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.]

Gifts That Keep Giving

Below, we have bundled three ways support can be provided through meaningful gift-giving. 

Please know that we could not do it 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  – data contributors; sponsors; donors –  that our small team can achieve what we do.

  1. 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.


2. 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. Sign costs are approximately $68  (price depends on shipping costs) and the sign would include the name of your gift recipient (or the logo of your choosing). A donation can be given in the amount of the sign’s value leading to your getting a tax receipt. See below and contact info@mersociety.org 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. 

3. Make an Honorary Donation?

Click here to make a donation, indicate that it’s a gift, and we’ll send your giftee a message revealing your thoughtfulness and what work the donation supports. Oh, and YOU get a Canadian tax receipt.
MERS is a registered Canadian charity whereby donations are tax deductible. All contributions directly support our research, education, and marine wildlife response activities.

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

KC sponsorship package
Example of a MERS Humpback Whale Sponsorship package. Five whales to choose from and the accompanying letter can be personalized for your giftee. See link here.


Two Months and Two Humpbacks Entangled at the Same Location – What Can We Learn?

[UPDATE: November 29: Another Humpback Whale has died in open-net fish farm gear. This is the 2nd Humpback Whale dead at a fish farm in two weeks and the 3rd that is known to have been entangled in fish farm gear in 2.5 months. See this link for information on the latest death (at Grieg Seafood’s Atrevida farm in Nootka Sound).]

As a result of our research to understand and reduce risk of entanglement for Humpbacks and our efforts to increase awareness about what to do if an entanglement is witnessed, we’ve been getting a lot of questions about the latest known Humpback entanglement on BC’s Central Coast. Many of the questions were generated by Marine Harvest’s November 17th release “Whale found dead at empty aquaculture site”.

For the sake of efficiency and awareness raising, we’ve strived to answer the questions below and will update this information as we learn more. Our aim is to help ensure that what is learned from entanglements leads to measures that reduce the risk.


1. Was the November 15th entanglement at the same site as the September 12th entanglement?
Marine Harvest has reported that both whales were entangled on the same anchor system at the fallow Sheep Passage open-net farm site near Klemtu.

2. Why was the anchor system not removed?
The latest entanglement is under investigation by Fisheries and Ocean’s Canada (DFO). We are striving to find out if the results will be made public and if the results may inform policy and regulations around open-net fish farm anchor systems.

3. Did the whale entangled at this site on September 12th survive?
The Humpback caught up in the same anchor system on September 12th was disentangled by those with training (disentanglement must be coordinated by DFO and done by those with training, see #9 below). This was a very complex entanglement (see photo and video below) but all gear was successfully removed from the whale. It is not possible however to definitively say that the whale survived the injuries as there have been no documented re-sightings.

4. How did the whale found on November 15th die?
Whales are mammals and therefore need to come to the surface to breathe. They will drown if they are anchored to the bottom because of being trapped in ropes or fishing gear. It is hoped that the DFO investigation will provide insight into the specifics of this anchor system and how the Humpback died. Wherever there are lines or fishing gear in the ocean, there is the potential for entanglement, especially in areas where Humpbacks are feeding. They feed on krill and small schooling fish like herring and it can be expected that these prey are in the same areas as open-net fish farms. It is essential to realize that Humpbacks do not have the biosonar that toothed whales like Orca have and they can be extremely oblivious of boats, let alone fishing gear.
Also note that if whales have enough mobility to swim away, entanglement also can also cause death due to the fishing gear in which they are wrapped leading to serious injuries and infections, and/or because the gear makes it impossible for them to travel and feed effectively.

5. How often to whales die from entanglement on BC’s coast?
Preliminary research conducted by the Marine Education and Research Society and DFO supports that 47% of Humpbacks have scarring on their tailstocks that indicate that they have been entangled and survived, i.e. almost one in two Humpbacks that feed on BC’s coast have been entangled at some point in their lives (>1,000 Humpbacks). This indicates how widespread the risk of entanglement is, but does not indicate how many Humpbacks die due to entanglement. Dead whales most often sink to the ocean bottom whereby their deaths cannot be documented. If their bodies do wash ashore on BC’s vast coastline, often they are so decayed that cause of death cannot be determined.

