Humpback Whales off Vancouver Island’s West Coast

This website is an online catalog of individual humpback whales seen in and near Clayoquot and Barkley Sounds, Vancouver Island. Most of the whales included were found within the range of whale watching boats based in Tofino or Ucluelet. The distribution of humpback whales off Vancouver Island extends beyond this small area, with concentrations found in other coastal locations and on the offshore La Perouse and Swiftsure Banks. Therefore, this is a local catalog.

Humpback whales were, at one time, the most abundant large whale on the British Columbia coast. Years of commercial whaling changed that with nearly 2000 humpbacks killed by coastal whaling operations between 1903 and 1966. By 1966, when humpback whales were declared an endangered species worldwide, there were only a very few remaining.

During the 1970s humpback whales were occasionally reported on La Perouse Bank and elsewhere, but it was not until 20 years later that they began to re-appear inshore. Since the early 1990s, inshore sightings steadily increased from one or two whales a year to a daily occurrence by the 2000s. This apparent increase in abundance and return to old haunts mirrors a rebound of this species throughout the North Pacific. This is the result of a fortunate combination of protection from hunting, a healthy food supply, and a high reproductive potential. The most recent ocean wide survey (2004-2006) estimated that 20,000 humpbacks populate the North Pacific, with 200-400 in the Southern Vancouver Island during those years.

Humpback whales are medium-sized baleen whales with adults 12-15m (35-45 ft), compared to say a 5m (20 ft) minke whale or 30m (90 ft) blue whale. The scientific name for the humpback whale is Megaptera novaeangliae, which means “big winged New Englander,” so named for its long, often white flippers and its classification from specimens from New England. Humpback whales are black to gray in color, have a dorsal fin and “hump-up” when diving, hence their name. Another unique humpback characteristic are the bumps or protuberances on the top of their head which gives them a dill pickle look. And, most importantly for research work, humpbacks have a variety of black and white skin patterns on the underside of their tail flukes which allows permanent identification of individuals with photographs – as seen throughout our catalog.

Humpback whales are a global species, found in all oceans. They make long annual migrations between feeding grounds in colder seas to subtropical and tropical waters where they mate and calve. Once pregnant, the gestation period of a humpback whale is about a year, then the newborn calf stays with its mother another year before weaning. In summer, mothers with several-month-old calves can be seen on the feeding grounds.

Humpback whales are well known for surface acrobatics including breaches where they jump clear of the water, body throws where they throw the rear portion of their body out of the water, and tail and flipper slaps. They are also famous for their songs – featured in several popular human songs – which they sing primarily during the breeding season. Humpback whale songs can sometimes be heard in the fall off Vancouver Island, prior to their winter migration.

In the North Pacific, humpback whale summer feeding grounds are found around the Pacific Rim from Northern California to Northern Japan. Humpback whales show a high degree of site fidelity to specific grounds, that is, the same individuals tend to return to the same feeding area year after year. For example, whales identified off southern Vancouver Island in one summer are likely to return here each year, just as individuals found in SE Alaska will likely be seen year after year in that region, and so on. However, at the same time some degree of interchange occurs between adjacent feeding grounds with, for example, an individual found in Clayoquot Sound one summer may be found in Alaska another summer and vice-versa. The whales in this catalog range along the Vancouver Island coast in concert with the movements of their prey. When the prey leads them into the local Clayoquot and Barkley Sound regions we have the opportunity to observe and identify them.

Humpback whales are food generalists compared to most other whales, in that they feed both on plankton, especially small shrimp-like creatures known as euphausiids or krill, and a variety of small fish such as herring, anchovies and pilchards. The summer months are dedicated almost entirely to feeding as the whales must build energy stores for the whole year. During the migrations and on winter breeding grounds the whales rarely, if ever, feed. In summer the feeding whales are found alone or in loose groups with their specific behavior depending on type, depth and concentration of prey. At times the whales make long dives and feed deep in the water column; at other times they feed on the surface with huge mouth-open lunges to engulf fish. The local humpbacks are likely to break into episodes of breaching, flipper or tail slapping or other surface behavior at just about any time – the purpose of which, beyond exuberance, is not known. Humpback whales also sleep in their summer grounds, and can be found lying motionless on the surface for long periods.

In winter, North Pacific humpback whales migrate to three general breeding areas. These are: 1) in the eastern Pacific along the coast of Mexico including offshore islands and as far south as Costa Rica; 2) in the central Pacific around the main Hawaiian Islands; and 3) in the western Pacific near the southern Japanese Islands of Ogaswara and Okinawa and near Taiwan, and the northern Philippines. Since the late 1970s, the matching of photo-identification pictures – like the ones in this catalog – have led to the discovery of migratory connections between feeding and breeding grounds. We have learned that whales that feed in California, Oregon, Washington and Vancouver Island tend to travel to Mexico and Central America, whales from Vancouver Island to Alaska tend to travel to Hawaii, and those from the western Aleutians, the Bering Sea and Russia migrate to the western Pacific breeding areas in winter. There are exceptions to all of these general routes, with some whales wandering widely and even switching breeding grounds year to year.

Southern Vancouver Island, including Clayoquot and Barkley Sounds, lies more or less on the border between regions where humpback whales generally migrate to Mexico, and where they generally migrate to Hawaii. And, indeed, individuals photo-identified off Vancouver Island have been found in both Mexican and Hawaiian breeding grounds. There is also one whale that was first photo-identified in the Japanese breeding area in winter, then found off Vancouver Island the following summer, Japan again two years later, then off the Washington Coast two years after that – apparently crisscrossing the Pacific on a regular basis. The whales we see in Clayoquot and Barkley Sounds in summer travel far and wide throughout the North Pacific.

This catalog is the result of the efforts of many people who work on the water in Clayoquot and  Barkley Sound who are willing to photo-identify the whales they encounter and share them with the research community. These identifications contribute to both local and international population and behavior studies, as well as, in catalog form, facilitating the comparison with humpback whale identifications from throughout the Pacific, to determine the range and migratory destinations of our local whales.

Jim Darling. Ph.D.