The Dramatic Return of Discovery Island Humpback Whales (First published in Surge Currents, August 2019)
WHEN CAPTAIN GEORGE VANCOUVER first visited the Discovery Islands in 1792, he had this to say about the marine life around his ship: “Numberless whales enjoying the season, were playing about the ship in every direction.”
While Vancouver didn’t identify the kind of whale he was observing, they were most likely Humpbacks. Along with the Humpbacks, he would have observed Biggs orcas— sometimes referred to as “transient orcas.” There may have been smaller numbers of other whale species present as well.
Humpback whales are about 60-feet long (20 metres), or about the size of a school bus. An adult can weigh 60 tons and are considered a medium- to large-sized whale. They are prolific breachers, meaning they can launch themselves almost fully out of the water at any time. Boaters need to be vigilant—give those whales lots of space!
Humpback whale (Photo by Whit Welles)
In the time before electricity and the discovery of fossil fuel, whale oil filled an important niche for Western civilization. While all parts of whales were used for various products, the most sought after was its blubber, which was “rendered” to supply oil for lamp lights, and later to supply fine machine oil to lubricate the machinery of the industrial revolution.
When people of European descent first arrived on the BC coast, the extraordinary numbers of whales inhabiting the protected waters of the inner south coast didn’t go unnoticed. It might be accurate to say that BC’s first industry wasn’t logging, but whaling.
In the mid-1800s the concept of sustainable resource management wasn’t in anyone’s vocabulary. Whether trees, whales, salmon or land, it was a no-holds-barred race to take as much as anyone could get. So, in the spirit of the day in 1869, a whaler by the name of James Dawson arrived in the Discovery Islands and the commercial whale hunt was on. In that same year, in order to facilitate the fledging whaling industry, Governor James Douglas established the Discovery Islands first “town” on Cortes Island, called Whaletown, and it was to this location that the whales were towed and processed.
While no official whaling records have been found, estimates suggest about 300 whales were taken from the Discovery Islands (and Desolation Sound) between 1869 and 1870. In two short years, the entire sub-population of Humpback whales was literally hunted to extinction—an extinction that would last for 150 years. After killing off all the whales in the Discovery Islands, Dawson moved his rendering plant to Whaling Station Bay on Hornby Island. In less than four years after they began whaling in the northern Salish Sea, the company went bankrupt for lack of whales.
In the northeast Pacific—the section of ocean bordered by northern California, stretching to southeast Alaska and halfway west across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii—pre-whaling estimates put the Humpback population at about 18,000 to 20,000. By the time Humpbacks were finally protected in the mid-1960s, there were fewer than 1200 left and Vancouver Island’s last whaling station at Coal Harbour closed, probably forever.
According to the DFO, Humpback populations off coastal BC are now up around 3,000 individuals, with somewhere between 100 to 200 frequenting the waters between the Discovery Islands and Cape Caution. In 2018, Discovery Island Humpback populations came in at about 50-60, but most observers agree that numbers are higher in 2019. Still, this pales in comparison to pre-contact times. Should the Humpback population recover to historic highs, expect three to four times as many whales here.
Why are the whales returning? Most researchers believe that Humpback numbers have increased sufficiently making it inevitable the whales would re-discover their old feeding grounds. Although Humpbacks feed on a variety of things, from krill to small fish, they are most likely feeding on herring while they are here—about two tons every day. It’s worth noting that if the local herring fishery isn’t catching its quota, odds are good the Humpbacks aren’t getting theirs either, which might ultimately limit the recovery.
Humpback whales use several “tools” to help them herd, corral, and disorient prey, including bubbles, sounds, the seafloor, and even pectoral fins. One specific feeding method, called “bubble net feeding,” involves using curtains of air bubbles to herd prey. Once the fish are corralled and pushed toward the surface, the whales lunge upward through the bubble net with open mouths engulfing their prey. Differ- ent groups of Humpback whales use other bubble structures in similar ways, though, there appears to be regional “specializations” in bubble-feeding behavior among pop- ulations.
The Humpbacks of the Discovery Islands arrive from their winter calving grounds in Mexico by late May. While they are away, they fast nearly the entire time. They travel all the way from Baja to the Discovery Islands to feed. The cold, oxygen- and nutrient-rich waters of the northeast Pacific produce the small fish and krill they need to sustain themselves for the entire year. By the onset of autumn, like many Canadians, they begin their southward journey to Mexico once again.
On the East Coast of Vancouver Island, First Nations did not normally hunt whales. Whales were culturally important, but the only known petroglyph on Cortes Island is a nine-foot-long carving of a whale, pecked on a huge granite boulder. Whaling seems to have been much more important to West Coast First Nations, like the Nuu Chah Nulth.
—Ralph Keller, August 2019