6. Have there only been two Humpback Whales entangled in Marine Harvest open-net salmon farms in the last 30 years?
Yes, specifically at Marine Harvest farms, and specifically for this marine mammal species, there have been two reported cases of Humpback entanglement. There was another documented case of a dead Humpback Whale at an open net fish farm in March 2013 near Tofino at a Mainstream Canada site (now Cermaq). The statement regarding “30 years” in “Whale found dead at empty aquaculture site” must be weighted out against the reality that Humpbacks were extremely rare on BC’s coast even 15 years ago. Humpbacks were whaled in BC waters up to 1966. To give an indication of how Humpback numbers have increased since then, our research shows that in the islands outside Telegraph Cove on NE Vancouver Island alone, we documented just 7 Humpbacks in 2004 and, this year to date, we have documented 83 individuals (some just passing through). The population estimate for Humpbacks feeding in BC waters is at least 2,000 individuals. With more Humpbacks, there is more risk of entanglement. 

7. Are there regulations around the gear left at fallow fish farms?
No, there are not. It is hoped this will be an outcome of what is learned from these entanglements. See #10 below for what regulations do pertain to aquaculture and marine mammals.


8. Is the ID of the dead Humpback known?
No, it is not known. It is hoped that as part of the investigation, Humpback researchers like ourselves may be able to be of use in trying to identify who this whale was.

9. What should be done if someone witnesses an entanglement?
• With great urgency, report the entanglement with location to the DFO Incident Line / VHF 16. 1-800-465-4336.
• 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 (at least 100 metres).
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). 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.

For more information regarding reducing the risk of vessel strike and entanglement, see www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org.

10. What regulations are there around reporting and reducing the risk of entanglement at finfish aquaculture sites?
In the Pacific Aquaculture Regulations, marine mammals are regulated under the term “nuisance fish” and there is obligatory reporting on “the number and species of nuisance fish that die as a result of the aquaculture facility’s operations.”
• Section 10 of the Marine Finfish Aquaculture License specifies conditions around “management of Marine Mammal Interactions” and includes “The licence holder must notify the Department [DFO] of any marine mammal drowning mortality or entanglement (live or dead) not later than 24 hours after discovery.”
• The Marine Mammal Regulations state that there is to be no disturbance of a marine mammal but “disturbance” is not defined. Specifically the language in section 7 is “No person shall disturb a marine mammal except when fishing for marine mammals under the authority of these Regulations.”
• Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, North Pacific Humpbacks are recognized as a threatened population. General prohibitions include “No person shall kill, harm, harass, capture or take an individual of a wildlife species that is listed as an extirpated species, an endangered species or a threatened species.”

An important development in the United States is that as of January 1, 2017, foreign fisheries must adhere to the provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) which address the incidental mortality and serious injury of marine mammals. These include: 

  •  With respect to foreign fisheries, section 101(a)(2) of the MMPA states that the Secretary of the Treasury shall ban the importation of commercial fish or products from fish which have been caught with commercial fishing technology which results in the incidental kill or incidental serious injury of ocean mammals in excess of United States standards. For purposes of applying the preceding sentence, the Secretary of Commerce shall insist on reasonable proof from the government of any nation from which fish or fish products will be exported to the United States of the effects on ocean mammals of the commercial fishing technology in use for such fish or fish products exported from such nation to the United States. (16 U.S.C. 1371(a)(2))
  • Section 102 (c)(3) of the MMPA states that it is unlawful to import into the United States any fish, whether fresh, frozen, or otherwise prepared, if such fish was caught in a manner which the Secretary of Commerce (Secretary) has proscribed for persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States, whether or not any marine mammals were in fact taken incident to the catching of the fish. (16 U.S.C. 1372(c)(3)).

Contact information: For further information regarding the work of MERS to understand the risk of entanglement to Humpbacks: Email info@mersociety.org. Phone  250-956-3525 or 250-230-7136.

What a Fluke!

Written by Marissa Morison, MERS Research Assistant (thank you Canada Summer Jobs for making the position possible).

On a chilly Tuesday morning we prepare to depart from a quaint little dock in Telegraph Cove. I eagerly await a day on the ocean with Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) Humpback Whale researchers Jackie Hildering and Christie McMillan.

