Bird Bricks

Morbidly fascinating but . . . this is pure marine biology gold when reflecting on 2020.

It’s our final gift to you for this year, made possible thanks to our dear Alaskan research colleagues.

These are “bird bricks”. They used to be tiny birds. 

Bigger birds like gulls and diving birds who feed on herring, are too big to fit down a Humpback Whale’s throat. Their fate, if they end up in the mouth of a Humpback feeding on the same prey, would be to drown or, to have a lucky escape if the whale opened its mouth at the surface. 

 We’ve blogged about that previously at this link. 

The narrow throats of baleen whales are an adaptation whereby only small prey with large surface area get into the whales’ stomachs . . . usually.

These 3 smaller birds were likely feeding on krill and, Humpbacks were too. 

 They DID fit down the throat of a Humpback.

They accidentally became engulfed, went down a Humpback’s throat, and came out the other side. With there being no way for baleen whales to mechanically break down such large “items”, their digestive enzymes would not be sufficient for chemical digestion.

And yes, “bird brick” is the official scientific term. We know this is life-enhancing information for you.

DNA analysis confirmed that these birds were an Ancient Murrelet and two Marbled Murrelets.

Please see the great research paper:
*Source: Haynes, Trevor & Campbell, Matthew & Neilson, Janet & López, J.. (2014). Molecular identification of seabird remains found in humpback whale feces. Marine Ornithology. 41. 161-166.

There you go dear community. We will continue to be here for you, and the whales. Working hard, and like you, striving to find our way out of crappy situations. 

With huge chunks of gratitude to our colleagues who gave us permission to use these photos more than a year ago.

Share this with someone who feels like they’ve experienced the equivalent of what happened to these birds? 

Consider us in your year-end giving? 

We have wonderful marine-themed masks as an incentive. Please see this link. 

Happy Better Year to you. 

Photo credits:
Left: National Park Service photo/Chris Gabriel
Right: National Park Service photo/Janet Neilson Janet Neilson


Gifts With Depth – 2020

At this time of year when, in particular, gifts and donations are being considered, we’d like to highlight the ways your giving ALSO contributes to ocean conservation.

Please click this link for a summary of what we have been able to achieve in 2020 despite you-know-what.. We want you to know how far your contributions go to reduce threats to whales and that we could not have achieved this work without the support of those who know the value of what we do.

All contributions directly support our research, education, and marine wildlife response activities. Below are 5 ways to support our work with meaningful gifts for loved ones:

  1. Sustainable Gifts From Our Ocean Store (gift cards available) 
  2. Honorary Donations
  3. Humpback Whale Sponsorships
  4. “See a Blow? Go Slow!” Sign Dedications
  5. Warning Flags
Handmade salmon lamp available in our online store.

1. Gifts From Our Ocean Store

Our online Ocean Store is full of a wide-variety of marine-themed, sustainable, high-quality items. 
We offer worldwide shipping and local, contactless pick-up in Port McNeill.

From books to clothing, our Ocean Store is the ideal place to find eco-friendly gifts that support our marine conservation efforts and local artists and businesses. Please click here to see all the GOODS in the Ocean Store.

Click here for the direct link to gift cards for the Ocean Store. 

Handmade plush seals looking for a home via our Ocean Store.

2. Honorary Donations

MERS is a registered Canadian charity. Any donations over $25 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  are especially valuable. These reoccurring donations make for reliable income thereby allowing more effective planning and budgeting. They also offer the ability to indicate in-kind support when applying for grants. Please click here to access the form below. 

3. Humpback Whale Sponsorships

For just $60 you can sponsor a Humpback Whale and help support our work. Sponsorship packages includes a card featuring a photograph of the whale; a large, durable, eco-friendly sticker of the sponsored whale’s tail; and web access to the sponsor-exclusive MERS Humpback Whale Sponsorship Hub for a year.

