Whale watching companies in Victoria are reporting a huge increase in the number of humpback whales being spotted off the coast of Vancouver Island.
Naturalists with several companies told Daily Hive not only have they seen around 50 different humpback whales so far this year, but the whales are also arriving earlier.
James Dale with Five Star Whale Watching said he’s seeing the whales group together as never before, with more than 20 humpbacks within sight at one time.
“We are now seeing relatively close groups of as many as 10 pairs of mothers and calves or two and three adults, for a total in excess of 20 whales within sight at one time.
“I have not seen this in 25 years of watching marine wildlife here.”
In past years, the humpback whales have used Victoria as a “pit stop” on the long migration to their summer feeding grounds in Alaska.
But Val Shore, a marine naturalist with Eagle Wing Tours says she is seeing a huge increase in the number of whales lunge feeding in the Juan de Fuca Strait.
When lunge feeding, whales rise to the surface with their mouths wide open and take in huge gulps of food and water, which they filter using baleen bristles in their mouths.
“It’s quite dramatic to see. In previous years we didn’t see this behaviour as frequently,” said Shore.
“We’re not sure exactly what they’re eating… it’s likely something really small such as krill, or tiny zooplankton such as crab larvae.
“Whatever it is, it’s all over this section of the strait in huge quantities. It’s a humpback buffet out there right now.”
Tasty, tasty krill
Dan Kukat, owner of SpringTide Whale Watching, said they are also seeing whales spyhopping, pectoral slapping and tail fluking.
He attributes the increased numbers of happy humpback whales near Victoria to a rise in the local krill population.
“Krill is [usually] more abundant further north, so whales around Victoria typically feed more on fish, and switch to krill as they get closer to Alaska,” said Kukat.
“[But] one of our crew members reported seeing unusual numbers of krill near the surface while he was fishing.”
Sarah Keenan, marine naturalist and captain with Orca Spirit Adventures, told us there is even talk in the industry of witnessing bubble net feeding.
Bubble net feeding, in which a group of whales swim in a shrinking circle blowing bubbles below a school of fish to trap them, is usually only seen in Alaska.
Rhonda Reidy with Prince of Whales Whale Watching said the rise in feeding in the area could be due to the sheer number of humpback whales vying for space.
“The population of humpback whales in the NE Pacific is increasing,” said Reidy. “The population may be nearing the carrying capacity of the traditional northern feeding grounds, with more whales exploring southern BC and WA waters.”
Reclaiming the sea
Dale remembers when things were different for humpback whales.
“We suspect this year harkens back to the days before much of the Pacific herring, sand lance and Pacific sardine (aka “pilchard”) populations were dramatically reduced by overfishing and habitat destruction.”
Shore says humpbacks regularly spent the summer around Victoria before commercial whalers killed them off by the early 20th century.
“It’s thought that humpback numbers in the entire North Pacific fell as low as 1,200 before they were protected in 1966,” said Shore.
“There are now an estimated 22,000 in the North Pacific—and they’re rightfully reclaiming the Salish Sea as one of their traditional summer feeding grounds.”
A calf named Poptart
Now not only are the whales gulp feeding, lunge feeding, and flick feeding, they are also cartwheeling, breaching – and showing off their young.
Shore says one of the calves spotted has become quite a celebrity at only six months of age.
“The whalewatch industry calls this calf Poptart because it likes to breach so much,” said Shore.
“Its mom, Big Mama, is a longtime favourite with us because she was one of the first humpbacks to return to the Salish Sea in the 1990s.”
Keenan says that instinct to return could also be behind the huge numbers of humpbacks being seen around Victoria.
“The overall population of humpback whales has increase every year with breeding,” said Keenan.
“Mother humpback whales teach their young to migrate to the same waters their mother taught them… The original calves that came to our water – going back a decade – have also started breeding and continuing the tradition.”
‘As if by magic…’
So do these whale watchers ever get bored off following these big beasts around the Salish Sea? Never.
Keenan says there are simply no words.
“Seeing a 45-foot long, 80,000-pound animal move through the ocean with such a gentle grace is humbling,” said Keenan.
“How could you not want to protect such an extraordinary animal after witnessing their behaviour?”
Dale, who also scuba dives, tries to put it all in proportion.
“It is awe-inspiring, grounding… Their sheer size and power overwhelms the ability of the human mind to put them in perspective,” said Dale.
“They swim with a grace, an elegance of movement that moves my spirit… And then, as if by magic, they disappear under the surface as they dive into a world that I can only feebly imagine.”
Editor’s note – This story previously attributed some quotes to Joanne Kukat of SpringTide Whale Watching. In fact, they were from Dan Kukat and that has now been corrected.