May 24, 2024

The Humpbacks are Back

Humpback whale dives in Fitz Hugh Sound

The voyage to Fitz Hugh Sound on the BC coast is about 250 miles from Vancouver but is probably one of the most worthwhile trips to make of the entire coastline. Not only is the scenery spectacular, the anchorages pristine and the beaches stunning but the return of the humpback whales to area is truly inspiring.

It used to be, back in the 1980s, that sightings of humpback whales were rare in B.C. waters. If you wanted to see humpbacks, you had to head north to their summer feeding grounds in Alaska. Since then, humpbacks have returned to local waters in steadily increasing numbers. Each summer these large whales are regularly sighted in several areas of the B.C. coast, including Juan de Fuca Strait and the north end of Johnstone Strait. But one of the best places to view these magnificent mammals is just north of Cape Caution, in Fitz Hugh Sound, where sightings are a daily occurrence in the summer months.

Cruising in Fitz Hugh Sound there can be several sightings of humpback whales feeding every day in summer months.

For boaters out on the water, the first sign of a feeding humpback is a plume of mist, which indicates the whale is surfacing for air. Often a humpback will surface several times, its back appearing briefly above the water, before it performs a deep dive with its tail straight up above the water. Sometimes a humpback will, without warning, heave itself clear out of the water and land, belly-flop style, with a gigantic splash. In the past, when humpbacks were hunted by commercial whalers, their surface activity and near-to-shore feeding made them easy targets. Protected since 1966, the humpback’s acrobatics – breaching, lobtailing, diving – now thrill whale watchers armed with cameras.

Humpbacks are not aggressive, although rival males will sometimes smack one another with their barnacle-studded tails. However, due to a humpback’s unpredictability and immense size, boaters should be careful not to get too close to one of these gentle giants. There have been incidents in which displacement boats have been bumped by one of these whales or of fast-moving powerboats colliding with one. Because humpbacks often seem unaware of vessels in their vicinity, concerns are being raised about their safety should oil tanker traffic increase on the B.C. coast. A study recently released by the federal government on the recovery strategy for humpback whales cites shipping traffic as a threat to their critical habitat.

The number of humpbacks now feeding each summer in B.C. waters is estimated to be about 2,000. Whatever the exact number, the species is experiencing a slow but steady growth in population. As winter approaches, the North Pacific humpbacks head south to spend their winters in Hawaii or Mexico. While in tropical waters, they engage in mating rituals. This is when the males serenade the females with repeated patterns of sound, these ‘songs’ performed at depths of 60 feet or more. The winter is also when the females give birth following a 12-month gestation period. Calves are born without a blubber layer and nurse on their mother’s milk, which contains 50 percent butter fat.

When a humpback reaches adulthood, it is on average 45 feet long and weighs up to 40 tons. Its large flippers provide maneuverability and the pleats on the sides of its mouth can create a pouch large enough to hold six adult humans. When feeding, a humpback blows columns of bubbles that create a ring around a school of fish, which it then lunges at with its mouth wide open. Sea birds, attracted by the water disturbance, feed on the krill and herring swimming to the surface. Such bird activity is another sign for alert boaters to watch for when cruising in waters we share with the humpback whales.

Avatar photo About Anne Vipond

Anne Vipond is the author of several guidebooks to cruising destinations around the world. She draws on an extensive sailing background to impart her enthusiasm for cruise travel. From her home port of Vancouver, she travels by cruise ship to a wide range of destinations to keep her books current and useful for her cruise readers. Her cruising articles have been published in magazines and newspapers throughout North America and over seas.