By Caitlin Birdsall

In March 2008 Wild Whales reported the exciting news that after nearly 100 years, humpback whales were making a comeback to Howe Sound and the lower Strait of Georgia. The original population that used this area year round, estimated to be approximately 100 animals, was wiped out by commercial whaling in the early 1900s. Luckily, with the cessation of whaling throughout North America, and the resulting rebound of humpback populations, it appears that they may once again frequent the waters of Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia.

Further evidence of the remarkable comeback in the area was seen again this September when one, or possibly two, humpbacks caused quite a stir in Howe Sound. Five separate reports of the whale(s) were sent in from residents of Gambier, Bowen and Squamish. The first report came in on September 12th from Bowen Island. Later that evening, a humpback (possibly the same animal) was spotted at the north end of the Sound near Squamish, an area that normally sees very little cetacean activity. The following day, several reports came in of a humpback off the east side of Gambier Island. See the sidebar for a map of these sightings.

While it is uncertain how many whales were in the area without proper individual identification, the presence of even one humpback this September, coupled with the sightings in 2008, is evidence that this area may once again be used by these impressive creatures. However, the primary objective for humpbacks while in northern waters is feeding prior to their long migrations to the tropics. Whether Howe Sound has sufficient food resources for these animals remains to be seen. Humpbacks are baleen whales that feed on small prey, primarily small schooling fish as well as krill. The Howe Sound Research Group, headed by Dr. Jeff Marliave of the Vancouver Aquarium, regularly surveys the area for groundfish, and while they have seen some krill in the Sound this September, there was very little in the way of baitfish.

Howe Sound and Strait of Georgia area has changed drastically in the past 100 years since humpbacks once used these waters. Increased boat traffic, changes in fish populations, marine debris and underwater noise may put these whales at greater risk of vessel strikes, entanglements or disturbance of essential activities. To ensure this area continues to be a safe place for all cetaceans, you can:

–  Take care of your ocean backyard! Pick up debris, join shoreline clean-ups, and properly dispose of your trash.

–  Support healthy ecosystems in Howe Sound! Check out the Howe Sound Research Group to learn more about this area of the BC Coast.

–  Be Whale Wise on the water. Slow down and give all cetaceans a wide berth so as to reduce disturbance.

–  Report your sightings! The more we know about whale, dolphin and porpoise activity in the area and around the coast, the better we can plan for and conserve these species. Multiple sightings of the same animal can be hugely useful, as seen above, so make sure you report everything you see!