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.

“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.

Ocular and Slash – ambassadors of the realities of risk

Another whale has recently been documented with scarring from entanglement. We’ve identified the whale as Ocular, born in 2016 to Slash (BCY0177). Slash has her nickname because, from the first time we saw her in 2008, she had extreme scarring from a large boat propellor. Ocular’s entanglement scarring was first documented last week.

Ocular and Slash – ambassadors of the realities of the risk to whales of vessel strike and entanglement.

They are not exceptional cases. Our research, done in collaboration with DFO, shows that ~1 in 2 Humpback Whales off BC’s coast have scarring from entanglement. This data provides an indication of how serious the risk of entanglement is but does not reveal how many Humpbacks die after becoming entangled.

How many are hit by boats? We don’t know. We see scarring on some survivors but here too, it is not possible to know how many are hit and die as a result of their injuries. There are whales like KC (BCY0291) that we know have been both hit by a boat and been entangled (twice that we know of in KC’s case).

Thankfully, with the new Marine Mammal Regulations it is now law that such interactions with marine mammals must be reported (all incidents of concern to 1-800-465-4336). But increased public awareness is also very much needed. Please see

Content about what to do if you find an entangled whale is summarized below:

  • With great urgency, report the entanglement with location to the DFO Incident Line / VHF 16. 1-800-465-4336.
  • Do NOT attempt to remove any fishing gear or rope from the whale as it risks human and whale safety (has led to human death).
  • If at all possible, remain with the whale at a distance until trained help arrives or another boat takes over tracking, otherwise the chances of relocating the whale are greatly diminished
  • Take whatever video/photos are possible but maintain a distance that doesn’t stress the whale.

Professional training and equipment are needed to assess the entanglement and proceed safely with the greatest chance of success. Often, much of the fishing gear in which the whale is entangled is not visible at the surface. If well-intentioned members of the public remove the gear at the surface, it is made much more difficult to:
1. recognize that the whale is entangled and;
2. disentangle the whale even if it is relocated.

Trailing gear at the surface provides the opportunity for trained responders to attach a tag to track the whale and/or to attach floatation to maintain contact with and slow down an entangled whale. Loss of this gear can significantly reduce rescuers’ ability to save the whale.

July 8th documentation of Ocular’s entanglement injury near Comox by Peter Hamilton, Lifeforce Foundation.

Three Generations of Humpbacks Documented!

Three generations of Humpback Whales have now been documented!

This is such an indication of the great collaborative effort in studying the fortunate return of Humpback Whales off British Columbia’s coast, and its importance.
Alethea Leddy was the first to document Apollo with a calf, now nicknamed Nova. Alethea’s photos from June 18th near Race Rocks even allowed us to determine that the calf is male. The calf had been lying on his back tail-lobbing whereby the pelvic area could be seen. See Aletha’s photo at the end of this blog that allowed determination of Nova’s gender. For detail on gender determination in Humpbacks, click here for our blog on the subject. 

We know that Apollo was born in 2010 to Horizon but did not know her gender before now.

We first documented Horizon in 2004 when she was already at least subadult. Apollo is her first known calf. We documented a second calf in 2013 and have not had re-sightings of this whale.

Calves only stay with their mothers for a year. Having these solid ID photos allows us to ID them in future. Because the calves often lose a lot of the white pigmentation in their tails as they age, It is particularly helpful to also have photos showing both sides of the dorsal fin and the trailing edge of the tail. Being able to study whales as individuals allows us to have data informing everything from age of first calving (varies per population), to life expectancy, to social associations, to how the whales use the coast.

The nicknames:
Humpbacks are nicknamed for distinctive features so that it is easier to recognize them as individuals. Horizon has horizontal lines on her tail. The markings on Apollo’s tail suggest planets. And, while some of the white will likely disappear on the calf’s tail, there is a distinctive line and a moon-shaped bump that will likely stay. Thereby, Alethea suggested Nova, also keeping with the celestial theme of these 3 generations of whales.

To make the point again that it takes a dedicated community to study giants, below are the names of all those who have contributed sightings of these 3 whales (outside of our direct MERS team). This includes naturalists, captains and guest of at least 9 ecotourism companies as well as our research colleagues:
Jarret Morton, Alexandra Morton, Marilia Olio, Tasli Shaw, Mark Malleson, Gary Sutton, Jos Krynen, Amber Stroeder, Kaitlin Paquette, Johanna Ferrie, Eiko Jones, Peter Hamilton, Leif Nordman, Shea Majbroda, Michelle Mercer, Chloé Warren, Jennie Leaver, Jeff Aoki, Carmen Pen, Alison Ogilvie, Geoff Dunstan, Roger McDonell, Franz Plangger, April Macleod, Jim Borrowman, Jess Fargher, Maureen Towers, Dave Towers, Sophia Merritt, Kyle Kermode, Inge van der Wulp, Shea Majbroda, Jan Kees, Humpbacks of the Salish Sea, Keta Coastal Conservation.

For detail on gender determination in Humpbacks, click here for our blog on this subject.

See this link to purchase a MERS Humpback Whale Catalogue (PDF) for whales documented from the northern Strait of Georgia to the northern end of Goletas Channel. Updated PDF provided annually at no extra charge. 

Puzzle Pieces

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

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

Often it’s easy. Sometimes it’s not.

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

Puzzle #1 

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

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

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

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

ID photos from the MERS Humpback Whale ID Catalogue for NE Vancouver Island.
ID photos from the MERS Humpback Whale ID Catalogue for NE Vancouver Island.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puzzle #2

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

Through the work of others we know :

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

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

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

See below for the ID photos resulting from that sighting.

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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