Discovery Islands emerging as humpback whale hotspot

The humpback Nick’s annual return to the waters around the Discovery Islands, sandwiched between British Columbia’s remote central coast and Vancouver Island, is strikingly iconic.

She frequently haunts the waters off Cortez Island near Whaletown. It was once a whaling station and rendering factory established in 1868 as part of a colonial industry that eradicated humpback whales from eastern Vancouver Island waters by the early 20th century.

Now the seeds are back. Among them is the nick, named for the distinctive U-shaped notch on its dorsal fin.

She is a prolific mother and has five calves since 2008, according to whale researcher and co-founder of the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) Jackie Hildering.

While isolated sightings of humpback whales were again reported in the Strait of Georgia in the mid-1980s, sightings of giant marine mammals in the Discovery Islands region have surged over the past decade, making it one of the hot spots for baleen giant activity. became. The Salish Sea, said Hildering.

“There were 23 humpback whale sightings in the area in 2015, and four years later, about 100 humpbacks are feeding on the Discovery Islands,” says Hildering. .

“It’s rare good news that we didn’t push humpback whales to their limits and were able to increase the population again,” she said.

Entanglement and ship collisions are direct, major and preventable threats to humpback whale population growth, says whale researcher Jackie Hildering.Photo by Jaki Engel

A humpback whale coming from a mysterious place

The surge in humpback whales in the Discovery Islands and northeastern Vancouver Island waters isn’t just due to population growth, Hildering said. But for North Pacific whale researchers, where the new residents came from is still a mystery.

Humpback whales, which have proliferated over the past decade, are returning to waters of northeast Vancouver Island once wiped out by whaling, an opportunity for redemption and continued conservation, said @mersociety’s @OceanDetective Jackie Hildering. I’m here.

Climate change is a global threat that scientists believe could affect the recovery of humpback whales globally, as rising water temperatures could alter the whales’ food distribution. This can lead to nutritional stress, reduced reproduction, changes in feeding and breeding grounds and migration schedules.

Humpback whales in southeastern Alaska have experienced a sharp decline in populations, along with reduced survival and reproduction due to two years of intense marine heatwaves that began in 2014.

But the missing humpback whale from Alaska is not the whale that appeared in the waters east of Vancouver Island, Hildering said.

The return of humpback whales to the area offers residents a chance at salvation if steps can be taken to keep the whales protected. According to Hildering, the greatest immediate preventable threat remains man-made in the form of boat crashes and entanglement in fishing gear.

Fifty percent of the humpback whales in the region have tangle scars, she added, noting that whales killed by boats typically sink to the seabed, making it difficult to determine the impact of a boat crash.

Humpback whale hotspots are often areas of high boating activity, increasing the risk of whales returning to their favorite habitat each summer for food. Image credit: MERS

Nick has scars from collisions with gear and ships, but survives until each of her offspring accompanies her to her favorite coastal waters for their first visit. About a year.

One of Nick’s most recent calves, named Splashy, likely born in Hawaii in 2020, arrived in BC that same summer. A juvenile humpback whale made headlines among researchers when it was spotted swimming alone in Hornby Island and nearby waters in early winter 2021.

This summer, Nick is taking her newest calf, Mayte, named in honor of the young victim of the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting in May, Hildering said, 11. A year old calf said he wanted to be a marine biologist. .

Nick the humpback whale and her calf maite MERS Facebook photo.

Resident humpback whales have developed a unique feeding technique

Humpback whales in the region don’t just pass by on their way to somewhere else, Hildering said.

She reports to the public on humpback whales in local waters so that researchers can identify specific areas humpback whales frequent, feeding strategies, survival rates, injuries, and ways to better protect humpback whales. We encourage respect for others as individuals and neighbors.

Whales come to the Discovery Islands in the summer to feed on krill and schools of small fish in the cool, dark waters of British Columbia before spending the winter in Hawaii, Mexico and even Central America, like many Canadian snowbirds. Or move to spend time in Japan.

These destinations feature less food and warmer water, but are safer nurseries for newborn calves, she said.

Resident whales have specific behaviors and preferred fishing methods that are adapted to the area, she added.

Because the waters of the region are characterized by rapid currents that tend to disperse fish, humpback whales are known as ‘bubble net feeding’, where the whales cooperate to corral a school of fish while one member blows the net. We don’t use a lot of well-known techniques. of foam to prevent prey from escaping.

A MERS study found that humpback whales in the region employ trap feeding. This is a sort of lazy person’s version of the more common lunge method, where the animal lunges into a dense school of fish and swallows it into a whiskered mouth.

In this unique way, you can watch whales lounging on the surface with their mouths open while small fish and escaping seabirds take refuge inside their giant jaws.

The humpback then either spins or uses its flippers to push the fish further into its baleen mouth to secure a meal.

According to MERS, more than 20 local humpback whales rely on this energy-efficient technology developed to keep fish from forming dense shoals in the region.

Humpback whales, which live in the waters northeast of Vancouver Island, have developed a unique feeding technique called trap feeding. Image courtesy of MERS

Hildering said whales and humans are safer if recreational sailors and ship operators are familiar with the habits and favorite humpback sites of local humpback whales.

Humpback whales don’t use sonar for hunting and can be oblivious to vessels and surface unexpectedly, especially if they’re feeding during the day, she said.

Slowing down at humpback whale hot spots and keeping an eye out for other whale indicators (flocks of birds on the water, “blows” exhaling clouds of moist air from sea giants as they surface, etc.) , to help boat operators avoid collisions with school buses. -size marine mammals.

Whales have very random migration patterns, so sailors shouldn’t assume that humpback whales will move in the same direction they headed on their last observed dive, she said.

A whale named Inukshuk, which has been returning to the area since at least 2008, is notorious for spending long periods of surface rest during the day because it tends to feed on krill at night, Hildering said.

This means he rarely “blows”, looks very log-like, and may not be kept far enough away by boaters, she said.

Inukshuk is also beloved as one of the region’s most famous vocalists to sing during the day, so it deserves special attention to be protected.

All humpback whales vocalize, but only the males sing the complex songs their species is famous for.

However, most other males in the region tend to sing at night, making identification difficult.

Canadian Marine Mammal Regulations require that sailors stay at least 100 meters from humpback whales, and double that distance if they are resting or carrying calves.

However, MERS recommends that boaters actually keep a distance of 200 meters from humpback whales.

“We can act on this incredible privilege of having humpback whales come back to our shores and get a second chance with them,” Hildering said.

Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Discovery Islands emerging as humpback whale hotspot

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