Here’s a Humpback Whale identification mystery that became fully solved as a result of this happening on May 22nd . . .
With this young Humpback being so near Vancouver and in the media like this, we hope that by sharing his/her story, more coastal British Columbians may become engaged and better aware of the extreme necessity to know that Humpbacks are a game changer on our coast.
We are so fortunate to have a second chance with these giants. They were whaled up to 1966 in British Columbia and now have increased in number to the extent that boaters need to know that a Humpback could unexpectedly surface almost anywhere along our coast (note that the increased number is due to population growth as well as whales moving into these waters from other areas).
Many boaters are under the assumption that Humpbacks know where vessels are but baleen whales like Humpbacks do not have the biosonar of species like Orca. They can be oblivious of boats, especially when feeding and they are particularly hungry at this time of the year. They have recently come back from the breeding grounds of Mexico or Hawaii* where there is little to no food for them. Too often boaters assume Humpbacks are “in transit”, travelling in a straight line, rather than understanding that the whales are often on long, unpredictable dives when feeding or searching for food.
Humpbacks’ size and unpredictability makes the threat of collision dangerous for boaters and for whales. So please dear reader, inform yourself of the Marine Mammal Regulations and best practices at www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org.
See examples of human injury resulting from collision with Humpbacks
at this link.
[*Halfpipe very likely migrated from Mexico. This assumption is based on knowing that calves learn migration routes from their mothers and Halfpipe’s mother, older sibling and an aunt/uncle have been documented near Baja California – respectively Split Fluke, Valiant and Dalmatian.]
So who is this Humpback and how do we know?
This is Halfpipe, nicknamed for a distinctive shape on the trailing edge of the tail. Halfpipe is one-year-old. We do not know gender but do know who Halfpipe’s mother and grandmother are.
We now know that s/he is the whale that has been feeding near Bowen Island since at least May 11th.
We’ll lay out how the mystery of this whale’s ID was solved as it gives a sense of how important citizen science is, and also, how much a whale’s appearance can change over time.
This whale ID mystery began on May 11th by receiving a series of images of a Humpback Whale lunge-feeding near Bowen Island from resident artist Di Izdebski (the whale was likely feeding on concentrations of Northern Anchovy as these small schooling fish have recently been noted in large numbers by Bowen Island residents). Di is a significant supporter of our work and knew the importance of identifying the whale – for public engagement as well as for research. We humans do better when we think of whales are individuals and not as “look there’s another Humpback” feeding in the bay. We do better when we know if it is the same Humpback and know some detail about the whale’s life .In many areas of our coast too it is the same Humpbacks coming back to the same specific areas year-after-year. Like any good fisherman or woman, they have preferences for locations and strategies.
We catalogue Humpbacks, not only by the underside of their tails, but also by their dorsal fins (the fin on their backs). This Humpback did not lift his/her tail. You’ll note that Di did get photos of both the whale’s flanks BUT there were no distinctive markings to be seen. The shape of the dorsal fin provided a shortlist of who this might be but we could not definitively ID the whale (note that Tasli Shaw of Humpbacks of the Salish Sea was also a partner in trying solve this mystery).
On May 16th, Di saw a Humpback exhale near her home and ran down to the beach to get photos (with 5-year-old child in tow). She again documented a Humpback Whale feeding. She got an even better photo of the dorsal fin (cropped image below) which allowed us to know that it was the same whale as on May 11th but we could still not provide a solid ID. Who was this mystery whale?
Then came May 22nd, when Di relayed photos resulting from AGAIN running to the beach packing child and camera. These photos led to our sending Di the following email.
“Based on the new photos, this may be a much younger whale than first thought. Also, to have this site fidelity, it is maybe more likely that this is a known whale i.e. a whale that has been previously documented off the coast of BC. This shaped our thinking in again tying to solve this ID mystery. The angle, lighting and resolution of these latest photos also reveals some additional detail . We think this is Halfpipe who was born last year to Split Fluke (BCX1068) who was born in 2006 to Heather (BCY0160). These are the first known sightings of Halfpipe back off the coast of BC in 2020.”
The photos above reveal that THIS is how much a whale’s appearance can change in one year. First year Humpback calves often have a lot of mottling (little white dots and patches) on their flanks. You’ll see above that those are gone but the dorsal fins shape and some very small markings made this match possible.
And then came the additional May 22nd photo that made the news, taken by Robert Grant of the Vancouver Port Authority. Di immediately suspected this was the same whale that had been feeding near Bowen (only about 30 km away). .
That’s Halfpipe alright!
Halfpipe was tail-lobbing so we could now see the distinctive markings including that circular jag on the right of the tail that inspired the nickname (suggested by Kaitlin Paquette). We most often nickname Humpbacks for features that helps us recognize who they are. Thereby, the nickname serves as a hint or clue to the identity of the whale. This also allows for others to more easily connect to the whales as individuals.
The following video is from the perspective of the sailboat in the above image, taken by Keanna Rink of Venture BC sailing school.
Considering that Halfpipe has repeatedly been documented near Bowen Island and now near Vancouver , it could be that s/he is the whale in this video from May 13th that ended up in the media, showing a Humpback breaching in Burrard Inlet posted by anything kinder on Reddit). And no we cannot ID a whale at that distance so cannot know for sure! 🙂
May Halpipe’s story inspire greater understanding that these whales are individuals. The Humpback Whales are giants with who we have a second chance, who need space AND a whole lot of humans who care.
See the MERS catalogue photos of Halfpipe’s grandmother and mother below. Humpback Whale calves only stay with their mothers for one year, migrating up and, likely, back down to the breeding grounds with their mother.
For the Humpbacks who do not group-bubble-net feed, it is the norm that they are most often on their own when in the feeding grounds. Group-bubble-net-feeding is a strategy used by some Humpbacks from BC’s central coast into Alaska. It is not a feeding strategy that works well in high current areas. Humpbacks who feed in high current areas “lunge-feed” and some have learned to “trap-feed”. Sometimes, in a back eddy or when it is slack tide, some will also solo-bubble-net feed.
Great thanks to ALL* who contribute to the citizen science and education that helps increase understanding and, thereby, decrease risk to the whales.
*With a special shout out to Bowen Islanders in this case.
Photo below: Baby breach! Halfpipe on August 14, 2019 near Campbell River / Quadra (west side of Mitlenatch Island). With very big gratitude to Kaitlin Paquette of Discovery Marine Safaris whose photos allowed us to ultimately recognize Halfpipe in these latest sightings.