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Posts from the ‘Humpback Whale’ category

Bubbling Giants: Humpback Whales Bubble-Net Feeding

This is going to be worth the 4 minutes of viewing believe me!

Humpback Whales have many complex feeding strategies. In areas where current and birds do not force the feed together, there are Humpbacks that work as a team to corral the fish. This strategy includes an intense feeding call and making a net of bubbles.

This video was taken while I was with Pacific Wild in Caamano Sound off British Columbia’s Central Coast.

This is exactly the area where there is the potential of increased tanker traffic.

Knowing how important this area is – not only for at-risk Humpback, Fin and Killer Whales; but for human health and so much more – is a huge motivator to do all I can do reduce the demand for fossil fuels.

For more on the feeding strategies of Humpback Whales, please see our Marine Education and Research Society research at this link. It includes that we have published on a never-before-documented strategy we have dubbed “trap-feeding”.

And They Spread Their Giant Wing-Like Fins . . .

TMD Memes.001

And they spread their giant wing-like fins . . . and returned from the brink.

The whales remind us of our great capacity for positive change . . . when our value systems change and knowledge, connection and humility replace fear and misunderstanding.

The simple solution? Care More. Consume Less.

There are still so many ways to indirectly kill a whale and damage the life-sustaining seas upon which we all depend.

Image is of “Jigger” the mature female Humpback Whale who breached for 18 minutes. More images below.

You simply can’t be the same after seeing something like this, nor would I want to be.

What triggered this behaviour may have been an encounter with another Humpback (“Slash” BCX0177″) but we cannot know for sure.

For the work of our Marine Education and Research Society, please see here and yes, you can support our work by sponsoring a Humpback Whale!

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Thank Goodness for Second Chances . . . .

It’s Canadian Thanksgiving and I am overwhelmed with depth of gratitude and purpose.

It is an extraordinary privilege to be able to live the life I do and I want so much for it to count.

Thank you dear readers for helping to amplify the beauty, mystery and fragility into the world so that there may be more understanding that there is no divide between land and sea and how our daily actions regarding chemical and energy use connect us – no matter how far away from this place you are.

The photo below is from two days ago – “Frosty” the Humpback Whale in Johnstone Strait, NE Vancouver Island.

To think we could have lost these glorious, majestic, mysterious, winged, singing, acrobatic ambassadors of our life-sustaining seas . . . .

Thank goodness for second chances.

Frosty the Humpback Whale (BCX1187) in Johnstone Strait, October 11, 2014. Just outside Telegraph Cove. Blinkhorn Light in the background. ©Jackie Hildering.

Frosty the Humpback Whale (BCX1187) in Johnstone Strait, October 11, 2014. Just outside Telegraph Cove. Blinkhorn Light in the background. ©Jackie Hildering.

“Posturing” Humpback Whales?

Some experiences are best shared in photos. So here you have 20 images documenting the marvel of how 2 humpback whales interacted with one another for more than an hour. Huge energy was expended by both whales in head lobbing, lobtailing, pectoral fin slapping, and breaching. Back and forth it went, the sounds resounding above and under the water in the Great Bear Sea around Caamano Sound (proposed tanker route).

I witnessed this while with Pacific Wild as an educator for the SEAS program (Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards).

What was this humpback whale exchange about?  In this case, I really don’t know.

One of the two humpbacks that was incredibly surface active ©Jackie Hildering. All photos Telephoto and cropped.

One of the two humpbacks that was incredibly surface active ©Jackie Hildering. All photos telephoto and cropped.

I have had the privilege of learning from these giants for more than a decade now and have seen such exchanges in all sorts of contexts.

I reference the behaviour as “posturing” since the whales appear to making a display to one another. Outside of play behaviour and learning in young animals, my interpretation is that these incredibly powerful surface active displays between whales may serve the purpose of:

  • Delivering a clear “I’m big don’t mess with me” message to a perceived threat e.g. the presence of mammal-eating killer whales (“Bigg’s”/”transients) or the vocals of fish-eating killer whales (“residents”) to which the humpbacks are not habituated;
  • Communicating the presence of a perceived threat to other humpback whales since the slaps of humpback fins and bodies resound underwater;
  • Striving to display dominance / greater vigour to other humpbacks which may be particularly relevant for mating;
  • Possibly establishing spacing between humpbacks; and/or
  • Some sort of social function that leads to them ultimately joining up and swimming away together as was the case in exchange for which I provide the photos below.

