Humpback Comeback!

By Jackie Hildering

Marine Education and Research Society

Tuesday, July 11 2017

North Pacific Humpbacks are recognized as being a threatened population in Canada. They were intensely whaled in British Columbia up to just 52 years ago, only receiving legal protection in 1965 and for many years, it was such a rarity to see them.

But, as many of us who are fortunate enough to live on BC’s coast know, they’re back! They’re back from the brink of extinction giving us a second chance with these awe-inspiring, acrobatic, winged giants.  As an indication of how sudden their return has been, in 2004 we at the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) documented just 7 individuals in our core study area around NE Vancouver Island. In 2016, we documented 90 individuals. Similar trends have been observed in many other areas off our coast, with the province-wide estimate being that well over 2,000 Humpbacks feed here.  

As their numbers increase off the coast of BC, so does their overlap with human activities. Thereby, it is essential that there is increased awareness among coastal British Columbians about the risks Humpbacks face, for the sake of whale AND boater safety. 

Avoiding collision

Humpbacks come to these waters each year to feed on krill and small schooling fish like herring. They have migrated great distances from areas that have little to no food for them and so feeding is incredibly important when they get here. 

Many coastal British Columbians do not realize that baleen whales like Humpbacks do not have biosonar like toothed whales (e.g. Orca) do. They can be extremely oblivious of boats. Thereby, boaters must be extremely vigilant. Humpbacks can surface very unexpectedly and often are not going in a predictable direction. 

It is a focus of our work to increase boater awareness with our “See A Blow? Go Slow!” campaign. Key points to increase safety for both boaters and marine wildlife are summarized below. 

• Be vigilant - whales can surface suddenly and be very unaware of boats. 

•˜Be on the lookout for blows at all times.  

• See a Blow? Go Slow! Reduce speed to 7 knots if 100 to 400m from a whale.

• Increase vigilance and reduce speed in areas of known whale density.

• Give whales space, at least 100m, but consider species size and behaviour when determining a safe distance and stay clear of the whales’ path.

• Be alert for large aggregations of birds and “bait balls” as these are indicators that whales may be feeding in the area. 

• If a whale surfaces within 100m, shut off boat engine until animal is beyond 100m.

• Report incidents e.g. disturbance, collision and entanglement to the Incident Reporting Line: 1-800-465-4336 (or Coast Guard VHF 16). 

• Please also see for further detail including the “Be Whale Wise Guidelines”. 


Our preliminary research conducted in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada indicates that at least half the Humpback Whales off the coast of BC have survived at least one entanglement. We do not know how many get entangled and do not survive. 

Thereby, it is of great importance that coastal British Columbians know what to do, and what NOT to do, if entanglement is witnessed.
• If you see an entangled whale, report it immediately with location to the Incident Reporting Line: 1-800-465-4336 (or Coast Guard VHF 16). 

• If possible, remain with the whale at a distance until trained help arrives or another boat takes over tracking. 

• Never attempt to remove the rope or net .  Not only is this dangerous but it most often does not help the whale. Removing gear trailing at the surface makes the whale more difficult to relocate and reduces the chance of successful disentanglement.

The Marine Education and Research Society is a registered Canadian charity dedicated to promoting conservation and understanding of marine ecosystems through scientific research, environmental education, and marine wildlife response.