The Sponsorship Hub includes a biography of your sponsored whale with lots of photos, updates on sightings, and more exclusive content such as Humpback Whale vocals recorded off northern Vancouver Island. 

When you purchase the sponsorship as a gift, both you AND the giftee receive access to the Sponsorship Hub. You will also be able to personalize the letter that accompanies the sponsorship package to your loved one.

Please click here for more information on whale sponsorship. If applicable, be sure to indicate if the sponsorship is a gift during checkout. Annual sponsorship renewals are $50.

Humpbacks available for sponsorship are: Twister, Argonaut, Slash, Moonstar and KC.
Jack and Tristan are pretty happy about their sponsorships of KC and Twister.

4. “See a Blow? Go Slow!” Signs

“See a Blow? Go Slow!” signs  are essential for whale and boater safety and are a cornerstone of our campaign to reduce risk of collision for whales and boaters

A $50 donation sponsors a sign with dedication text for your gift recipient. A tax receipt is available. 

Please see this link for more information, includes a map of where signs have been positioned and how to sponsor a “See a Blow! Go Slow!” sign as a gift. 💙

Signs are made of durable dibond with dimensions 18.5″ x 24″ (~47 cm x 61 cm). Dedication text on this sign is: “This sign sponsored by Sanne Hessing and dedicated to my Dad, with whom I can wait and watch whales for hours. 
Thank you for your endless love and support.”

5. Whale Warning Flags

The Whale Warning Flag is an initiative of the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association and is used by those striving to help the whales along the BC and Washington coast.

The flags are raised on vessels when whales are within 400 m. The aim is to alert other boaters to the presence of whales, so they know to increase vigilance, adjust their vessel’s speed and alter course as needed, in accordance with the Marine Mammal Regulations.

It’s a perfect gift for any boater that spends time in these waters. Two flag sizes are available, at $35 or $55. We do not benefit financially from these flags (we sell them at cost) but you are helping our efforts by helping the whales. Please click here for the Whale Warning Flags. 

With great thanks to you for considering
these Gifts With Depth. 

Any questions? Please contact us via this link. 

We’re so grateful for all those who are whaleful. ☺️

Whale Matching Games

By Chloé Warren, 2nd season MERS Summer Team 

For those of you coming here via a matching challenge we posted on our social media, please scroll to the end  of the blog for the answers to the #ChloesWhaleMatchingGame challenges. Each week the answers to the present week’s game will be added to the list. But first, read on if you’d like to learn a little bit more about what we do as Data Analysts for MERS and how we process the data sent to us.

This was the first weekly challenge. Try matching the Humpback Whales on the left with one of the whales on the right. 


Background on the work of matching whales:

As a summer team member for MERS, one of my main duties is to review both the Humpback pictures collected by our team and those sent to us by our wonderful data contributors, be it pleasure boaters or whale watching operators.

The first thing we do when we receive a picture of a Humpback Whale is to try to identify the individual (and believe me, this very quickly become a reflex; I can’t look at a video or photo of a whale anymore without wondering if I may be able to identify the individual). Being able to determine the ID of the individual whale and relay who the whale is to our data contributors adds to connection and care for the whales.

It is also the foundation of all our work from population studies to feeding strategies and entanglement rates,. When we recognize them as individuals, we can better follow their movements, area use, behaviours, associations, feeding strategies, diet, family ties, survival rates, injuries, and so much more.

The trailing edge of the whale’s tail (the edge at the extremity of the tail), with all its bumps and ridges, is arguably the most consistent feature of a Humpback.Unless the whale suffers some sort of injury, in which case a new nick can appear or a piece of the tail can go missing, the trailing edge will barely change, even when the whale grows bigger. By using the trailing edge, one can also identify a Humpback from a “reverse fluke shot” which is a photo of the topside of the tail. However, it can be quite tedious to scrutinize the trailing edge of a fluke.

It is much easier to identify a Humpback Whale through colouration and markings on the underside of their fluke / tail. The pigmentation there can vary greatly between whales, and tends to change relatively slowly over time (although it still does change, especially in younger whales, and scars can obviously appear and change with time).

