Whoosh, gulp, splash: Humpbacks are big hits in Juan de Fuca Strait

It’s humpback heaven in Juan de Fuca Strait with massive humpbacks almost taking the tourism spotlight off killer whales.

“They’re bubble feeding, lunge feeding and breaching like crazy, and they’re bringing their babies here,” said Michael Harris, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, which represents whale-watching companies in the region.

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“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s an unbelievably good conservation story.”

To lunge feed, whales swim rapidly toward schools of small fish with their mouths open, then close their mouths and filter out the water.

Bubble feeding, which is unique to humpbacks, occurs when two or more whales swim in a shrinking circle blowing bubbles beneath a school of fish, forming a net. The whales then suddenly swim up through the bubbles and swallow thousands of fish in one gulp.

Humpbacks, which are listed as threatened, were almost wiped out by whaling around the B.C. and Washington coast, but started returning in 2004 after an absence of nearly four decades.

This year, even marine biologist Anna Hall, science adviser to the Whale Watch Association, is surprised by the numbers.

“We’re seeing them almost every day out there, sometimes doing spectacular things,” she said.

Humpbacks, which can grow to 15 metres and weigh 40 tonnes, put on dramatic displays when they breach — hurling themselves out of the water, twisting in the air and then crashing back into the water.

It is a good sign that humpbacks are now bringing young calves into the area, Hall said.

“The mothers seem to feel this is a safe place to take the calves,” she said. “There appears to be plenty of food to sustain her, while also weaning her baby and teaching it how to feed. This is great news.”

The Washington-based Cascadia Research Collective, a non-profit organization, estimates about 1,600 humpbacks feed off the West Coast, with about 500 of those off Washington and B.C.

They feed from spring to fall before migrating south.

It is believed there are more than 18,000 humpbacks in the North Pacific, up from about 1,500 when whale hunting was banned in 1966.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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