Here we go. Photos provided in chronological order.

Almost simultaneously, when both whales were within 200 m of one another, Humpback 1 (lots of barnacles and smaller but too big to be the 2nd whale’s calf) started breaching and Humpback 2 (larger) started lobtailing. [Note, there were also two other humpbacks in the area but at a greater distance away and they were not surface active.]

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 starts breaching. ©Jackie Hildering. All photos telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 starts tail-lobbing. ©Jackie Hildering. All photos telephoto and cropped.

Humpback #1 then began repeatedly head-lobbing, advancing away from Humpback 2.

 All photos telephoto and cropped ©2014 Jackie Hildering.

Humpback 1 head-lobbing. All photos telephoto and cropped ©2014 Jackie Hildering.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 continues to be very surface active.  ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 continues to be very surface active. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 still at it. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 breaching. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Some more head lobbing from Humpback 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Some more head lobbing from Humpback 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

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Leandrea, intern at Pacific Wild, listening to how the slaps of fins and body could be heard underwater.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Whale 1 not done yet. Breaching here. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Half an hour later, Whale 2 advanced from the position where the exchange with Whale 1 began. S/he head-lobbed and breached down the same track as Whale 1.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 head-lobbing, advancing down from where the exchange with Whale 1 began. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 – more head lobbing. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback  2 – head lobbing and moving toward Whale 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback  2. See his/her eye? ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback  2. Imagine the energy expended to lob his/her body like this. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 continues in the direction of Whale 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback  2. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Shortly after this, s/he joined with Humpback 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 only stopped this highly surface active behaviour after half an hour when close to Humpback 1. And then . . . . then they joined up very close together and swam back in the direction that exchange had begun. What was it all about?!

With these whales being on the Central Coast, I am relaying fluke and dorsal photos to the wonderful Janie Wray and Herman Meuter of Cetacea Lab to find out if they might know the identities of the whales involved in this exchange. They are not known to us at the Marine Education and Research Society.

But will we ever know for sure what such a display was about? In having the extraordinary privilege of learning from the marine environment, one of my most valued lessons is to recognize how little we know and thereby to have the correct humility and precaution in decisions about marine resources.

Humpback whales are giants, they are easy to identify as individuals, they have been studied for some 40 years and still there is so very much we don’t know – including the benefit of expending so much energy in such an exchange.


For related information see my previous blog “Might As Well Jump

For an ethogram of humpback whale behaviours from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, see here.

Heart for Whales

Apologies for a longer absence here. It has been a full summer of marine research, education and inspiration.

I will have the joy of sharing much with you in the coming months.

For now – three remarkable images taken in the last months where the whales’ blows are heart-shaped.

With whales being ambassadors for marine ecosystems in so many ways, these images may be particularly engaging – suggesting that we should love the Oceans as if our lives depend on them because  . . . they do!

5-year-old humpback whale "Moonstar" (BCY0768) with heart-shaped blow. Threatened population © 2013 Jackie Hildering

September 2013 – 5-year-old humpback whale “Moonstar” (BCY0768) with heart-shaped blow. Threatened population. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Member of the I15 matriline of "northern resident" (inshore fish-eating) orca with heart-shaped blow. Threatened population. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

September 2013 – Member of the I15 matriline of “northern resident” (inshore fish-eating) orca with heart-shaped blow. Threatened population. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

October 2013 - Heart-shaped blow from humpback "Flash". © 2013 Jackie Hildering

October 2013 – Heart-shaped blow from humpback “Flash”. © 2013 Jackie Hildering

Also to make your heart sing, see the clip below (or access it at this link). I was able to capture the vocals of northern residents AND humpbacks from one of the most mind-blowing days I have ever had the privilege of experiencing on the water. Enjoy!

[These images and video were previously shared on the TMD FaceBook page].

Mind-Blowing Crittercam Video – Humpback Calf Nursing Underwater and Watching Mother Group Bubble-Net

Update October 26, 2018. Additional Crittercam video of a calf nursing from CNRS/ Cétamada recorded on the breeding ground on the east coast of Madagascar at Ste Marie Island.


