By Doug Sandilands

In the early 1900s, Bowen Island was a popular tourist destination, with tours running regularly from Vancouver. Tourists would board steamer ships operated by Captain Jack A. Cates, manager of the Terminal Steamship Company. Frequently, the ships would stop to watch humpback whales that frequented these waters.

Although this population of humpbacks in Georgia Strait and Howe Sound had been hunted sporadically in the late 1800s by whaling sailing ships using hand- thrown harpoons, the population that was here year round in the early 1900s numbered at least 95. However, in 1907, the Pacific Whaling Company established a whaling station in Page’s Lagoon (now Piper’s Lagoon at the north end of Nanaimo), using modern hunting techniques; steam-powered ships and explosive-fired harpoons. In response, Captain Cates wrote his Member of Parliament in protest of the Pacific Whaling Company’s hunting of humpback whales in Howe Sound.

He wrote:
“It is only natural to say that everything that lives should be allowed a certain amount of protection and I might say that by the extermination of these whales from the waters of Howe Sound it would seriously interfere with our Local Trade”

Despite Captain Cates efforts, by 1908, the whalers had taken 95 whales and virtually no humpbacks were seen in the Georgia Strait for nearly 100 years. In total, from 1905 until whaling ceased in 1967, whalers took over 5600 humpbacks along the BC coast. The first sightings of humpbacks came in 1976 and 78 in Puget Sound, with a third in 1986.

Comeback of the Humpback

Since the late 1990s, in particular, humpback whales have begun to rebound from whaling. Since 2004, an international and inter-agency project known as SPLASH (the Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks) has identified 387 individual humpback whales that now inhabit BC’s waters. Each year more of these whales spend time in the Georgia Strait. Throughout the winter of 2007/2008, reports of humpback whales continued to trickle, mainly around Powell River and Nanaimo. One unconfirmed report of a humpback whale in Howe Sound is, perhaps, the first winter humpback sighting in Howe Sound since 1908.