Ocean giant in the Strait of Georgia
As long as two full-sized school buses parked bumper to bumper, the sleek, streamlined fin whale is an impressive sight to see. While the fin whale may come in second to the blue whale in the size category, they are known as the “greyhounds of the sea,” capable of reaching speeds of nearly 50 kilometres per hour in quick bursts – that’s faster than any other baleen whale.
These remarkable animals can be found along our coast, but are often unfamiliar to most British Columbians because of their preference for the open waters of the central and north coasts. Indeed, the only fin whales most south-coasters would have had the chance to see were the two that came into Vancouver Harbour draped across the bulbous bow of separate cruise ships after being accidentally hit. Unfortunately, fin whales are listed as threatened by the Species at Risk Act in Canada.
Since fin whale sightings are so rare in southern inside waters, you can imagine our surprise at the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network when a report came in last week of a fin whale near Nanaimo!
All reports that come in to the Network are checked by a staff member to confirm details and establish identification accuracy. A sighting of a fin whale in the Strait of Georgia would cause us to be a tad dubious and have more than a few questions. Our first assumption normally would be that the animal is actually a minke whale, a much smaller species (maximum length of only 10 metres) that has similar characteristics to a fin but is more commonly spotted in the Strait of Georgia. However, this report came with a special addition: a photo.
The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” often rings true when it comes to deciphering species identification, and while the photo was taken in low light and only shows a portion of the animal, it was still enough to conclude that the observer had it right! It showed a long, slender back with a falcate (curved) dorsal fin that rose at a low angle from the back. Its sheer size was not only described by the observer as “nearly 60 feet,” but was also evident in the photo by the distance between the dorsal fin and the blowholes.
This is our first report of a fin whale in the Strait of Georgia, but isn’t the only sighting of this particular fin whale. In fact, what is likely the same animal was spotted a few days later on September 14th in Hoskyns Channel and then again on Sept 19th outside of Telegraph Cove in Johnstone Strait. Identification was done by Jared Towers of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Fins were also spotted around Johnstone Strait in early August this year and in September 2011.
Fin whale sightings are on the rise in B.C. as their populations rebound post-whaling. Like many large baleen whale species, fin whales were targeted by commercial whaling stations. A review of historical whaling records by Gregr in 2000 reported that at least 7605 fin whales were taken between 1908 and 1967 in B.C. waters.
While their numbers appear to be increasing after such devestation, fin whales are facing new threats in the 21st century, including ship strikes. Jensen and Silber found in their 2004 study that fin whales are the species most reported as hit by vessels. Why this species is so vulnerable to ship strikes is not yet clear, but better understanding the distribution of fin whales along the B.C. coast is a key component to potentially mitigating this issue. On the east coast of Canada, shipping lanes have actually been moved to protect endangered whale species.