Whales abound this fall


By on December 26, 2013, Three Sheets Northwest

If you’ve been surprised by the flurry of newspaper articles and Facebook posts about whale sightings in the Salish Sea this fall, it’s no fluke… there really have been an unusual number of unusually close encounters with the massive cetaceans in our waters this year.

The Vancouver Sun has the full story. Both recreational and professional whale watchers have been seeing an unusual amount of humpback and orca whales this season.

Some Canadian whale-watching businesses have been holding off from performing annual maintenance haul-outs because business has been so good in this traditional “off” season. Orcas, both transients and members of the Southern Resident pods, have been sighted almost daily off of Victoria.

At the same time, other orca pods have been ranging south through Puget Sound, escorting a ferry carrying artifacts from an archeological site of the Suquamish tribe, bouncing around between Admiralty Inlet and President Point, and generally making their presence known to mariners and waterfront communities through the north Sound. Humpbacks have popped up all up and down the coast, rubbing against whale watching boats here, and even nosing around a sensitive oil removal operation from a sunken hulk in Grenville Channel on the central BC coast.

Although this winter is seeing an unusual surge in whale encounters, the overall trend in the local orca population has been relatively stagnant. From an estimated level of around 200 individuals in the late 1800s, the local resident pod numbers dipped into the upper 60s by the late 1960s, and have slowly climbed to around 90 whales and stayed there for the past decade.

And increased orca sightings may not be a positive indicator overall; the surge in whale activity has coincide with a spike in local harbor seal populations. More food here may be drawing transients in from places where fewer prey than normal are available.

Humpback sightings, on the other hand, are a more unalloyed good sign. The huge mammals have not been widely hunted locally since 1966. The fact that they have returned to local waters in such numbers, says the Pacific Whale Watch Association, may indicate that some of the natural apprehension of human encounters has begun to fade. Several of the huge mammals have approached whale watching craft closely enough that the boats have been forced to shut down their engines and just drift until the whales have lost interest and moved on… anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours. One whale spent the time rubbing its face along the hull of an inflatable.

Whatever the reasons for the visits, it’s been a happy holiday season for the normally slow whale-watching trades.