MERS Report for 2018

[Initial blog is from December 18th, 2018.
Update February 18, 2019 =  numbers are now 95 for Northern Vancouver Island; 86 for our core study area; 86 for the Campbell River / Comox area of which 23 have also been sighted around NE Vancouver Island. These updates are marked in red text below. Note too that our colleagues further to the south report at least 266 individuals documented in the Salish Sea at some time in 2018. A significant number of these are Humpbacks we too have documented further to the north.]

Another year (almost) over and what have we done?

Please find our report below for Humpback Whale numbers in our study area and a summary of the work achieved in 2018.

First, for clarity, we are not reporting on the full number of Humpback Whales estimated to feed in British Columbia marine waters.. The best estimate for that dates back to research by Ford et al which concluded that, in 2006, the  abundance for Humpback Whales in British Columbia waters was 2,145 whales.  This estimate does not include 1st year calves. There will be an updated estimate as a result of the 2018 Pacific Region International Survey of Marine Megafauna (PRISMM). 

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.

The area for which we are reporting is from the upper Strait of Georgia to northern Vancouver Island. To date, our team at the Marine Education and Research Society has identified 158 individuals who were in that area at some time in 2018 (this number may increase since we still have some data to process). 

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 86 in 2018. Note too how many of the whales are returnees to the area each year (compare the purple 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. MERS Humpback Catalogue available at this link

For the Campbell River / Comox area, we catalogued 86 individuals that were there at some point in 2018.  Of this number, 
23 were also sighted around 
NE Vancouver Island.

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

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.

We have included a photo at the end of this blog showing a whale injured as a result of a boat collision. This is a graphic image. It is easily understood how such collisions with whales are also a human safety issue.

Please see below for a summary of our further efforts to understand and reduce threats to whales for 2018. This has been achieved with less than three full-time paid positions. Such efficiency is possible as a result of extensive volunteer efforts from our team and a broad community of support. Thanks to all who made this possible. 

Highlights of work achieved by MERS in 2018:

  • 2,000+ data entries for sightings of Humpbacks;
  • 170 hours spent monitoring whales during commercial fisheries in case there is an entanglement and in order to better understand the risk;
  • 30 additionalSee a Blow? Go Slow!” signs for strategic positioning on British Columbia’s coast (many more signs are needed, possible to sponsor via this link);
  • 22 presentations on our research and reducing risks to whales, reaching more than 1,550 people from coastal BC; 
  • Publishing our research on trap-feeding in Marine Mammal Science;
  • Publishing on minke whale acoustics in Bioacoustics;
  • Training more than 95 people at two Marine Naturalist Workshops to enhance the calibre of conservation information provided on our coast;
  • Continued work to understand the proportion of humpbacks that have been entangled in BC, in partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada;
  • Collaborating with colleagues also documenting Humpbacks off the coast of British Columbia to update the BC province-wide Humpback catalogue; and
  • Co-hosting an entanglement workshop with the Coastal Ocean Research Institute / Ocean WiseFisheries and Oceans Canada and Sealife Response Rehabilitation and Research to help participants learn how to report, document and help assess entangled whales.

Warning – graphic image alert.
The photo below is of Raza the Humpback Whale who is often around the Discovery Islands during the feeding season. The photo is from October 20th, 2018 in Calm Channel (between Sonora and Stuart Islands) with the propeller scars appearing to be recent. It is thanks to the observations of Ryan Stewart that the injury was noted, documented and reported. Presumably no boater wants to put themselves and whales at risk but too many are still unaware of how the increase in Humpbacks off our coast necessitates increased knowledge and modified boater behaviour. Every boater should have the Incident Reporting Line number 1-800-465-4336 programmed into their phones to report incidents of concern. All should be familiar with the further content at

We have shared Raza’s reality in the hopes that this image is compelling for more boaters to become aware.

Photos from one of the known vessel strike incidents in 2018.

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.

It’s a Girl! “Lucky” the Humpback Whale

Here’s another story of a survivor. It’s an update that will likely be of great interest as Lucky is one of the most easily identifiable Humpbacks in our study area. 