I am here as a summer Research Assistant for MERS, expecting mostly to be fulfilling small daily tasks and computing data into entry. But today, today is different . . . Today will be my first time out on the west coast ocean since being a young girl, a long anticipated moment. I’ve bundled myself in multiple layers of clothing (I’ll admit I came rather ill-prepared for the weather) and take a seat near the bow.

Yes this happened! Please read on for explanation. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Yes this happened! Please read on for explanation. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

I brace myself as we coast out of Telegraph Cove. Moving from the prairies the landscape seems foreign to me, but strangely familiar in the same breath. The view is amazing. Actually, the view is greater than amazing. It is awe-inspiring! There is a distinct calm that falls over everything, and my senses heighten to adapt to the overwhelming array of new sensations. The air is crisp, clean, and cool as it wisps through my hair and nibbles at my cheeks. A fine mist is spraying up from the water, settling on my face, and leaving a salty taste on my lips. This place is as close to perfect as perfect comes.

Today’s objectives include documenting a female Humpback and her new calf. In order to be able to identify the calf in the future, it is essential to get photos of the calf’s dorsal fin from both sides and a photo of the underside of the tail (the fluke) that clearly shows the trailing edge. I learn that the pigmentation of Humpback calves’ flukes can change quite a bit over time whereby it is so important to get a photo of the fluke’s trailing edge.

The mother Humpback (BCY0177) has been nicknamed “Slash”, and I know that she unfortunately earned this nickname as a result of being struck by a vessel prior to 2006. She now bears distinctive scarring from the boat’s propeller.

Slash breaching (while emptying water from her mouth). Note the vessel strike scars along her back? Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Slash breaching (while emptying water from her mouth). Note the vessel strike scars along her back? Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

With the help of a report from a Stubbs Island Whale Watching vessel, we are able to quickly locate the pair.

That moment, that moment the calf surfaces, it is remarkable! I feel an excitement so great I can’t speak. I sit, just trying to comprehend the immense flood of emotion rushing through my mind, body, and soul. A stinging sensation develops above my nose and between my eyes as I fight the tears trying to escape. It is just that beautiful. But, it doesn’t stop there. Slash suddenly emerges next to her calf, and my breath is taken away, once again. The sheer size of her is something incomprehensible until witnessed by oneself. She is massive! I see the scars she wears and feel deeply saddened that we can so negatively affect these beautiful beings through carelessness or lack of awareness.

But, this is only the beginning of the excitement. Now as we are idling along having photographed the calf’s dorsal fin but still hoping for the fluke to be fully lifted, something ignites a change in behaviour in the twosome and they catapult up, out of the water, and then smash back down. They are breaching!  Again and again! I must admit it was slightly terrifying to witness such enormous animals rising from the water, but my fear soon turns to admiration and awe.

Mother and calf breaching and pectoral fin slapping. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Mother and calf breaching and pectoral fin slapping. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

As I watch in fascination time seemingly stands still. I’m informed this is not something seen on every journey out on the water, that such acrobatic behaviour is largely unpredictable. Knowing this makes my appreciation of the experience grow even deeper.
And, during the repeated breaching and pectoral fin slapping, the calf lifts his/her tail. Bingo! The photograph of the fluke is obtained that will allow the calf to be identified in the future.

The calf's fluke which will allow re-identification in the future. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
The calf’s fluke which will allow re-identification in the future. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

What a fluke! All of it. To be present when these giants happened to erupt out of the water, to see the interaction between mother and calf, to be there when the ID photos were obtained . . . I am deeply grateful that I was there in those moments, to experience the wild. Since then, I have had the opportunity to experience and share in a growing number of equally remarkable moments. This place is full of surprises and I find enjoyment in simply being here for the ride.

More photos of the remarkable encounter: 

Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Calf breaching. Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Mother - Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Mother – Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Mother - Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Mother – Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Mother - Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.
Mother – Slash (BCY0177). Photo: Jackie Hildering; MERS.

Which Whale Will it Be?

[Update April 11, 2016: It’s Argonaut! Argonaut will be the next whale in our Humpback Sponsorship Program! Great thanks to all who provided their input. We will have Argonaut sponsorship packages available by mid-May.]

Which whale will it be? You decide!

