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Discovery Islands surfacing as a humpback hot spot

Sightings of humpback whales in the Discovery Islands area have skyrocketed in the past decade, turning it into one of the hot spots of activity for the baleen giants in the Salish Sea

It’s marvellously symbolic that Nick the humpback whale returns year after year with her offspring to the waters surrounding the Discovery Islands, wedged between B.C.’s remote central coast and Vancouver Island.

The humpback, named for the distinct U-shaped notch in her dorsal fin, is drawn to the waters off Cortes Island near Whaletown — a whaling station and rendering plant set up in 1868 as part of an industry that had eradicated humpbacks in the waters off eastern Vancouver Island by the early 20th century.

A prolific mother, Nick has had five calves since 2008 — the most recent this year, said Jackie Hildering, whale researcher and co-founder of the Marine Education Research Society, based in Port McNeill.

Isolated sightings of humpbacks were reported in the Georgia Strait in the mid-1980s, but sightings in the Discovery Islands area have skyrocketed in the past decade, turning it into one of the hot spots of activity for the baleen giants in the Salish Sea, said Hildering.

“This area has gone from 23 individual sightings in 2015 to around 100 humpbacks feeding off the Discovery Islands four years later,” Hildering said. “It’s a rare good news story where we didn’t push humpbacks over the edge and they were able to build a population again.”

The surge in humpbacks in the Discovery Islands and waters of northeast Vancouver Island is not due to population growth alone, Hildering said. But whale researchers in the North Pacific area aren’t sure where the new residents are coming from.

One factor affecting humpbacks is climate change, with higher water temperatures potentially changing whales’ food distribution — possibly resulting in nutritional stress and drops in reproduction, as well as shifts in foraging and breeding grounds or migration schedules.

Humpbacks in southeast Alaska experienced steep population drops, along with impacts on reproductive rates, tied to an intense two-year marine heat wave starting in 2014 dubbed The Blob. However, the humpbacks that went missing from Alaska are not the whales showing up in the waters off eastern Vancouver Island, Hildering said.

And those who do turn up face other threats, including boat strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.

Fifty per cent of humpbacks in the region have entanglement scars, Hildering said, noting impacts from boat strikes are harder to determine because whales killed by boats typically sink to the ocean floor.

Nick has scars from clashes with gear and a vessel, but has survived to accompany each of her offspring to her favourite coastal waters for their first visit. Calves only remain with their mothers for a year or so.

One of Nick’s recent calves, nicknamed Splashy and likely born in 2020 in Hawaii, arrived in B.C. that same summer. The young humpback made waves with researchers when it was seen swimming alone near Hornby Island and in nearby waters in the early winter of 2021, raising questions about when and under what conditions young humpbacks separate from their mothers and migrate to warmer waters.

This summer, Nick was accompanied by her most recent calf, Maite, named in memory of an 11-year-old victim of the May mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, who had wanted to be a marine biologist, Hildering said.

The whales come to the Discovery Islands in summer to bulk up on krill and small schooling fish in B.C.’s cool, dark waters before — like many Canadian snowbirds — migrating to spend the winter in Hawaii, Mexico, and possibly, even Central America or Japan.

These destinations feature warmer waters that have less food but are safer nurseries for newly born calves, Hildering said.

Resident whales have specific behaviours and preferred fishing techniques adapted to the region, she added.

The area’s waters are characterized by rapid currents that tend to disperse fish, so humpbacks don’t often employ the famed technique known as “bubble-net feeding” — where whales co-operate to corral a school of fish, with one member blowing a net of bubbles to prevent their prey from escaping.

The region’s humpbacks, a Marine Education Research Society study found, have developed trap feeding, a sort of lazier version of the more commonly used lunge method, where the animals charge a dense school of fish, engulfing them in baleen maws.

With trap feeding, whales lounge on the ocean’s surface with their mouths open, letting small fish and fleeing seabirds seek shelter inside their massive jaws.

The humpbacks then spin or use their flippers to push fish farther into their baleen mouths to secure their meal.

More than 20 area humpbacks rely on this energy-efficient technique when fish don’t form tight schools, the society said.

Knowing humpbacks’ feeding habits and favourite haunts can help recreational boaters and other vessel operators avoid them, Hildering said.

Humpbacks don’t use sonar to hunt and are oblivious to vessels, especially if feeding during the day, and can surface unexpectedly, she said.

Slowing down in humpback hot spots and being on the lookout for other whale indicators — such as flocks of birds on the water or “blow” as the marine giants expel a cloud of moist air when surfacing — helps boat operators avoid collisions with the school-bus-sized marine mammals.

The whales have very random travel patterns, so boaters shouldn’t assume humpbacks will travel in the same direction they were headed on their last observed dive, she said.

One whale nicknamed Inukshuk, who’s been returning to the region since at least 2008, is notorious for resting for long periods on the surface of the water during the day because he tends to feed on krill at night, said Hildering.

That means he “blows” infrequently, and looks remarkably like a log that boaters might not stay far enough away from, she said.

It’s worth taking extra care to protect Inukshuk because he’s also beloved for being one of the region’s most well-known vocalists when he sings during the day.

While all humpbacks vocalize, only males sing the complex songs the species is famous for.

And most other males in the area tend to sing at night and so are harder to identify.

Under Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations, boaters are required to stay at least 100 metres from humpbacks, and double that distance if the whales are at rest or accompanied by calves.

The Marine Education Research Society, however, recommends boaters maintain a 200-metre distance from humpbacks.

“We can act on this incredible privilege of humpbacks coming back to our coasts and having a second chance with them,” Hildering said.

WHAT TO DO IF YOU SEE A HUMPBACK

• Hildering encourages anyone who sees humpbacks in local waters to report the sighting to help researchers identify areas the animals frequent, feeding strategies, survival rates and injuries and how they can be better protected. Use the WhaleReport app, an online form, email at sightings@ocean.org or phone 1-866- I SAW ONE (1-866-472-9663).

• To report a whale in distress, call Fisheries and Oceans Canada at: 1-800-465-4336.

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