The latest that we can confirm, thanks to the photo below from Kurt Staples of Eagle Eye Adventures, is that Lucky is female.

But before we explain that, let us give you some of her backstory. 

Lucky? One thing that clearly makes her so easy to identify is the scarring on her tail. In this case, her misshapen tail with all scars is not the result of entanglement or vessel strike. Lucky is the survivor of an attack by Killer Whales / Orca. This attack happened well before she was first documented in 2012. 

MERS catalogue photos for Lucky. Catalogue is available at this link.

How do we know that? Because the spacing between the rake marks is wider than than the spaces between Killer Whales’ teeth i.e. the scars grew further apart as Lucky’s tail grew. Note that there has never been a confirmed case of Bigg’s Killer Whales (mammal-eating population) killing a larger Humpback but Lucky, who was attacked as a calf, is . . . lucky to be alive.

This very fitting nickname was put forward by Leah Robinson of OrcaLab who was the first to document Lucky back on November 14th, 2012. 

The other thing that makes Lucky more easy to ID as an individual is that she is the Humpback Whale in our study area that almost exclusively solo bubble-net feeds, using a net of bubbles to coral juvenile herring. For clarity: she is not the only one that uses this feeding strategy in the area but she IS the one that appears to do so almost exclusively

The other Humpback Whales primarily lunge-feed (with some individuals also occasionally trap-feeding and/or solo bubble net-feeding). Note that Humpbacks on other parts of our coast (British Columbia’s central coast, north to Alaska) are specialists in bubble-net feeding as a team but this is not a good strategy in an area with a lot of current since the bubbles will not remain intact. .

Since 2012, Lucky has very predictably been seen solo bubble-net feeding around NE Vancouver Island in back-eddies or on slack tide i.e. where/when the bubbles cannot be blasted away by current. She has also occasionally been sighted further to the south near Campbell River (this is where Kurt photographed her). 

The wonderful video below of Lucky solo  bubble net-feeding is from another of our OrcaLab colleagues, Megan Hockin-Bennett / Wild Sky Productions

And now – how can we now confirm Lucky is female?
Without DNA testing or the presence of a calf, it is very difficult to discern gender in Humpbacks. They do not have gender differences that can be easily seen. 
We have to get a look at their undersides and this opportunity does not present itself very often. Even when Humpbacks clear the water when they breach, the pelvic area is difficult to see because it is most often covered by water. See photo below. 
KC the Humpback breaching which shows how the pelvic area cannot be seen because of the “skirt” of water.

This is why we get very excited when Humpbacks lie on their backs and “tail-lob”. THEN, if the whale’s tail is far enough out of the water, the pelvic area is visible.

The females have a small feature known as the “hemispherical lobe”. Males do not. See below (click image to enlarge). 

In this story about Lucky, you’ll note again how the knowledge we have about a whale is so often the result of a  community of data contributors. We can put the pieces of the puzzle together but  could not do it without this community and the further support of many. Thank you.

Note that Lucky’s temporary catalogue ID is “BCZuk2012#3”. We are working with colleagues to update the province-wide catalogue for Humpbacks sighted off the coast of British Columbia (which was maintained by Fisheries and Oceans Canada but has not been updated since 2010). Once we have finished the matching work involved with this, Lucky will get a permanent catalogue number in the province-wide catalogue.

New Research: Minke Whales Vocalize off the Coast of British Columbia

Have you ever wondered what sounds minke whales make? Given that they had never been acoustically recorded in the eastern North Pacific, we wondered too. Thanks to a collaboration with University of Victoria  marine mammal acoustics expert Katrina Nikolich and funding from Mountain Equipment Co-op and the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association, our research on this topic is now published! 

Minke whales DO vocalize while off the coast of British Columbia. 

Female minke whale M001 (Rapid) breaching in Cormorant Channel where over 1,500 hours of acoustic recordings were made in the presence of six minke whales. Photo ©Jared Towers, MERS, taken under Marine Mammal License MML-42. 