However, Humpbacks do not always lift their tails and/or contributed photos show just the side of the whale. Thus, it is very useful to catalogue the dorsal fins of Humpbacks as well (the fins on their backs).


Again, the overall shape of a dorsal tends not to change, but severe transformations of individual dorsal fins do regularly happen as the result of injuries e.g. from vessel strikes or male competitive behaviour. Scars will appear, change, and disappear quite frequently there too, so it can be quite tricky to identify whales that way. Plus, much like human noses, there’s not that much variation in  the shape of dorsal fins, and several individuals will have dorsal fins that look extremely similar. At MERS, we’ve all spent way too many hours looking at dorsal fins, looking for any type of clue that may indicate which whale we are looking at.

Identifying the whale is only the first step in the data processing process though. After we’ve determined the ID, in the photo’s metadata, we’ll add the ID of the whale, the photographer, the date, the time and the location. We’ll also rate the quality of the picture.

But wait, there’s more!  Not only does all the information for EVERY sighting get entered into our database, there is further processing needed for pictures that suggest entanglement scaring, that may allow for determination of gender, or pictures of previously undocumented whales.

Needless to say, this can be a very time-consuming job: every single picture needs to be analyzed and processed. We quite often run into whale mysteries, where we can’t quite figure out which dorsal goes with which fluke or that the quality of the photo makes ID more difficult.

It sometimes takes 5 pairs of eyes, and a couple more encounters with the whale for us to figure out who they are. Last summer, about a month went by before the puzzle pieces came together and I was able to ID a whale. And check out this blog post to see how much work was put into identifying the Humpback Whale seen in Vancouver this past May (I was not involved in that mystery). It’s the story of Halfpipe at this link. 

While it can be frustrating, the satisfaction of finally solving a whale puzzle always leaves me wanting more. How did you make out with the challenges?

For more information on how the whales receive catalogue numbers and nicknames, please see our Education Coordinator’s blog “Beethoven the Humpback Whale! What’s in a name?” at this link.

To obtain the MERS Humpback Catalogue for Northern Vancouver Island, please click here. 

Here are the answers to Chloe’s Whale Matching Games:

Week 1 – July  23, 2020:


Answers for Week 1:

A is Guardian (BCYuk2011#4),

B  is Argonaut (BCY0729)

C  is Bumpy (BCYuk2016#11)

D is Inukshuk (BCZ0339, Inukshuk)

Week 2 – July  30, 2020:



Answers Week 2:


A is Sponge Bob (BCYuk2019#8)

B  is Whiskers (BCZ0200)

C  is Poseidon (BCZ0200 calf 2019)

D is Terry (BCX1100)

E is Hammerhead (BCYuk2019#4)


A is Sponge Bob (BCYuk2019#8)

B  is Whiskers (BCZ0200)

C  is Poseidon (BCZ0200 calf 2019)

Week 3 – August 6th, 2020

This week we’re exploring the art of nicknaming Humpback Whales. You might have noticed that we often reference Humpbacks by 2 names: their alphanumeric ID & their nickname.

The alphanumerical ID is relatively straightforward:

  • BC = British-Columbia
  • X, Y or Z = % of white on the underside of the tail (fluke)
    X = mostly black
    Y = intermediate amount of white
    Z = mostly white
  • A 4 digit number = the order in which the whales are documented.

    Thus, BCZ0200 is the 200th Humpback documented off BC whose tail is mostly white.

Until the whales are assigned a provincial ID, there is a temporary designation. We use a system whereby BCYuk2019#8 is the 8th whale with an intermediate amount of white on their fluke, documented in 2019. Not a new paragraph. Calves get the ID of their mother, followed by “calf” and the year they were born, so “BCZ0200 calf 2019” is BCZ0200’s 2019 calf.

