Getting to Know Humpbacks

By Bruce Whittington, Bluewater Naturalist

Taxis, buses, ferries, a plane ride or two — it’s not easy to get to Haida Gwaii for a trip with Bluewater Adventures. But the effort seems to vanish once we are underway. Each time I return, I am reminded of why I love this place: it’s the abundance of life here.

Within the national park reserve, vast forests stand unchanged by industry. The Haida people continue in their ancient relationship to this land. In May, thousands of tiny Ancient Murrelet chicks make their midnight dashes to the sea, in search of their parents whom they know only by the sound of their voices.

Perhaps the most visible of Haida Gwaii’s residents are its Humpback Whales. Until the 1940s, these gentle leviathans were hauled ashore at Rose Harbour, and rendered into oil and meal. The population was reduced to a fraction of its historical size. Today, though, the Humpbacks have returned in a way that is at once encouraging and exhilarating.

They come from Hawaii, where they spend the winters mating, and giving birth. But they do not feed there. In the spring, they migrate to the North Pacific, with its teeming marine food chain. The 40-tonne whales feed largely on krill, tiny animals that may be less than two centimeters in length.

On a typical Bluewater cruise, we see whales daily. Some are identified only by their distant blows, while others feed intently within easy photo range of the boat. It’s not unusual to see 20 or more whales in a given area.

How many whales are there? Are we seeing the same whales over and over? I’ve been photographing the whales in the years I’ve been a naturalist for Bluewater, and it’s fascinating to see how different these animals can be.

Researchers are identifying Humpback Whales by the pattern on the underside and trailing edge of their broad tail flukes. They range from black through mostly white, with an amazing variety of patterns in between.

Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans hosts a web site with photos of over 1,000 Humpbacks known to occur in British Columbia waters. They are grouped according to the amount of white in their flukes:

Using this site, I’ve identified at least eight whales in my photos. It’s exciting to know that “my” whales have been seen before. But more exciting was a whale photographed in 2008 that appeared again in my photos from 2009! The whale’s number is BCZ0273, and here are the photos. You can see that the pattern on the tail is the same a year later. (The yellow markings are algae growth, and they do change over time.)

It shouldn’t surprise me to see the same whales returning, but it is a thrill just the same. It gives me hope that perhaps this diverse and wild landscape will continue sustain the Humpback Whales and all the other species that call it home.

Bruce Whittington, Naturalist


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