Spectrogram analysis revealed that the minke whales we studied off northern Vancouver Island occasionally emit very quick and barely audible downsweeps and pulse chains. Sexual segregation, predation risk and acoustic masking (vessel noise) are all proposed as reasons why this small cryptic baleen whale doesn’t have much to say.

Figure 2 from the paper shows spectrogram examples of pulse chain vocalizations that increased in pulse rate, decreased in pulse rate, and remained constant in pulse rate. To attempt to hear these vocalizations check out this link: 

For the full report, please click here. The first 50 downloads are free!

Note that our previous research reveals that rather than there being many minke whales off NE Vancouver Island, it’s the same individuals over and over again. Our minke whale catalogue is available via this link. 


Abstract: Nikolich and Towers 2018. Click the image to download the full paper. 
The first 50 pdf downloads at this link are free!. After that please contact us for reprints or purchase 24 hour access for $50 USD


MERS Minke Whale Research Papers: 



Gifts That Keep On Giving

It’s Giving Tuesday, and we’re hoping you’ll consider us in decisions around gift-giving and year-end donations.

Below we provide detail on 3 ways through which your support also leads to meaningful gifts for loved ones.

  1. Honorary donation – Note that MERS is a registered Canadian charity whereby donations are tax deductible.
  2. Sponsor a Humpback
  3. Sponsor a sign to reduce risk to whales

Please know that we could not achieve what we do 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, that our small team can achieve what we do. For a summary of our work achieved in 2018, please click here. 

1. Make an Honorary Donation

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. Oh, and YOU get a Canadian tax receipt.

Please click here to make a donation. 

Know that monthly donations are especially  valuable as they provide an indication of how many people see the value of our work and are committed to supporting it. 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

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 every year about the sponsored whale. Yes, that’s right, there are no renewal fees.  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.


3. 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. Signs costs approximately $70 each  (price depends on shipping costs) and the sign would include the name of your gift recipient (or the logo of your choosing). Please see example below.

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 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. 

Thank you for considering MERS in your gift-giving and donations. 

Any questions? Please contact us via this link. 


“Trap-Feeding” – a new Humpback feeding strategy

Our research on Humpback Whale trap-feeding has now been published in Marine Mammal Science.

We first documented this novel feeding strategy for two individuals around NE Vancouver Island in 2011. We now know of more than 20 humpback whales who have learned to sometimes use the strategy on smaller, more diffuse schools of juvenile herring. 

Trap-feeding is where some humpbacks set a trap for juvenile herring when the fish are in small, diffuse schools. 

The fish then collect near, or in, the mouth of the humpback to escape predation by diving birds (most often common murres and rhinoceros auklets).

The humpbacks then spin and/ or use their pectoral flippers to push the fish into their mouths. This feeding strategy uses less energy than when humpbacks lunge-feed on greater concentrations of juvenile herring.

Trap-feeding compared to lunge-feeding. Graphic: Uko Gorter.

Humpbacks are also well known for  “bubble-net feeding”. With this strategy, teams of whales work together to coral fish and this includes a member of the team blowing a net of bubbles to stop the fish from escaping.

This is not a strategy employed by humpbacks around northeast Vancouver Island as the current would dissipate the bubbles. It is a used by humpbacks around BC’s central coast and further to the north.  Only occasionally will individual humpback whales around northeast Vancouver Island use bubbles to coral fish (not teams) when there is no current i.e. on slack tide or in a back eddy.

MERS’ research supports that the humpbacks of northeastern Vancouver Island are lunge-feeding specialists on juvenile herring, with some of the whales having learned this new feeding strategy –  “trap-feeding” when the fish are in smaller, less concentrated schools.