We assign nicknames for 2 reasons: to provide greater potential for public engagement & they’re easier to remember! They are based on distinguishing features & allow for more efficient IDing.

When a new whale is documented, MERS often invites the data contributor to suggest nicknames. Sometimes, school groups or participants in MERS’ courses are invited to do so for whales who have yet to be nicknamed. MERS ultimately selects the name, to avoid confusion with other names & because we’re the ones who most often use them for identification!

This all requires a keen eye, lots of creativity & a good dose of imagination. Can you do it? 8 of the whales here were named for a distinguishing feature on their flukes & 6 for something on their flanks. Can you guess which nickname corresponds to which whale? 

Answers for the Week 3 Fluke Challenge:
A is #5 = Double Drop
See how the left trailing edge had two large jags?

B is #6= Loophole
See the hole on the right?

C is #3 = K-One
See the K1 marking on the right?

D is #4.= ‘Makwala
See the moon-like marking on the left?

E is # 7 = Notcho
See the notch in the trailing edge top left?

F is #2 = Yogi
See the large white shape on the left? We think it looks like a bear’s head, facing left. Yes, it is like an ink blotch test!

G is #8 = Stripe
See the stripe on the left?

H is 1 = Lefty
See that the left part of the fluke is missing?

Answers for the Week 3 dorsal fin challenge:

A is #5 = Freckles
See all the white dots?

B is #4 = Claw
See how the shape of her dorsal fin is like a claw?

C is # 1 = Bumpy
See the bump in front of the dorsal fin?

D is #3 = Nick
See the nick in her dorsal fin?

E is #2 = Slash
See the lack of dorsal, and the propeller scars over her back?

F  is #6 = Hook
See how the shape of her dorsal fin is really hooked?

Week 4 – August 13th, 2020

This week, we will focus on an incredibly useful skill in any Humpback Whale data analyst’s toolkit: being able to match the trailing edge of a whale’s tail (the edge at the extremity of the tail). Just this week, I’ve relied on this skill to identify about a dozen whales, having nothing else to go off off it is challenging to scrutinize the bumps and ridges that define the trailing edge of a fluke. It’s usually much easier to recognize a whale when you can see the the markings and pigmentation on the underside of the tail (the fluke). But sometimes, one has to rely on the trailing edge to identify a whale. This can be due to the photo being of the front of the tail (reverse fluke) or of only a segment of the underside of the tail, poor lighting, or simply because it’s an all-black tail. The trailing edge of a fluke is a very consistent feature of a Humpback, so even when fluke markings seem to match, it is always good to check the trailing edge to confirm a match. So this week, I’m setting you up for a challenging but amusing exercise: on the left you have a picture of the topside of the tail of 4 different whales (reverse flukes), and on the right you have the flukes of those whales as they would appear in our catalogue. Can you match each reverse fluke to a whale? Good luck! 

Answers for Week 4 Reverse Fluke Challenge

A is Cutter
B is Tempest
C is Bumpy
D is Argonaut

Week 5 – August 20th, 2020

This week, for our second to last episode of #chloeswhalematchingame, we are honoring another part of MERS’s research: Minke Whales!

Minke Whales are the second smallest of the baleen whales. Their small size and limited surface activity make for a very cryptic species.

MERS co-founder Jared initiated Minke Whale research in the area over a decade ago. As with Humpbacks, the basis for understanding this species is to be able to identify them as individuals. The resulting very interesting discoveries from his efforts to recognize them include that it is now known that 6 individuals return to our core study area on NE Vancouver Island year upon year and, most likely, they are all females. See Jared and colleagues’ research on Minke Whales here

If you enjoy dorsal fin matching then you are in for a treat: Minke Whales do not lift their tails whereby they must be identified by their flanks. Make sure you put on your glasses because you’ll be looking for slight differences in scars, shapes, and dents to make the matches here!

The pictures on the left are those to ID, and the ones on the right are the Minkes as they are catalogued by Jared Towers in MERS’s “Minke Whales of the straits off northeastern Vancouver Island” (catalogue available via the link above). Good luck!

