MERS Report for 2018

[Initial blog is from December 18th, 2018.
Update January 1st, 2018 =  numbers are now 94 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 200 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 157 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.

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. 

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.


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

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 Phone  250-956-3525 or 250-230-7136.

Media related to the two November 2016 entanglements referenced above:

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.

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

How important are herring to humpback whales?

Each spring, humpback whales in the eastern North Pacific Ocean travel from warm waters off Hawaii or Mexico up to the cooler, temperate waters off B.C. and Alaska.  What brings them back up here is food; the tropical and sub-tropical areas where humpback whales mate and give birth during winter have very little food for whales, so humpbacks must obtain almost all the energy they need for a year’s worth of activity while they are in our cold, rich waters during the summer and fall.

A humpback whale feeding on herring

Humpbacks feed on krill (small crustaceans), as well as small, schooling fish such as herring and sandlance.  Off B.C., however, it is not yet known how important different prey species are to humpbacks, or to what extent individual humpback whales may specialize on specific foraging locations and prey types.

In some areas, krill (these small crustaceans) make up a large proportion of humpback whale diet
In some areas, krill (these small crustaceans) make up a large proportion of humpback whale diet

In eastern Queen Charlotte Strait, herring congregate in dense schools, locally known as “bait balls”, during the late summer and fall.  Humpback whales in this area appear to specialize on herring during this time, targeting bait balls and lunge-feeding on them.  As part of my Master’s research through Simon Fraser University, I am working on estimating how much of humpback whales’ energetic requirements are obtained from feeding on these herring.

Humpback whale "Guardian" lunge-feeding on herring
Humpback whale “Guardian” lunge-feeding on herring

To help answer these questions, I need to estimate how often humpback whales are feeding on herring, and how much herring they consume each time they feed.  To predict how often humpback whales are feeding, I first identify a whale as an individual, and then watch it for an hour and record each time that it feeds and what type of prey it eats (tracking animal behaviour in this way is called “focal following”).  To figure out how much herring they eat during each feeding event, I have been taking underwater video of herring bait balls.  By also measuring the size of the herring in the bait ball, I can use their actual size, compared with their size on the video, to estimate the dimensions and therefore the volume of the bait balls.  By combining the results of the focal follows and bait ball videos with an energetic model for humpback whales, I can predict what proportion of the energy requirements of these humpbacks are provided by the herring bait balls that they are feeding on.

a dense school of herring, or "bait ball", filmed underwater

The results of my research will have implications for managing humpback whale populations.  Although human impacts such as overfishing and habitat degradation may not be sufficient to affect humpback whale prey species at the population level, they may cause depletion of these species on a local scale.  It is not yet understood whether B.C. humpback whales have the ability to easily switch to a different prey source and foraging location if availability of their preferred prey declines, so it is possible that local prey depletion may have impacts on humpback whales that feed in B.C.

A humpback whale breaching off the west coast of Vancouver Island
A humpback whale breaching off the west coast of Vancouver Island

This summer will be my second field season of gathering the information that I need to estimate how important these herring are to humpback whales in eastern Queen Charlotte Strait. Huge thanks to everyone who has helped out with and supported this study so far, especially Stacey Hrushowy, Jared Towers, and Jackie Hildering.

Click here to learn more about MERS humpback whale research, or here to donate to MERS’ work.  Also, please feel free to e-mail me at with any questions.

~ Christie