Update December 19, 2012: The National Geographic video I had posted below has been pulled from YouTube.
Explanation from D.Gold who posted it there:
“Note to The Marine Detective and readers: Sorry to say, I removed this video from my youtube account today. I received a request. National Geographic has plans for broadcasting the footage. A scientist and producer asked that I take the youtube down for now. The quality will be much better when you see it on their channel anyway. I think they picked up on this getting a fair amount of attention thru this website and the social media in the past week. The reason I posted the video is expressed perfectly by the Marine Detective’s blog post, “Mind-Blowing Crittercam Video – Humpback Calf Nursing Underwater and Watching Mother Group Bubble-Net”.  . . I feel much the same as you do  . . .. I wanted to share the education of this presentation on my channel, but alas, this particular youtube will not be available. Keep searching and hopefully Nat Geo will show “The most goose-bump inducing, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring, consciousness-raising” footage.: “

Screen grab from

Crittercam video screen grab showing humpback calf nursing underwater.  Screen grab from Birgit Buhleier’s presentation.

My original post December 9, 2012:

The most goose-bump inducing, mind-blowing, awe-inspiring, consciousness-raising video I have ever seen I viewed in October 2009 in Quebec at the 18th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, and I have been waiting for it to appear on-line ever since.

Today, I found it and think it will have the same impact on you.

The quality of the video is not ideal as it is the result of someone filming the original footage but – it will do!

What you will see, starting at time-stamp 2:50 is the result of Dr.Fred Sharpe’s research team having, rather randomly, put a Crittercam (camera on a suction cup) on a humpback whale calf in Alaska.

Video screen grab of calf with Crittercam watching mother and 11 other adult humpbacks cooperative bubble-net feeding.

Crittercam video screen grab of calf watching his mother and 11 other adult humpbacks cooperative bubble-net feeding.

In 6 minutes of video, the 6 to 7 month-old calf “gifts” the world with the following:

  • Footage of him nursing underwater which reveals how synchronized this is, with mother tapping her calf with her tail seemingly to signal “and stop now”.  You will even see the calf burp and, with streams of milk streaming past the calf, you will gain an understanding of how rich and copious the milk must be to support the incredible growth rate of baleen babies.
  • Then, at timestamp 5:48, you’ll see what caused the large international crowd of marine mammal scientists to collectively gasp when Fred Sharp shared this with us in 2009. The calf settles down at the ocean bottom at around 150 ‘ (46 m) and watches specter-like shapes rise to the surface  . . . adult humpback whales, including mom, cooperative bubble-net feeding.

Only 6 minutes of video – such depth revealed.

The presentation that had been filmed was given by Birgit Buhleier, National Geographic’s naturalist and underwater video producer,  aboard the National Geographic vessel “Sea Lion” in SE Alaska in the summer of 2012.

Please if you find the footage somewhere else, let me know!  

Time stamp: 2:50 – Humpback calf nursing underwater; 5:48 calf watching mother group bubble net-feeding

Views from the Mast

How high can you get in seeing dolphins and humpbacks?

Captain Tavish Campbell knows.

The 1.5 minute clip below reveals his unique perspective from atop the 100′ mast of the beautiful schooner Maple Leaf.

From on high, he shares with us the view of hundreds of Pacific white-sided dolphins and a bubble-netting humpback whale.

I have the joy of sometimes serving as naturalist for Maple Leaf Adventures with Tavish. He allowed me to put together this clip for the David Suzuki Foundation’s Ocean Stories Campaign, both of us hoping that the breathtaking beauty might inspire people to undertake more positive action to protect the great biodiversity of the North Pacific.

What’s your Ocean Story?  You can help inspire connection and positive change by sharing your story with DSF up to midnight on October 31st. 

When a Giant Falls . . . and people care.

© 2012 Caitlin Birdsall

This photo is of the juvenile male humpback whale that died in the early morning hours of June 12th on a beach in White Rock (some 40 km south of Vancouver).

Fellow Marine Education Research Society (MERS) director, Caitlin Birdsall was on site in her capacity with the British Columbia Cetacean Sightings Network and I have been haunted by her photos ever since she shared them with me.

While the images stir deep despair, they are also achingly beautiful and fill me with a great depth of hope.

People cared enough to place flowers on the deceased little whale.