Answers Week 5 Minke Whale Challenge:

Week 6 – August 27th, 2020

Here you have the flanks & flukes of 3 Humpback Whales (whale A, B and C), all of which were featured in a matching game at some point this summer. Can you identify them? You may know them already, or you can put the pieces together by searching our previous games above. Also, remember nicknames can help. For the biggest challenge: look through the MERS catalogue to try & find them! If you don’t have it already, you can purchase at our #oceanstore. I hope this series of games may have enhanced how you observe the world around you; maybe thinking about animals more as individuals which opens the door further to learning about the life surrounding us!



Answers Week 6:

Max the Humpback – Documented 32 Years

Here’s the kind of thing that makes Humpback researchers’ hearts go pitter pat and AGAIN makes the point of how many humans it takes to study giants.

We think you’ll love the story of “Max” too.

Max is a Humpback Whale first documented by Alexandra Morton around NE Vancouver Island in 1987, then already at least a juvenile. Alex is the one who so diligently began documenting Humpbacks around NE Vancouver Island and whose data we inherited. We learned that Alex only got one chance to photograph this whale and nicknamed him/her in honour of fellow Echo Bay resident, Yvonne Maximchuk who was caring for her son during the sighting.

Max was assigned the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) catalogue number BCX0929. Sightings of Max were reported to DFO for 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2007. All known sightings were for the area around Prince Rupert. (Note DFO cataloguing of Humpbacks off the coast of BC ended in 2010 and has continued through the efforts of not-for-profits).

THEN, thanks to the research of Pacific Whale Foundation, Max was documented near Maui in 2019!

These puzzle pieces came together because of our collective contribution and collaboration with Happywhale to document Humpback Whales across the North Pacific.

What can be learned by studying Humpbacks as individuals in this way includes: migration range for individuals, , site fidelity / habitat use, life history (e.g. age of calving and life expectancy), associations between individuals, etc!

What can also be gained for conservation? By sharing the stories of whales like Max, we strive for a greater appreciation that the whales are individuals and for a greater understanding of their importance as ambassadors of ocean health. We believe such stories provide insight into how much we humans have to learn even about the biggest animals in the ocean and what the reveals about the need for humility and precaution. But, ultimately, we hope for greater connection and action for the ocean upon which all our lives depend. 💙

Note: We (all scientists involved) have not confirmed Max is male but s/he has never been documented with a calf.

See here for the Happywhale information for Max

Know that some Humpbacks who feed off the coast of BC migrate to Hawaii (like Max) while others migrate to Mexico.

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

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.

The North Pacific Humpbacks are currently managed as one population in Canada and are recognized as a species of Special Concern under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. Reassessment by the Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is due in 2022. As of  2016, in the USA, North Pacific Humpbacks are recognized as distinct population segments. Those migrating to Mexico are managed in the USA as being Threatened. Those migrating to Central America and Japan are managed as Endangered . Those migrating to Hawaii are managed as being “not at risk”. 

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 179 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 96 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, 
32 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.

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

Gregr, E. J., L. Nichol, J. K. B. Ford, G. Ellis and A. W. Trites. 2000. Migration and population structure of northeastern Pacifc whales off coastal British Columbia: An analysis of commercial whaling records from 1908-1967. Marine Mammal Science 16: 699-727

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.

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.

“Trap-Feeding” – a new Humpback feeding strategy

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

We first documented this novel feeding strategy for 2 individuals around NE Vancouver Island in 2011. As of November 2020, we know of 26 Humpback Whales who have learned to use this strategy under specific conditions. 

Trap-feeding is where some Humpbacks set a trap for juvenile herring when juvenile herring 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.

When the whales are trap-feeding, it is often very difficult to see their dorsal fins or flukes to identify them. This has led to our compiling a catalogue of their mouths so that we can identify them by the distinctive markings on their jaws.



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.