As humpback whale mothers arrive in the Salish Sea with newborn calves at their sides, one pair in particular is drawing intense interest.
Poptart, a seven-year-old female, has returned from the birthing grounds in Hawaii with her first calf. Poptart’s legendary mother, affectionately known as Big Mama, was the first whale to help repopulate the Salish Sea after humpbacks were decimated by commercial whaling a century ago.
Big Mama, or BCY0324, was spotted near Race Rocks in 1997 and returned with a calf in 2003. She’s been spotted every year since and over the years has brought seven calves to the Salish Sea, six of which return to feed in the rich waters here.
From Big Mama’s offspring have come six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
Erin Gless of the Pacific Whale Watch Association said the latest birth in the line is a reason to celebrate.
“Thirty years ago we didn’t have humpbacks in the Salish Sea, so she was the first to come back,” said Gless. “Now Poptart has brought her first calf back and that’s pretty special because a lot of us remember when Poptart was born.”
Poptart got her name from her habit of breaching completely out of the water, reminding whale watchers of the popular breakfast pastry popping out of a toaster, said Gless. The name stuck, and Poptart has become one of the most well-known humpback whales in the region.
Big Mama isn’t finished repopulating the humpbacks, either. Last spring, she brought her seventh calf back to the Salish Sea. And she’s been spotted again in the area this year after returning from Hawaii.
Val Shore, a naturalist with Victoria-based Eagle Wing Tours, said Big Mama’s return to local waters “happens like clockwork around May 1 and it’s the unofficial start to humpback season.” She slipped into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and was seen heading north into the Strait of Georgia.
Shore said humpback whales show strong “site fidelity.” It’s believed they pass information to their offspring, including migratory paths from breeding grounds in Hawaii and Mexico to feeding grounds in the North Pacific.
Once they split from their mothers, usually after a year, the offspring usually return to the same locations on either end of the migration route because that’s all they know, said Shore.
In the years following 2003, more adult humpbacks trickled into the Salish Sea. Watchers believe Big Mama spread the word to other humpbacks that she had discovered a great feeding ground.
Since Big Mama’s first visit, more than 500 individual humpbacks have been documented in the Salish Sea over the summer and fall.
Joining Poptart this spring are new moms BCY0523, or Graze, and BCX1675, known as Strike, who also gave birth to calves in 2019 and 2021. Humpbacks usually give birth every two to three years.
More are expected to follow in the coming weeks, said Gless.
In 2022, 396 individual humpbacks were documented in the waters around Vancouver Island, an increase from the 293 humpbacks recorded in the same area five years ago and the highest number in a single year since record-keeping started more than two decades ago, according to the Humpback Whales of the Salish Sea Project..
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