We’re adding a Humpback Whale to our Marine Education and Research Society sponsorship program. Conger? Guardian? Freckles? Argonaut? All four of these Humpbacks are very regularly seen around NE Vancouver Island. Please see their photos and details below and provide your choice via a comment on this blog.

The whale that gets the most blog comments and “likes” on the related post on Facebook by April 11th will be the one added to the choices at  www.mersociety.org/sponsorship.htm.

(Psst MERS Humpback Whale sponsorship packages are just $43, benefitting so many Humpbacks since the funds support our work to reduce the threats of entanglement and vessel strike to whales in BC.)
which whale MERS sponsorship program.002

Conger (BCY0728) has been sighted around NE Vancouver Island every year since 2009. The nickname is due to what was perceived to be an eel-like shape on the right side of his/her fluke (fainter now). Conger is the first whale we documented “trap feeding”. This is a novel feeding technique being studies by MERS that appears to be used to efficiently feed on small, diffuse schools of juvenile herring. Conger is unique in that he often flukes his tail on every dive where most Humpback Whales will only fluke every 5 to 8 dives when they go on a longer dive. Conger has also been documented pursuing mammal-hunting Killer Whales (known as “Transients” or “Bigg’s Killer Whales)! Yes, that’s right PURSUING Killer Whales.
which whale MERS sponsorship program.001Guardian (BCZuk2011#4) is easily identified by her very white fluke with distinct black pattern and her hooked dorsal fin. If lucky enough to see her lunge feeding at the surface, it’s spectacular! She most often rockets out of the water vertically where most Humpbacks have more of a horizontal lunge through herring. And yes, we know Guardian is female from having seen her underside while she was tail lobbing. She’s been known to us at MERS since 2011 and who knows, this year she could return with her first known calf. Guardian had a very scary encounter with a log barge in 2015. See the video at this link. 
which whale MERS sponsorship program.003We’ve known Argonaut (BCY0729) since 2009 and s/he may be the Humpback Whale seen most predictably around NE Vancouver Island. We documented over 150 sightings of Argonaut in 2015 alone, most often within 1 km of Telegraph Cove. This makes this Humpback quite the ambassador for his/her kind, having been observed by thousands of whale watchers from around the world. You’ll note the distinct black A-shaped marking on the left side of fluke that is, in part, what inspired Argonaut’s nickname. There is also a connection to someone named Jason i.e. the association is with “Jason and the Argonauts” of Greek mythology.
which whale MERS sponsorship program.004

Freckles (BCY0727) was first documented in BC waters in 2009 when she appeared just outside Telegraph Cove. She certainly got our attention as she had such distinct white coloured, freckle-like markings. These pigmentation spots have faded since then but still make Freckles very easy to identify even when she doesn’t lift her tail for a dive. While Freckles is not yet known to have had a calf, we know she is female because we saw her “hemispherical lobe” when she was tail-lobbing. Only females have this mound on the underside of their bodies. In addition to lunge feeding, we have seen her use a bubble-net to concentrate small fish and she also knows how to trap feed. We know of at least two cases when she has been harassed by mammal-hunting Killer Whales.

Be sure to leave a comment indicating your choice for which whale will be added to the MERS Humpback Whale Sponsorship Program! Deadline is April 11th. 

A (spectacular!) day of MERS research

Posted by Christie McMillan (MERS President and humpback whale research director):

Even though it has been 10 years since my first summer working with whales off northeastern Vancouver Island, there are still days that leave me stunned at how incredible this area really is in terms of the numbers, diversity, and behaviours of marine mammals found here.

Humpback whale "Zorro" (BCX0380) breaching in Blackfish Sound
Humpback whale “Zorro” (BCX0380) breaching in Blackfish Sound. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS. Taken with a telephoto lens and cropped)

Just over a week ago, I was on the Merlin (MERS’ research and response vessel), monitoring the behaviour of whales around the commercial fishery for chum salmon, collecting data on the numbers and locations of fishing nets and whales, and standing by in case of an entanglement. Together with Marie Fournier, who was helping MERS out with these efforts, I was sitting in the fog and light rain in Queen Charlotte Strait when we heard a loud whale blow, and looked toward Malcolm Island to see a whale with a long body and small, curved dorsal fin surfacing close to the shoreline. We were amazed and excited to see that this was a fin whale, part of a threatened population that is only very occasionally seen off northeastern Vancouver Island. While two fin whales were seen in the area in 2011 and two more in 2012, this was my first time seeing the world’s second-largest whale species here. We collected identification photographs of the fin whale for our colleagues at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and based on the shape of the dorsal fin and scarring on the whale’s body, we were able to confirm that this was a different individual from the fin whales seen in 2011 and 2012.

