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

Here’s our report on Humpback Whale numbers in our study area in 2019 and yes, our updated catalogue is ready to go too. 🙂 

Humpback Whale Ripple (BCX1063) – documented since 2005 (then already adult) and known to have had 3 calves. She’s a trap-feeder.

But first, for clarity, please know that we are not reporting on the entire number of Humpback Whales estimated to feed in British Columbia marine waters.

The estimate for that dates back to research by Ford et al  which concluded:  in 2006, the  abundance for Humpback Whales in British Columbia waters was 2,145 whales.  This estimate did not include 1st year calves.

In is anticipated that soon there will be an updated estimate for the number of Humpbacks in BC waters as a result of the 2018 Pacific Region International Survey of Marine Megafauna (PRISMM). It is important to note that the results of the PRISMM  line-transect survey will be for a much larger area than that which led to the 2006 estimate. 

How many Humpbacks did there used to be off our coast? As you can imagine, there is poor data for this as no one was studying whales as individuals prior to the early 1970s. The estimate is that a minimum of 4,000 Humpback Whales existed just off the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1905. Legal whaling for Humpbacks ended by international agreement in 1966 and it is estimated that, by the 1970s, there were only ~1,400 Humpbacks in the WHOLE North Pacific Ocean i.e. not just off our coast.

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


Now that that’s all been emphasized, the area for which we are reporting is from the upper Strait of Georgia to northern Vancouver Island and around to northwest Vancouver Island. We identified 179 individuals who were in that area at some time in 2019. There are now over 380 whales in the MERS catalogue for the area. 

Updated catalogue. All those who have previously purchased a catalogue will receive a link via email to download the update. Available for purchase at this link for $25.

 


The sub-area for which we have the longest dataset is northeastern Vancouver Island (upper Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait and the inlets of the Broughton Archipelago). The graph below shows how sudden the increase in Humpbacks has been. Numbers have increased from just 7 individuals documented in this area in all of 2003, to identifying 96 in 2019 Note too how many of the whales are returnees to the area each year (compare the blue bar in the graph to the red bar). This indicates how strong the site fidelity of Humpbacks is. They generally return to the same area(s) to feed year upon year. 

Number of photo-identified Humpback Whales sighted off Northeastern Vancouver Island – specifically for upper Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait and the inlets of the Broughton Archipelago. Data pre 2000 via Alexandra Morton. Note that we use both dorsal fins and the underside of the whales’ tails to determine ID. 

For the Campbell River / Comox / Hornby Island area, we catalogued 88 individuals that were there at some point in 2019.  Of this number, 
32 were also sighted around 
northeastern Vancouver Island.


Note that the size of this increase in Humpbacks off the coast of BC cannot be population growth alone (post whaling). There must also be a shift from somewhere else. That mystery is something we and our colleague researchers, have not solved, nor what the shift may indicate about changing ocean conditions.



We emphasize how this work would not be possible were it not for the
contribution of photos from naturalists, boaters and others who care
. The photos, together with the location of sightings, not only aid our Humpback Whale population studies but also help in understanding how the whales use the area. 

With the number of Humpbacks so predictably being around central to northern Vancouver Island, it is essential that boaters are aware of how to avoid collision and what to do (and not to do) if entanglement is witnessed. Humpback Whales are much more unpredictable than the Orca many boaters are accustomed too. Please see www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org.

We also have a national teaching resource on boaters and marine mammals at www.BoatBlue.ca. This was developed in collaboration with the Canadian Power and Sail Squadron.

For further highlights of our work in 2019, please see this link. 


Note that our research, conducted in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, shows that approximately 50% of the Humpbacks in BC waters have scarring from an entanglement. This indicates how widespread a risk entanglement is but does of course not allow us to know how many whales become entangled and die since dead whales usually sink to the bottom of the ocean.

It is even more difficult therefore to know how often whales die from injuries related to boat collision. It is now thankfully the law that collisions and entanglements must be reported.


Click here for examples of the severity of  human injuries and material damage resulting from collisions with Humpback Whales. 


Sources:

Ford J.K.B., Rambeau A.L., Abernethy R.M., Boogaards M.D., Nichol L.M., and Spaven L.D. 2009. An Assessment of the Potential for Recovery of Humpback Whales off the Pacific Coast of Canada. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2009/015. iv + 33 p.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2013. Recovery Strategy for the North Pacific Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. x + 67 pp

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

How to Save a Whale (video)

“How to Save a Whale” is an essential resource on the risks of collision and entanglement. It was made possible by the Sitka Foundation. Please see below for the video and share widely.

See this link for our free webinars to share our research and increase understanding of reducing threats to whales.

Click here for information on current, known entanglements off the coast of BC.

