— Jenny Neill

Humpbacks in the Salish Sea

The boat gives off a low putt-putter and hum. My fingers clutch the metal railing while my eyes scan the Strait of Juan de Fuca, near Victoria, BC. A few feet below the surface something enormous, like an oil slick made solid, slides by.

Our captain stops the catamaran. A gentle breeze ripples the water as my tour mates and I wait hoping to see the whale again. Broad and black, the backs of two humpbacks emerge. The smaller one, a male, swims fast enough for his eddy to froth white while the female lingers, her movement creating smooth waves.

Almost as fast as they appeared, he goes under again. His form blurs as he circles her. Swirls appear in the shape of an infinity sign as he dives deeper, out of our view.

Then, his spine, shiny and sleek, breaks the surface once more. A half-beat later, the tiny dorsal fin pokes up as he completes his distinctive humping arch. The two submerge together as if performing a synchronized routine.

Two humpback whales diving

Ron Bates, the naturalist on my Five Star tour, explained that frequent reports of baleen (toothless) whales this close to Victoria are still unusual. A glimpse like ours of these marine mammoths was once a rarity that would flood regional newspapers with reports.

Now known as Salish Sea, a name officially recognized in 2009 by Canadian and American authorities, this strait is one of three large bodies of water to which these creatures are returning. Once completely gone from the Straits of Georgia and San Juan de Fuca, the recovery of humpbacks began with the 1966 international moratorium on commercial whaling. Now estimated to be 17-20,000 strong worldwide, as many as 8-10% travel through these waterways again. Each year for the past decade, sightings here have been on the rise including as far south as locations within the Puget Sound.

Aside from the hum of the idling motor and the distant “quaw quaw” of seagulls, the group is silent. It’s as if we are holding our collective breath, as if speaking out loud will scare them away.

All eyes follow the wide, low waves that show us they are still in the vicinity, traveling in widening loops underwater. Thought not to be aggressive with humans, humpbacks are known to intentionally pass close to vessels. “They’ll occasionally even rub the hull of a boat,” said Research Biologist John Calambokidis. This behavior is one reason that approaching too closely can put both watchers and whales in danger.

Anna Hall, a captain for Prince of Whales explains, “I talk as much to our competitors’ captains over the radio as I do to those who work for my own company.” This cooperative radio communication extends to tour operators warning pleasure boats about the presence of large marine mammals. Ship strikes still top the list of threats to Salish Sea wildlife.

Patience pays off once more. A creature a little longer than half the length of the female skims the surface. A juvenile! The two adults come up, one on each side of the juvie. In an excited hush, our tour guide describes what we are witnessing: A mother and her male escort, perhaps defending his breeding attachment to her, are training the calf where to feed.

Submerging fluke of humpback whale with Mount Baker in the background

Commercial fisherman Geoff Lebon reports when the bait balls (schools of prey fish) are plentiful, there will be “…a lot of humpies too.” Research done by Linda Nichols and Ed Gregr on the history of whaling in British Columbia supports this contemporary observation. Our current location, just southwest of Albert Head, is an area rich with underwater kelp, the basis of a sea forest ecosystem rich with krill and many other species marine mammals consume.

The catamaran remains stationary for another 10 minutes while the trio surface and circle each other and the boat. Light filters through a thin layer of clouds. Those with cameras record digital mementos of what has become, for me, an unforgettable hour.

Want to identify that whale in your Pacific Northwest vacation photo?
Check the identifcation catalogs available online at the Center for Whale Research.

Take a tour from May through October:

Want to watch from shore?
Stay informed of sightings by following these Pacific Northwest web sites and blogs:

Note: This article is based on a tour taken in October of 2010.
Photo Credit: Mike Russell. All rights reserved. © 2011