By Melanie Stirling

The waters that surround the coastlines of British Columbia are teeming with marine life. Some of which are often referred to as the gentle giants of the sea. That’s right, we’re talking about whales!

The main whale species that spend a lot of their time in the cold North Pacific waters of British Columbia include humpback, orca, minke, grey, and fin whales. Within the last few months, there has been quite a bit of news surrounding humpbacks, orcas, and even rare sightings of sei whales!

 

Humpback Comeback

Humpback whales have been spotted left, right, and centre around Vancouver Island lately and have researchers calling it the “humpback comeback.” Over twenty years ago, a single humpback whale was spotted in the region. Now, this number has climbed to more than 500 documented individuals.

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Humpback mother and her calf swimming alongside one another. Photo: Tui De Roy, Minden Pictures.

This is believed to be the direct result of humpback whales being granted protection from hunting in the North Pacific back in 1965. This resulted in Vancouver Island’s Coal Harbour Station closing shortly after, ultimately ending commercial whaling operations in British Columbia. These whales are such a necessity for healthy oceans, mixing, distributing nutrients and helping deal with the impacts of climate change. Although we still have to treat any notion of ‘recovery’ in a precautionary way, here’s hoping humpback whale populations will continue to increase moving forward.

 

Sei Whales’ Triumphant Return

Another species of whale that has made an unprecedented return to British Columbia waters is the sei whale! In mid-July, a rare sighting of nearly thirty sei whales was reported by a team of marine biologists 300km offshore of central Vancouver Island.

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Sei whale mother and her calf swimming alongside one another. Photo: Nature Canada.

With the population of these whales being eradicated by the whaling industry up until 1967, sei whales are now considered to be endangered and have landed on the list of species at risk in Canada. With only ten documented sightings in Canadian Pacific waters within the past fifty years, this extremely rare sighting could be another sign of the positive consequences of ending commercial whaling.

 

Something Fishy Happening With Orcas

Orcas are actually the largest member of the dolphin family; however, they are often the species that people think of first when it comes to large marine mammals of British Columbia. There are three kinds of orca whales that glide through British Columbia waters: the Northern and Southern residents, transients, and the offshores. The Northern and Southern resident orcas stay around the cold waters of Vancouver Island and the Washington islands and have been making a splash in recent news this summer.

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Single orca breaching. Photo: Martin Kirschner, Flickr.

Southern killer whales consist of three pods; J, K, and L, and unlike the “humpback comeback” mentioned earlier, these whales have had a very late return to the Salish Sea, with J pod finally making their return after being absent for 108 days

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J pod swimming together. Photo: John Forde and Jennifer Steven, The Whale Centre.

Scientists have noted that their recent behaviours have been ‘atypical’ and have hypothesized that these orcas had left the area in search of other locations that are more plentiful of chinook salmon, their main food source. With these whales facing their lowest numbers since the 1970s, researchers are voicing their concerns about changes in the ecosystem and food availability for these endangered whales. 

 

With salmon being a cold-water fish and the current record-breaking increase in summer temperatures, they have been battling lethal conditions. These conditions include warmer water containing less oxygen, therefore, making it harder for them to breathe, reports of their bodies being covered with red lesions and white fungus due to stress from the heat, and ultimately halting their migration.

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Salmon with red lesions and white fungus on their bodies due to stress from warmer water temperatures.
Photo: Columbia Riverkeeper.

As a result, some salmon don’t survive the journey to spawn, and those that beat the odds and survive, may produce less viable offspring. Low salmon populations directly affect other species and have many environmentalists calling for increased habitat protection for salmon to help with the recovery and return of orca whales.

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Salmon habitat sign for Roy Creek in British Columbia. Photo: James Wood/98.9 The Goat/Vista Radio.

Every Action Has a Reaction

Climate change isn’t the only consequence that impacts life below the surface; noise pollution is also of great concern. Noise pollution has been known to cause major physiological and behavioural effects and stressors on whales, affecting their ability to find food and mates, damaging their ears and other organs, and even resulting in death.

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Boat traffic consisting of two BC Ferries and one boat near Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal in West Vancouver.
Photo: Aezoss, Flickr.

Due to COVID-19, boating and border restrictions were put into place, presenting the chance to see how a reduction in human activity on the water affects marine life. It was found that compared to 2019, noise power levels in the Strait of Georgia decreased by almost 50% during the first three months of 2020. This reminds us of how large of an impact we have on the environment and the wildlife that reside there.

 

How You Can Help Whales

There are many ways you can help whales moving forward. Reducing your CO2 emissions is a great action to take as these emissions lead to ocean acidification and rising water temperatures. Voice your opposition to commercial whaling! Take time to educate yourself and others about the threats whales face; try watching a documentary such as Sonic Sea and A Plastic Ocean. Research Marine Mammal Regulations and stay up to date on minimum distance from wildlife laws, such as keeping at least 400 metres from all orcas in southern British Columbia waters to ensure protection from noise pollution and ship strikes. Take a look at the Marine Education and Research Society’s “See a blow, go slow!” campaign to discover how to report a whale in distress, who to call for help, and how to be a responsible and safe vessel operator in the presence of marine wildlife.

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Marine Education and Research Society's "See a blow, go slow!" campaign sign. Photo: Marine Education and Research Society.

You can also use the free Swim Guide app to report any pollution on the water that you see, helping to ensure cleaner and safer waterways. Looking for a hands-on way to help? Volunteer with our Fraser Riverkeeper Vancouver Water Monitoring program and help to collect water samples and categorize waste collected by our Seabins! By participating you might even spot some amazing sea creatures like herons, seals, or, who knows, maybe even a whale!

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Fraser Riverkeeper Vancouver Water Monitoring team and volunteers collecting water samples. Photo: Fraser Riverkeeper.

These initiatives focus on testing water quality and making the results public, and categorizing waste to better understand the health of our waterways and how they’re being impacted. To sign up for volunteer shifts, click here!

 

We at Fraser Riverkeeper, a Vancouver-based subsidiary of Swim Drink Fish, encourage you to take action with us to work towards a future with swimmable, drinkable, and fishable water for everyone, including our friendly giants of the sea.

 

Sources

  1. How a whale named Big Mama spurred a 'humpback comeback' in BC waters - BC | Globalnews.ca 
  2. Whaling | WildWhales
  3. 10 good reasons to not kill whales (as if you needed them)
  4. 25 to 30 Sei whales spotted off Island, not seen in such numbers for decades
  5. Dozens of rare sei whales spotted by researchers in 'unprecedented' sighting off B.C.'s coast  
  6. Orca 
  7. J-Pod returns to Salish Sea after 'unprecedented' 108-day absence 
  8. Southern Resident orca near Washington state presumed dead 
  9. Salmon are getting cooked by climate change. Here's how they could be saved 
  10. Video shows salmon injured by unlivable water temperatures after heatwave 
  11. Coronavirus pandemic slowdown has made the oceans quieter, which has been good for whales 
  12. The COVID-19 Slowdown's Effect on Killer Whales | Science
  13. 40 Ways to Save the Whales on our 40th Anniversary 
  14. Watching marine wildlife
  15. Marine Education and Research Society
  16. Orca pod makes rare appearance in Vancouver's False Creek | Globalnews.ca.
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