A rare sighting of a fin whale in Queen Charlotte Strait. (Photo: Christie McMillan, MERS)
A rare sighting of a fin whale in Queen Charlotte Strait. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

After leaving the fin whale, we headed into Blackfish Sound and came across two very surface-active humpback whales. The behaviour of humpbacks at this time of year is quite different than during the summer. When humpback whales return to Vancouver Island after their winter migrations to Hawaii or Mexico where there is little to no food for them, they appear to be very focused on feeding. In the fall, however, they tend to spend more time socializing. On Saturday, “Claw”, a whale that was first seen in the area in 2011 and “Zorro”, a whale new to the area this year, were very surface active, interacting with one another. They were “head-lobbing” (bringing their heads out of the water and slapping them down on the water’s surface), breaching, and tail-slapping. Almost every time the whales surfaced, Zorro was behind Claw and appeared to be posturing, exhibiting behaviours similar to humpback whale males in competitive groups in the breeding grounds. We are unsure of whether this behaviour around northern Vancouver Island is related to mating, but we do know that it happens more frequently as the breeding season approaches.

Humpback whales "Claw" and "Zorro" spyhopping
Humpback whales “Claw” and “Zorro” exhibiting a surface-active social behaviour called head-lobbing. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Humpback whale "Claw" breaching
Humpback whale “Claw” breaching. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS. Taken with a telephoto lens and cropped)

As we headed down to the bottom of Blackfish Sound, we saw some splashing up ahead of us, and found a group of Bigg’s (mammal-eating) killer whales chasing a Steller sea lion. The killer whales were leaping out of the water, attempting to ram the sea lion. Several hundred other Steller sea lions were in the water by the shoreline behind the killer whales.

Bigg's killer whale attacking a Steller sea lion. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Bigg’s killer whale attacking a Steller sea lion. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Partway through the sea lion chase, two humpback whales (“Domino” and “Backsplash”) came swimming rapidly over from the other side of Blackney Pass. They immediately began interacting with the killer whales, surfacing right next to them. Shortly after, they were joined by a third humpback whale, “Quartz”. The two species of whales continued to follow and interact with one another for over half an hour. We are unsure of why these species were in such close proximity to one another… it may have been territorial behaviour, it may be that humpback whales are keeping an eye on potential danger, or there may be another reason for this behaviour. Regardless, it was a reminder of how much we have yet to understand about these two species.

Humpback whales "Quartz", "Domino", and "Backsplash" interacting with Bigg's killer whales. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Humpback whales “Quartz”, “Domino”, and “Backsplash” interacting with Bigg’s killer whales, with Steller sea lions watching. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Humpback whale "Backsplash" interacting with T__ , a mammal-eating killer whale. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Humpback whale “Backsplash” interacting with T141 , an adult female mammal-eating killer whale. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Eventually, the killer whales went on a long dive, and we found ourselves surrounded by a sheen of oily water from the blubber of a marine mammal – it appeared that the killer whales had finally killed a seal or sea lion and were feeding on it underwater. We collected samples of tissue in the water so that genetic analyses could be conducted to determine the species that the killer whales had eaten, and collected identification photos of the whales, using Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Bigg’s killer whale catalogue (Towers et al. 2012) to identify the killer whales as the T055 group, along with T139 and the T141s.

Our 2015 field season is now drawing to a close… my 10th year of collecting humpback whale data off northeastern Vancouver Island. A day as remarkable as this one has me looking forward to the next field season, when we can continue to address some of the many questions regarding the humpback whales in this area and the threats they face.

Are humpback whales threatened in BC?

