and programs aimed at a wide audience.

Responsibilities of the Board Member:

  • Provide leadership to MERS and help to set our strategic direction
  • Provide oversight and ensure new projects align with our established mission, vision and values
  • Provide governance and ensure MERS and its board adhere to by-laws
  • Attend and participate in bi-monthly board meetings (via teleconference)
  • Participate in fundraising initiatives
  • Help to spread the word about our organization and our work
  • Assist the organization in attracting the expertise, funding and resources needed for MERS to better achieve its goals
  • Attend bi-monthly board meeting, participate in at least one sub-committee and participate in an annual weekend-long board retreat/planning session

MERS is currently seeking candidates with the following skills and expertise:

  • Experience in/commitment to environmental issues;
  • Experience on not-for-profit boards or strong willingness to learn; and
  • Fundraising experience and knowledge.

Additional Assets:

  • Experience in:
    • Marketing, Communications or PR;
    • Law; and/or
    • Accounting or Finance.


  • A two-year commitment is requested of all Board Members.

Candidates who feel they have other skills or experience that is applicable to our mission are also encouraged to apply.

To Apply:
Please send a note about your relevant experience, skills and interest in MERS, and a CV to before September 30th. 

Our MERS board is a fantastic group of professionals dedicated to guiding MERS as it grows, providing solid governance, insight AND oversight, sharing their skills, and ensuring MERS fulfills its mission and strategic plan.

If you are looking for a meaningful way to make a difference in the world of marine conservation, apply to join our board today!


Dedicated board members: Board Chair Caitlin Birdsall left (with Olin) and Vice Chair Leah Thorpe right (with Arlen).


We’re Hiring! Local team member needed.

Job Posting
Marine Education and Research Society
Office Assistant – Outreach / Retail / Data 

The Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting conservation and understanding of marine ecosystems through scientific research, environmental education, and marine wildlife response.  We are based in Port McNeill, on NE Vancouver Island. For information about MERS’ research, education and wildlife response efforts, see

The Office Assistant will be essential in MERS’ efforts to educate the public about local marine mammals and boater safety, and to study and protect marine mammals in British Columbia. The focus is on Humpback Whales with our research dating back to before 2004. With Humpback Whales having made an astounding comeback to the coast of BC, it necessitates a better understanding of this population. This includes education for boaters about how to mitigate the threats of entanglement and vessel strike to Humpbacks, as this species behaves very differently than the Killer Whales most boaters are accustomed to (see our  “See a Blow? Go Slow!” campaign at

Key to understanding the population is for the whales to catalogued and identified as individuals.

This position also has a retail component whereby funds are raised for our work.

Duties will include:

  1. Greeting visitors and aiding in MERS’ work to serve as a resource to the local community (with a focus on local ecotourism and boat operators) in order to: enhance the value of wildlife viewing experiences; contribute to boater safety; and reduce risks to marine life.
  2. Processing retail and donation transactions to help support MERS’ efforts.
  3. Maintaining a clean and presentable office and retail space.
  4. Conducting ID matching, data entry and database management for Humpback Whale sighting and photographic data.
  5. Other office-based work as needed.


  • Have knowledge of the biology and ecology of marine mammals in British Columbia. It is a significant asset to have completed a MERS Marine Mammal Naturalist Workshop.
  • Familiarity with POS systems and cash handling.
  • Work well independently and with minimal supervision.
  • Have exceptional organizational skills.
  • Have proven successful experience with public outreach and science communication.
  • Have strong computer skills. Previous experience with some or all of the following programs is an asset: Microsoft Excel, Photo Mechanic, Filemaker, Adobe Lightroom, and QGIS.
  • Able to demonstrate strong abilities in matching whale flukes and fins for identification.
  • Have proven dedication to reducing impacts to the environment.
  • Reside near Port McNeill and have strong local knowledge.


Based on experience (minimum $15/hour)


Part-time (12 hours/week; 2 x 6-hour shifts; Friday and Saturday )
8-month contract
Anticipated start date of September 20, 2019

Application deadline:

August 18, 2019.
Interviews may be conducted before the application deadline.

Application format:

Applications must include a cover letter specifically addressing position requirements, resume, and 3 references (name, position and email address) with a minimum of 2 being employment contacts.

Applications should be emailed to MERS Director of Operations:

Selection procedure: 

  1. References of short-listed candidates contacted.
  2. Short-listed candidates interviewed via SKYPE.
  3. Final interviews held in person in Port McNeill. Candidates will be asked to complete an exercise to assess their ability to match whale IDs.


Please note that only short-listed applicants will be contacted and that this would happen before August 23, 2019.