People cared enough to stand in awe and respect.

People  . . . cared.

With this little whale dying on a beach in an urban centre, great public concern and national media attention were attracted, creating a potent opportunity for education.

The death of this whale illuminates how little we know about marine life, even the ocean’s giants.

Had anyone seen the whale before?  To date, no one has been able to identify this whale as an individual and thereby determine where he might have come from. We at MERS were not able to find this whale in our catalogue nor in that of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

How did the whale die?  The whale had an excruciatingly slow death from starvation due to entanglement in fishing gear. The gear had lacerated into the whale’s skin and had cut deep into the whale’s mouth. Ultimately, the young emaciated humpback became stuck on the beach at low tide and died there.

What type of fishing gear killed the whale? Fishing gear that was unfamiliar to local experts. Scott Landry, from the Provincetown Centre for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts, is one of the world’s foremost experts on entanglement and he shared with MERS director Christie McMillan that the line was very likely from offshore longline fisheries and was more difficult to recognize because the hooks had been in the water so long, they had corroded off the lines. Let’s truly absorb that for a moment – the whale may have been entangled so long that he outlasted the hooks on the fishing line.

Do humpback whales get entangled often? Entanglement is identified as a threat in the Recovery Strategy for the North Pacific Humpback Whale in Canada but the threat is very poorly understood.  Therefore, we at the Marine Education and Research Society have undertaken an entanglement scar study to determine how often humpback whale entanglement might occur. British Columbia’s vast coastline and relatively new Marine Mammal Response Network unquestionably lead to many undetected and unreported entanglements. Even in the Gulf of Maine where there is a well-established reporting network, studies have determined that less than 10% of large whale entanglements are witnessed or reported and only a fraction of deaths are detected. Scar studies in Southeast Alaska suggest that up to 78% of humpbacks are entangled at some point in their lives.

Are there solutions?  Humpback whales of the North Pacific must continue to receive protection under the Species at Risk Act. They are currently listed as “Threatened” but a 2011 assessment suggests they could be down-listed to being of “Special Concern”.  This is premature. Not enough is known about the population structure of the North Pacific humpbacks, let alone about threats such as entanglement.  With a better understanding of the incidence of entanglement, fisheries regulations could be adapted including gear modifications that allow nets and lines to break-away.

But the lessons here go beyond those relating specifically to humpbacks and to entanglement.

This “case” of an unidentified juvenile humpback dying in on a beach in an urban centre after months of agony, undetected and unreported, testifies to how little we know about our oceans and how easy it is to kill a giant, even with a bit of stray human-made fishing line.

The key to saving whales and the ecosystems for which they are ambassadors, is to retain the humility and connectedness we feel when we see pictures like this, letting it impact our consumer and electoral choices and our value systems.  We too often act as if we know it all; that we will be able to “manage” even unknown human impacts; and therefore, we relentlessly assault the oceans in favour of short-term economies.

Thanks to the efforts of many volunteers, coordinated by Jim and Mary Borrowman, this little humpback’s skeleton will come to hang in Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Centre. Maybe the powerful photograph will hang life-size behind it, adding to the potential of this whale’s death leading to some sort of positive gain for the environment and therefore . . . for ourselves.



  • Neilson, J. L., J. M. Straley, C. M. Gabriele and S. Hills. 2009. Non-lethal entanglement of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in fishing gear in northern Southeast Alaska.Journal of Biogeography 36:452–464.
  • Robbins, J. and D.K. Mattila. 2001. Monitoring entanglements of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the Gulf of Maine on the basis of caudal peduncle scarring. Unpublished Report to the 53rd Scientific Committee Meeting of the International Whaling Commission. Hammersmith, London. Document number SC/53/NAH25.
  • Robbins, J. and D.K. Mattila. 2004. Estimating humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) entanglement rates on the basis of scar evidence. Report to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Order number 43ENNF030121. 22 pp.
  • Robbins, J. 2009 Scar-based inference into Gulf of Maine humpback whale entanglement: 2003-2006, pp. 40: Report to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Order Number EA133F04SE0998.
Blog item by Jake Etzkorn of the Living Ocean’s Society on the work on this whale’s body so that the skeleton and baleen can be used for conservation and education purposes in Telegraph Cove’s Whale Interpretive Center.
Article stating origin of the fishing gear has not been determined. The Province; July 13, 2012;” Origin of the fishing gear that killed White Rock humpback unknown.” 

