The return of humpback whales to our research area has been dramatic. In 2004, 42 individual humpback whales were identified in the Caamano Sound to Douglas Channel region. By the end of our 2016 season this number was 420 individual identified and many of these return year after year and are referred to as seasonal resident humpback whales. We now sight humpbacks on a daily basis during the field season. Thanks to this high abundance we have been able to gain great insight into the social behaviour and habitat use of this robust cetacean.
Historically, humpback whales were commercially hunted from the late 1800s to 1965. During this time period an estimated 28,000 humpback whales were caught in the North Pacific. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) proposed that the population be listed as “Threatened”, based on low observed densities of humpback whales in British Columbia. This threatened status has recently been re-assessed by COSEWIC and humpbacks have been down-listed to a species of “Special Concern” due to the increase in the population. This re-assessment is being challenged by a number of researchers.
The social relationships humpbacks have developed with each other are through direct experience and by choice, and not necessarily due to family bonds. Humpbacks have displayed many aspects of their unique behaviour in our research area. Many of which are essential skills that mothers teach their calves, enabling them to survive independently into the following season.
Many people have shared with us their personal encounters with these gentle giants. Though each story is different, the theme remains the same, a moment in time where you feel completely connected and aware of the intelligence of these whales. This website is an effort to demonstrate the absolute wonder of humpback whales and an opportunity for you, the public, to play a role in the identification and protection of these magnificent creatures. Hopefully, the expansion of public awareness will create an overall global passion and understanding for humpback whales, thus to marvel at the astounding beauty of their size and the complexity of their mysterious song that has evolved over many centuries.
We are very fortunate in our research area as the most common form of foraging is bubble net feeding. During this feeding display they will cooperate in groups from 2 to 15 individuals. Once every whale has taken a dive the true work begins, hundreds of feet below the surface.
The humpback whale is a migratory species feeding from spring through fall in high-latitude nutrient rich waters. In early winter they migrate to sub-tropical and tropical waters for calving and breeding. They do not feed during this winter migration. Every fall we know that one by one they will slowly begin their annual migration south.
For more than 40 years, researchers have been following a complex underwater song that is constantly shifting and reshaping as each season passes. This song, which can range anywhere from 10-30 minutes long, is performed solely by male humpback whales -- but for a reason that currently eludes scientists.
Having evolved for the past 38 million years suspended underwater, the way that whales engage with and use sound is unimaginably different from the way that we humans interact with our terrestrial surroundings. Since their development under the sea however, the structures responsible for sound creation and perception in whales have changed significantly. In contrast to many terrestrial species that depend mostly on a combination of visual and auditory cues, cetaceans rely primarily on sound vibrations to navigate through the depths of the ocean.
Each whale has a unique pattern on the underside of its tail fluke, which can be used as a fingerprint, allowing researchers to identify individual whales. In the years that we have been living among these whales, we have learned that each whale, like our species, are clearly distinct individuals; and that their uniqueness extends beyond their distinguishing fluke patterns shown in the subsequent photographs. Our hope is that this catalogue is a first step towards discovering and appreciating the individual personas of these magnificent humpback whales.
In collaboration with other whale research groups in British Columbia, we are building a coast-wide identification catalogue for humpback whales. This project will enable us to understand the broader picture in regards to habitat use and social relationships of humpback whales. This project is a great example of how working together, researchers will have the opportunity to gain insight into the life of a marine mammal that not only travels great distances from day to day but spends most of the time out our sight, beneath the surface.