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

Note, this blog was initially written to answer questions about the two Humpbacks entangled at the same site in 2016 – the Sheep Passage open-net farm site near Klemtu. One whale was freed on September 12th (survival unknown) and one died at the same site on November 15th, 2016. We are striving to update this blog with related information as it becomes available.

UPDATE December 6, 2018: Humpback found in the Cermaq’s Millar Channel farm.  From media provided by CermaqThe cage was empty and did not contain any salmon and the whale was in good health, not entangled and not exhibiting signs of stress”. Plan for release of the whale was coordinated by DFO. ID of the whale is not known to date and it is unknown how the whale entered the nets..

UPDATE July 2018: Amendments to Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations came into force on July 11, 2018.  The amendments include mandatory reporting of any accidental contact between a marine mammal and a vehicle or fishing gear. Click here for the full Regulations.]

UPDATE January 1, 2017: New Regulation went into effect requiring any fishery/aquaculture exports to the U.S. to meet equivalent standards of the Marine Mammal Protection Act for monitoring and bycatch mitigation. There is a 5-year exemption period (to January 10, 2022).

UPDATE November 29, 2016:  Another Humpback Whale has died in open-net fish farm gear. This whale was at the Grieg Seafood’s Atrevida farm in Nootka Sound. 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 further information.

Updated summary of known Humpback interactions with open net-pen salmon farming netting / cages:

  • December 2, 2018 – Cermaq’s  Millar Channel farm.  Whale reported to be within the farm but not entangled nor injured. Plan for release of the whale was coordinated by DFO. ID of the whale is not known to date and it is unknown how the whale entered the farm.
    Related media: Cermaq, December 4, 2018 “Humpback Whale Freed from Empty Salmon Farm Cage without Incident
  • November 29, 2016 – Grieg Seafood’s Atrevida farm in Nootka Sound. Humpback found dead in nets. Necropsy results unknown. ID of dead whale not known.
    Related media: CTV News; November 29, 2016; “Dead humpback whale found at B.C. salmon farm
  • November 15, 2016 – Marine Harvest’s fallow Sheep Passage open-net farm site near Klemtu. Humpback found entangled and dead. This is the same site as the entanglement of September 12, 2016. ID of whale not known.
    Related media: See end of blog.
  • September 15, 2016 – Marine Harvest’s fallow Sheep Passage open-net farm site near Klemtu. Humpback found entangled and was professionally  disentangled. ID of whale not known. Survival not known.
    Media: See end of blog.
  • March 27, 2013 – Mainstream Canada’s Ross Pass farm. Humpback dead. Necropsy inconclusive if whale was dead before or after becoming entangled in fish farm gear.
    Related media: Times Colonist; March 27, 2013, “Dead humpback whale floats up at salmon farm near Tofino

Initial blog from November 22nd, 2016 

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, 2016 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.

Questions: 

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.

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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?
• [Update July 2018 – Amendments to Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations came into effect on July 11th.  The amendments include mandatory reporting of any accidental contact between a marine mammal and a vehicle or fishing gear. Click here for the full Regulations.]
 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.”

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. There is an exemption period for compliance to January 10, 2022. The provisions 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.

Media related to the two November 2016 entanglements referenced above:

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.

It’s a Girl!!!

Freckles is a "she"!!! Read on to find out how we know...
Freckles (BCY0727) is a “she”!!! Read on to find out how we know (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

This time of year, when most humpback and minke whales that spend the summers feeding in BC are down in their winter breeding grounds, MERS researchers and educators  are spending more time at our computers and less time out on the water. One of our focuses this winter has been to share the results of MERS research with people who spend time on and near the water with the goal of discussing how we can work together to better understand humpback whales and the threats that they face, for the sake of boater and whale safety. In addition, we have been working on humpback and minke whale publications for scientific journals (see our latest publications).

MERS Director Jackie Hildering has been traveling around Vancouver Island to talk about the return of humpback whales and how we can work together to reduce the threats that they face. Click here for information on upcoming presentations

With the help of one of our experienced and dedicated volunteers, Alison Ogilvie, we have also been reviewing some older humpback whale data, getting our photo and sightings databases up to date. One of these older humpback whale photos has allowed us to learn something new about one of our best-known whales, “Freckles” (BCY0727). Freckles was first seen in 2009, and was named for the white, speckled markings on its body. Since then, Freckles has lost some of these markings, but has become one of the whales that shows very strong site fidelity to northern Vancouver Island, coming back to the same area to feed each year.