Strand of the fishing line that led to the death of the whale. © 2012 Caitlin Birdsall. Click to enlarge.

The Vancouver Aquarium’s Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard takes questions from media. © 2012 Caitlin Birdsall. Click to enlarge.

© 2012 Caitlin Birdsall. Click to enlarge.

Of Angels and Argonauts?

T’is the season for reflection. It is the time of year where, the nebulous, undefinable but essential life forces of hope, love and spirituality may burn brightest.

So for you, I share the following story.

I emphasize that this is an atypical blog item for The Marine Detective and I have had to wrestle my left brain into submission to write it. I am very fearful too of feeding the monster of human need to get up close and personal to whales and claim a “piece” of them.

With that preamble and context – I give you this story for Christmas:

In the fall of 2011, while aboard with Orcella Expeditions and talking about my whale research with the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS), I explained how and why we nickname Humpback Whales.

In short, we nickname the whales for a feature on their flukes since the scientific alphanumeric names (e.g. BCZ0297)  are much more difficult to remember. [See my past blog item “What’s in a Name” for a more detailed explanation including photos of nicknamed Humpbacks.]

Where we can, we like to have local school children nickname the whales for reasons I am sure you understand.

BCY0729. Note the marking in the shape of an “A” on the left fluke. Photo: Hildering.

But that day, just after talking about the Humpbacks, I learned of the death of man who loved the sea – a man of depth and creativity who should still walk among us. I heard about Jason from his father Cliff, whose eyes of course told more about the pain, loss and love of his son than words could.  I had only recently met Cliff and never had the privilege of knowing Jason. 

Immediately, I thought of the Humpback Whale BCY0729 who has a marking on his left fluke that looks very much like the letter “A”. 

As an exception to having children name the whales, I decided we could nickname this whale “Argonaut” in honour of Jason. [if unclear about the association between “Jason” and “Argonauts”, please click here].

It was a simple thing to do. We had a good nickname for the whale and Cliff and his family had some comfort in the sentiment and symbolization of a whale being nicknamed for Jason. 

That was September 3rd, 2011. Below, email correspondence to Jason’s father on September 22nd.

“Cliff, I got goosebumps today and had tears in my eyes.
 And – you’re going to get the same.
I saw Argonaut today, for the first time since September 30th, 2010. He was very near Telegraph Cove feeding in the area with another juvenile whale that we have named “Guardian” because there is an angel-like marking on this whale’s tail (rimmed in a yellowish shade). 
You’ll see from the photos that it was a very wet and misty day . . . beautiful. I was on a school trip [for Stubbs Island Whale Watching] with a group of local First Nations school children . . . I shared the story of Argonaut with them and of course, it moved them.”

Argonaut on September 22nd, 2011. Photo: Hildering.

Guardian on September 22nd, 2011. Photo: Hildering.

Guardian on September 9th, 2011. The image shows the yellow angel-like shape around the centre of the fluke. Photo: Leah Thorpe, MERS. Leah also nicknamed Guardian.

I saw Argonaut and Guardian every other day I went out up to October 30th, 2011. They were not always right beside one another but they were within the same general area. 

Does this have any significance beyond two Humpback Whales with distinctly marked tails feeding together?  The beauty is, I’ll never know, no matter how much data I collect.

There is “something” about whales that I use almost daily to try to engage and motivate and frankly, plea with people to get their heads out of their bottoms and realize that their daily frivolous actions (and inactions) collectively cause such needless environmental damage.

Coincidence such as this story of “Angels and Argonauts” is the kind of thing that throws my structured-science-oriented left brain into discussion with my philosophical-reflective right brain about the undefinable and intangible.  But something both sides of my brain agree upon . . .  these giant sentient beings inspire marvel and wonder and hope and comfort and, so often . . . they inspire us gangly bipeds to understand connectedness and the truly important things in life.  

May the greatness we sense from whales inspire us to bigger things that benefit society and the environment. 

Merry Christmas readers.

I leave you with this sound clip of Jason singing “With or Without You” – a small indication of the depth of the man who loved the sea. Click here to listen.