For the past decade MERS has conducted research on humpback whales in the waters off northern Vancouver Island. With the help of fellow north island researchers, community members, and ecotourism companies, especially Stubbs Island Whale Watching and Seasmoke Whale Watching, we have been documenting the return of humpback whales to these waters following the end of commercial whaling. In 2003 we only documented 7 humpback whales in these waters, but by 2011 there were 71. We have learned that the majority of individuals consistently return to these waters each year to feed between spring and fall. It is likely that this area is critical to the survival of these whales.

12-year-old humpback whale "KC" (BCY0291), breaching.  KC was first documented by MERS research off northern Vancouver Island when he was a calf in 2002, and has returned every year since then. (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
12-year-old humpback whale “KC” (BCY0291), breaching. KC was first documented by MERS researchers off northern Vancouver Island when he was a calf in 2002, and has returned to the area every year since then.
(Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

The waters off Vancouver Island are also busy with vessel traffic and commercial fishing activity between spring and fall. Since 2009 we have documented 5 incidents where humpback whales were entangled in fishing gear and since 2006 have documented 8 cases where humpbacks whales were struck by vessels in this small area alone. Efforts to rescue entangled animals or respond to vessel strike reports by MERS, Cetus and DFO have helped save the lives of some of these whales but an unknown number of individuals die each year from these threats. Preliminary results from MERS research reveal that over 30% of humpbacks off BC have scars indicating that they have been entangled at some point in their lives.

Humpback whale "Cutter", entangled in fishing gear off northern Vancouver Island (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Humpback whale “Cutter”, entangled in fishing gear off northern Vancouver Island
(Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Research by DFO has identified other areas of the BC coast that are also critical to the survival of humpback whales. Very little is known about the severity of the anthropogenic threats that humpback whales face in these waters but it can be inferred that threats are most prominent in areas where human activity is highest.

In this regard at least two things are worth noting.

1. The Strait of Georgia was historically important humpback whale habitat. Over 200     humpback whales were killed in the Strait of Georgia between 1868 and 1907. Today, this area is one of the busiest waterways off the west coast of North America and humpback whales have only just begun to show the first signs of recovery in these waters with a few individuals spotted each year.

2. Caamano Sound, Squally Channel, and the entrance to Douglas Channel have been defined as Critical Habitat (see the North Pacific Humpback Whale Recovery Strategy) due to the high numbers of humpbacks that use these waters. This area is on the proposed Northern Gateway tanker traffic route. If the federal government approves this project, vessel traffic will increase significantly in these waters in the coming years.

Humpback whale "Slash" (BCY0177), an adult female who has had at least two calves, with scars from a collision with a large vessel. (Photo by J. Towers, MERS)
Humpback whale “Slash” (BCY0177), an adult female who has had at least two calves, with scars from a collision with a large vessel.
(Photo by Jared Towers, MERS)

The recent proposed decision by the federal government to down-list BC’s humpback whales from Threatened to Special Concern means that the humpbacks will not be afforded their current level of protection from anthropogenic threats both within and beyond Critical Habitat.

The recommendation to down-list BC’s humpbacks comes from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) – a body that operates independent of government. Following protocol, their recommendation was based on the science available, yet some argue that there are significant knowledge gaps regarding the population structure of BC’s humpbacks and the threats they face. If BC’s humpbacks are indeed down-listed, this means that fewer dollars will be allocated to studying the threats to this population, how threats can be mitigated, and if genetically distinct populations exist within BC.

More research is required to better understand the threats that result from increased overlap between humpback whales and human activity  (Photo: Jared Towers, MERS)
More research is required to better understand the threats that result from increased overlap between humpback whales and human activity
(Photo by Jared Towers, MERS)

If you want to share your opinion on the federal government’s decision to down-list the humpback whale in BC please consider letting them know your thoughts through the public consultation period, open until May 17th.

Please also consider supporting MERS’s continued research on understanding and mitigating threats to this species. In 2014, we will continue to respond to cetacean entanglement and vessel strike reports in central and southern BC, operating cooperatively with DFO but with the understanding that their resources will become even more limited with the recent proposal to down-list humpbacks.

Humpback whale "Black Pearl", known to MERS since 2012, tailslapping off northern Vancouver Island (Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Humpback whale “Black Pearl”, known to MERS since 2012, tailslapping off northern Vancouver Island
(Photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

~ The MERS team