To contact MERS for more information about trap-feeding, please email 

Abstract from: McMillan, C. J., Towers, J. R. and Hildering, J. (2018), The innovation and diffusion of “trap‐feeding,” a novel humpback whale foraging strategy. Mar Mam Sci. . doi:10.1111/mms.12557

“The innovation and diffusion of novel foraging strategies within a population can increase the capacity of individuals to respond to shifts in prey abundance and distribution. Since 2011, some humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) off northeastern Vancouver Island (NEVI), Canada, have been documented using a new feeding strategy called “trap‐feeding.” We provide the first description of this foraging innovation and explore the ecological and social variables associated with its diffusion using sightings data, video analysis, and logistic regression modeling. The number of humpback whales confirmed to trap‐feed off NEVI increased from two in 2011 to 16 in 2015. Neither the locations of trap‐feeding sessions nor prey species consumed differed from those documented during lunge‐feeding. However, preliminary results indicate that the schools of fish consumed when individuals trap‐fed were smaller and more diffuse than those consumed when whales lunge‐fed. Top‐ranked models predicting whether an individual would be observed exhibiting trap‐feeding behavior included the following parameters: average number of days per year that the individual was seen off NEVI and proportion of the individual’s associations that were with other trap‐feeders. These results suggest that trap‐feeding may be a culturally transmitted foraging innovation that provides an energetically efficient method of feeding on small, diffuse prey patches.”

Video of trap-feeding where a seal escapes from the Humpback’s mouth.

Compilation of MERS trap-feeding footage.

Whale “Mugging”?

This information is being provided as a result of recent Humpback Whale / boat interactions having received attention in the media.

As much as it is true that Humpbacks can be astoundingly oblivious of boats,  there are some Humpbacks that occasionally  interact with boats. Both cases have the potential for extreme risk to the whales, and to boaters (see

Why are there interactions like this? And, what are the best practices for boaters / tour operators when this happens?

We strive to document these interactions and which individuals are involved. While we know of a small number of individual Humpbacks who interact with boats, it appears such interactions may be more likely when the whales are socializing with one another. Not surprisingly, these interactions are more likely when the whales are not directed at feeding.

Is habituation a factor? It may be that some Humpbacks have had previous encounters with boats which perpetuates these interactions. For some Grey Whales, it is believed that they have become accustomed to the interactive whale watching practices in Mexico and thereby approach boats when off the coast of British Columbia.

It certainly is a concern that with each boat interaction, the behaviour may be reinforced and that this increases the risk of collision.

But human behaviour is of course also a concern. Many boaters do not know about the increase of Humpbacks we are so fortunate to have off the coast of British Columbia and just how unpredictable this large whale species can be.

Risk of collision is increased if boaters believe that Humpbacks always know where vessels are.

Baleen whales like Humpbacks do not have the biosonar that toothed whales have. They can surface suddenly after long dives, are often travelling in random patterns, and can be oblivious of boats.

Risk of collision (and habituation) is also increased if the promotion of such interactions leads to increased demand/expectation for close encounters with whales. 

It is a best practices policy of the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association not to promote imagery of whales in close association with vessels. (See the end of this blog for more detail on the NIMMSA Code of Conduct).

The sampling below gives a sense of the human injuries and material damage resulting from collisions. Note that it is now law that collisions and entanglements must be reported to DFO (1-800-465-4336) which will allow for better potential to reduce the risks.

How often do the whales die as a result of collision? Dead whales most often sink to the ocean bottom so this is not known.

What to do if Humpbacks choose to interact with a boat, despite all attempts not to put the whales at risk and contribute to their habituation? Put engines in neutral and ideally turn them off and lift them till the whale(s) are beyond 200m and no longer appear to be advancing toward the boat.

In light of the information above, there is then the moral dilemma for boat operators (and media) about whether to promote such interactions and how they are promoted. The NIMMSA guidelines below and the information at may be of use in this regard.

NIMMSA Marketing and Social Media Guidelines: 

“As stewards, it is important NIMMSA members set realistic marine mammal viewing expectations and educate others on best marine mammal viewing practices. To help achieve this NIMMSA members are expected to follow the below marketing and social media guidelines.

1. Only use images or video in marketing material and on social media that reflects responsible marine mammal viewing in line with this Code of Conduct.

2. Educate clients on the importance of responsible marine mammal viewing and encourage them to only post images or video to social media that reflect operations in line with this Code of Conduct.”

The North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship’s full code of conduct can be viewed at this link.