Freckles in 2009 (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Freckles in 2009 (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Freckles in 2014 (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Freckles in 2014 (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

The photo in question allowed us to determine that Freckles is a female. Determining the sex of humpback whales is not as easy as it is for many other animals… there are no obvious physical characteristics that are reliably visible at the surface to distinguish males from females. MERS has documented several of the humpback whales that spend time off northeastern Vancouver Island come to the area with a calf, so we know that these whales – including Chunky (BCX0081), Ripple (BCX1063), and Slash (BCY0177) are females. However, the sex of the vast majority of the humpback whales in our catalogue is unknown. We were therefore very excited to see photos of Freckles tail-lobbing repeatedly, which made the underside of her body visible. In this photo, I was able to see a small feature on Freckles’ body, the hemispherical lobe, that allowed me to determine that she is female.

Freckles tail-lobbing, with her hemispherical lobe visible
Freckles tail-lobbing, with her hemispherical lobe visible (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

Only female humpback whales have a hemispherical lobe, a small round lobe between the whale’s umbilicus (belly button) and fluke. These diagrams from Glockner (1983) demonstrate the different features of male and female humpback whales.

Glockner
Diagram from: Glockner. A. 1983. Determining the sex of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in their natural environment. In Behavior and communication of whales. Edited by R. Payne. AAAS Sel. Symp. No. 76. pp. 447-464.

Now that we know that Freckles is a female, we are very curious to see when she might bring her first calf to the northern Vancouver Island area. Knowing Freckles’ sex is also very valuable for better understanding humpback whale behaviour.

~ Christie

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

MERS whale watch fundraiser

Yesterday’s whale watching fundraiser for the Marine Education and Research Society was a huge success, thanks to Jim and Mary Borrowman of Orcella Expeditions, and everyone who came out to support MERS… and of course, to the amazing wildlife of northern Vancouver Island!

Humpback whale "Guardian", lunge-feeding on herring (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Humpback whale “Guardian”, lunge-feeding on herring
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

The day dawned clear, calm, and fog-free – perfect conditions to head out and look for some wildlife.  Not long after leaving Telegraph Cove, we were able to catch a glimpse of humpback whale blows hovering over the calm water… a sign of things to come for the day.

Blackney Pass and Blackfish Sound were full of humpbacks, sea lions, and schools of herring.  As we approached a sea lion haul-out to have a look at the hundreds of Steller sea lions up on the rocks, we could see Slash the humpback whale’s calf, Stitch, doing full breaches in the distance, and had curious sea lions swimming all around the Gikumi.

A Steller sea lion (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
A Steller sea lion
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

Dense schools of herring, being fed on by gulls and murres, were forming throughout Blackfish Sound.  As we waited near one of them, humpback whale “Guardian” did a spectacular lunge, erupting out of the water with his or her mouth wide open.  As is clear from the photo below, Guardian missed a lot of the fish during the first lunge, so came back and lunged a few more times on the same school of herring.

Humpback whale "Guardian" lunge-feeding on herring  (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Humpback whale “Guardian” lunge-feeding on herring.  Note the fish all around Guardian’s lower jaw
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

Just as we finished an incredible lunch, we got a report that there were mammal-eating (transient) killer whales in the area… and that the killer whales were interacting with humpbacks!  Five killer whales from the T049s (including a brand-new calf!) were swimming very close to humpback whales Guardian and Freckles.

Mammal-eating killer whales (T049s) following "Guardian" the humpback whale  (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Mammal-eating killer whales (T049s) following “Guardian” the humpback whale
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

It was difficult to determine exactly what was happening between these two species… at times, it appeared that the killer whales were following the humpback whales, and that the humpbacks were quite distressed, making loud, trumpeting vocalizations, and slashing their tails through the air.  At other times, though, it appeared that the humpbacks were following the killer whales, perhaps to help the humpbacks keep track of these predators.  As we watched, two other humpback whales (Twister and Moonstar) joined the group as well.

Humpback whale "Twister" slashing its tail in response to the killer whales (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
Humpback whale “Twister” slashing its tail in response to the killer whales
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
The T049s interacting with Twister and Freckles  (photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)
T049A1 interacting with Twister and Freckles
(photo by Jackie Hildering, MERS)

Mammal-eating killer whales are known to attack young humpback whales… some of the humpback whale fluke photos in the MERS humpback whale catalogue (available here) bear scars from killer whale teeth.  However, all of the humpback whales that were interacting with the killer whales yesterday were adults or older juveniles, and so were likely not at risk of being eaten.  Instead, the interaction may have been an effort by one species to intimidate or harass the other… but we do not know for sure.

Thanks again to everyone who came out to support the Marine Education and Research Society, and another huge thank you to Jim and Mary Borrowman!  All proceeds from this trip will go directly to MERS’ research and education efforts which include population monitoring of humpback and minke whales, and mitigating the threats to these species.  See our website for more information about our work.

~ Christie, Jared, Jackie, and the MERS team