Update December 2014: Since writing this blog in 2011, Argonaut has become one of the most predictably sighted whales in our area. Guardian too is seen very predictably but is rarely with Argonaut. When Cliff came back in 2013 hoping to see the whale named in honour of his son, we spotted Argonaut within minutes of being on the water.

Update July 2016: Argonaut is now part of our Marine Education and Research Society’s Humpback Sponsorship Program as a means of funding research and education to reduce threats to whales like Argonaut. Please see here.

Argonaut lunge feeding on September 28, 2011. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut at sunset on October 7th, 2011. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut tail-slapping August 2012. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut tail-slapping August 2012. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut breaching October 2013. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut breaching October 2013. Photo: Hildering

Argonaut October 2014. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut October 2014. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut on September 27, 2015. Photo: Hildering.

Argonaut September 27, 2015. Photo: Hildering.

Might As Well Jump

When serving as a marine naturalist, one of the questions I am most often asked about whales is “Why do they jump?”

When whales jump it is called “breaching” and the answer to why they do it is not a simple one. Why whales do something depends on context; there is not just one trigger for breaching. This is no different than interpreting human behaviour. For example, if someone is tapping their foot, it could indicate irritation, having an itch, impatience or hearing a good tune!

The breaching of whales can be related to socializing, feeding, mating, communication and/or defence. Of course, when whale calves breach, it  is often related to “play” behaviour which leads to good brain development and coordination. Ultimately,  I believe that the high energy behaviour of breaching must somehow lead to a gain in food and/or increased success in passing on DNA.

Let me share two very specific and recent “cases” of breaching with you; one of which was witnessed by many residents of Alert Bay.

While out in our area with Orcella Expeditions last week, we saw an adult humpback whale breach some 30 times and also witnessed a mature male mammal-eating killer whale (“transient” or “Biggs killer whale”) breach within 30 meters of Alert Bay’s shoreline.

I have never seen anything quite like these two awe-inspiring events.

Humpback whale, ‘KC” on August 30th, 2011. One of the some 30 times he breached in less than 2 hours. Photo: Hildering

The humpback that breached so often was “KC” (BCY0291) who was born in 2002. Initially, I believe the breaching was triggered by the presence of highly vocal fish-eating killer whales (“residents”). Humpbacks do not have teeth with which to defend themselves  but they do have whale barnacle studded fins and a whole helluva lot of heft to throw around so even the mammal-eating type of killer whales very rarely interact with adult humpbacks.

My interpretation is that KC was not habituated to the killer whale dialect he heard that day (I15 and I31 calls) and was making sure he made clear “do NOT mess with me!”. He was posturing to the killer whales. After his killer whale encounter,  he turned around and came upon another humpback whale and again started breaching and making very forceful exhalations called “trumpeting”. Was this communication to the other whale about the presence of the killer whales?  Was it related to a dominance display that may have to do with mating?  I may never know for sure but it is very interesting that KC’s incredible bout of breaching seemed to lead to other humpbacks breaching as well.

Mature male mammal-eating killer whale “Siwash” breaching in front of Alert Bay on August 31, 2011. Photo: Hildering.

And then . .  there was the mind-blowing, highly witnessed breaching of the 27 year-old killer whale “Siwash” (aka T10B ) in front of Alert Bay. Siwash was travelling with a group of 20+ other mammal-eating killer whales. As mammal-eaters, this type of killer whale has to be stealthy and unpredictable and therefore, they are most often far less vocal and surface active than the fish-eating killer whales. This certainly wasn’t the case as they bounded past Alert Bay last Wednesday evening! They were swimming on their backs; fin slapping and travelling right past the shore; calves were “cat and mousing” small diving birds – whacking them around; and there were even male sex organs to be seen at the surface!

What was going on?  Let me state the obvious – they were socializing. Their bellies must have been full enough to allow them to throw stealth to the wind. These particular whales would most often not travel together so the socializing might even be related to mating.

But ultimately . . . in trying to understand the behaviour of these sentient beings, we have to have the humility to accept that we  may only ever have hypotheses for why they do what they do. It is the stuff of awe and wonder that the mighty Max̱’inux̱ were so visible to the very people that have such a strong cultural connection to them, as they swam by Alert Bay  . . . . “Home of the Killer Whale.”