With the fortunate increase in the number of Humpback Whales off our coast, it is essential that boaters know more about the risks of collision and entanglement (for the sake of whale AND boater safety).

Our preliminary results, conducted in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), show that ~ 50% of Humpbacks in British Columbia have scarring that shows they have been entangled (>1,000 Humpbacks). This data provides an indication of how very serious the risk of entanglement is. It does not reveal how many Humpbacks have died as a result of entanglement.

Summary of key points on what to do in case you find an entangled whale:

  1. With great urgency, report the entanglement with location. In British Columbia call the DFO Incident Line at  1-800-465-4336. If you do not have cell service, use VHF Channel 16 (Coast Guard). For entanglements in Washington State, call SOS WHALe (1-877-767-9425).  
  2. 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.
  3. Take whatever video/photos are possible to document the entanglement and to identify the whale as an individual but maintain a distance that doesn’t stress the whale (minimum of 100 metres). 

Why it is so important NOT to attempt to remove any fishing gear or rope from the whale:

  1. 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.
  2.  Often, much of the fishing gear in which the whale is entangled is not visible at the surface. If members of the public put themselves at risk and remove gear at the surface, they would not help the whale because now it is more difficult to:
    – Recognize that the whale is entangled; and
    – 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 Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations and key points on how to avoid collision, please see our page www.SeeABlowGoSlow.org. 


 

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.

Meet Slash and her calf, Stitch

For the past two weeks, whenever the weather has allowed, I have been out by Bold Head (at the eastern end of Queen Charlotte Strait) collecting data on humpback whales. This area is transformed at this time of year… earlier in the season, it was not unusual to see 1 or 2 humpback whales around Bold Head; while on August 22nd, we counted 17 individuals in this one area. With the help of many volunteers, including Annika Putt, Caitlin Birdsall, Erica Forssman, Tyson Hopkins, and Nic Dedeluk, I have been filming bait balls underwater and measuring herring for my thesis research (see previous blog post for details). I have also been doing focal follows of humpback whales (I will explain more about this in a future post), and identifying which whales are spending time feeding in the area.

At this time of year, large numbers of humpback whales spend time feeding in eastern Queen Charlotte Strait.  This is "Ripple" (BCX1063), lunge-feeding on herring near Bold Head (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
At this time of year, large numbers of humpback whales spend time feeding in eastern Queen Charlotte Strait. This is “Ripple” (BCX1063), lunge-feeding on herring near Bold Head (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Two of the whales that we have seen almost every day around Bold Head are “Slash” (BCY0177) and her calf, “Stitch”. Slash’s nickname comes from the parallel scars across her back. In 2006, she was photographed by MERS director Jared Towers with deep, recent, unhealed injuries on her back. The injuries indicated that Slash was the victim of a vessel strike; these parallel cuts were caused by a boat propeller.  Vessel strikes are becoming a serious concern for humpback whales around Vancouver Island (see this blog post by the BC Cetacean Sightings Network for more details).

Slash (BCY0177) in 2006.  The injuries on her back were caused by a vessel strike (photo by Jared Towers, MERS)
Slash (BCY0177) in 2006. The injuries on her back were caused by a vessel strike (photo by Jared Towers, MERS)

Fortunately, Slash survived her injuries, and has returned to the northeastern Vancouver Island area every year since 2006.  In 2008, she brought her first documented calf to the area, a whale that we nick-named “Moonstar” based on the markings that look like a moon and a star on her tail.  Moonstar has also been seen in the area every year since she was born.

"Moonstar" (BCY0768), Slash's 2008 calf (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
“Moonstar” (BCY0768), Slash’s 2008 calf (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

This year, Slash returned to the area with a new calf, who was recently nicknamed “Stitch” by children from the  Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw summer day camp from nearby Port Hardy.  Humpback whale calves nurse for about a year, and therefore maintain very close bonds with their mothers during this time.  However, it is also very important that the mothers get enough food during the summer to provide them with the energy that they need to nurse their calves, and to migrate back to winter breeding grounds in Hawaii or Mexico.  During the past couple of weeks, we have seen Slash leave her calf’s side, in order to feed on the dense schools of herring that are found in the area.  Without her mother at her side, the calf often becomes very active at the surface… breaching, rolling around, and playing in kelp!

Slash's calf, Stitch, breaching while her mother feeds on herring (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Slash’s calf, Stitch, breaching while her mother feeds on herring (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Stitch, lifting up kelp with her flipper (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)
Stitch, lifting up kelp with her flipper (photo by Christie McMillan, MERS)

Once BCY0177 has finished feeding, she communicates with her calf underwater, using grunting sounds that likely alert her calf to where she is… stay tuned, we’ll post these sounds soon!

~ Christie