Whales of British Columbia's Coast – The Largest Mammals

Forty years ago Greenpeace brought attention to the dire plight of the world's great whales. Since 1968, when commercial whaling stopped in B.C., some species have started to recover. Expanded research and greater interest generally have resulted in conservation measures and more thoughtful consumerism, but our cetaeceans still need protection. Whale-watching is a popular aspect of Eco-tourism in B.C., and the demand is growing,

Sperm Whales in B.C.

The Sperm whale is the species most often depicted in story books, with a distinctive blunt forehead and wrinkled dark brown skin. They are carnivores and dive to find their favourite food – giant squid and octopus.

Sperm whales were hunted from 1908 until 1968 for their valuable oil, Spermacetti. Over 6000 Sperm whales were killed by whaling ships during those years. Although they aren't commonly seen off the B.C. coast today, these whales are not considered at risk due to the healthy population in other parts of the world. Perhaps they will become more prevalent near the west coast of Canada again, as are the other large whale species native to B.C.

 

Grey Whales in B.C.

Easily mistaken for large rocks when they are resting just off the beach, Grey whales' skin is mottled and scarred. They have no dorsal fin to draw attention to their back above the surface of the water, but a series of bumps along the spine is distinctive. When the Grey's tail breaks the surface of the water, the graceful shape makes identification easy, but they don't commonly breach.

The coast of B.C. is home to the eastern Grey whale, and since being protected their population has increased to about 20,000, whereas their western cousins have been hunted to near extinction on the other side of the North Pacific. Despite the increase in population, Greys are considered a Special Concern due to environmental threats to their habitat.

Greys are baleen bottom feeders, creating a trench along the bottom of the ocean and filtering out their dinner. Breeding in warm southern waters, eastern Greys migrate north along B.C.'s coast in the spring, to spend summer in Alaska. They have been seen increasingly in the Georgia Strait and among the Discovery Islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland of B.C., with the summer resident Grey whales numbering approximately 80.

The population of eastern Grey whales has stabilized following a rapid increase after the cessation of commercial whaling. The most threatening predator today is the Orca, also known as the Killer Whale. Transient Orcas have an annual organized hunt for Grey whales as they try to pass through False Pass on the way to the Bering Sea. The Killers take about 150 Greys every year and are the subject of research studies today.

Humpback Whales in B.C.

Humpback whales are slowly recovering from over hunting and are considered to be threatened in B.C. although sightings inside Vancouver Island and elsewhere are on the increase. Although sightings are becoming more common, Humpbacks are considered threatened due to human activity such as commercial fishing, commercial shipping, and pollution.

Achieving lengths up to 16 metres, these giants are very impressive as they perform acrobatics, slap the water with their large pectoral fins, and lob their tails. The large and distinctive pectoral fins wave gracefully, and the blow is tall and full. Whale-watchers love these performances.

Humpbacks that are seen along the B.C. coast in summer have usually spent the winter in Hawaii where they breed and calve.

Blue Whales of B.C.

Blue whales are rarely seen along the B.C. coast today, having been over hunted in the past, and currently are considered endangered. It is estimated that about 2000 of the world's population of 10000 Blue whales live along the west coast of North America, with only 200-250 living off the coast of B.C. Some encouraging sightings have occurred since 2009, with an increase of krill due to cyclic cooling in water temperature in the Pacific Ocean.

During whaling years, they were seen most often off the west coast of Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands) and Vancouver Island, and recently sightings have occurred near Langara Island. Blue whales are the largest animals known to have lived on earth, often reaching 25 metres in length, with the largest ever recorded at 30 metres. This massive size is sustained by eating six to eight tonnes of krill every day.

Although the human ear is unable to distinguish the low-range, infrasonic sound made by the Blue whale, it is thought to be the loudest sound produced by an animal. This ability makes it possible for very wide ranging communication within the widely dispersed Blue whale population.

Current dangers to survival of the Blue whale include entanglement in commercial fishing nets, pollution, and climate change that affects their habitat and the availability of krill.