Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

Posts tagged ‘Humpback Whale’

At a loss for words . . .

If a photo is worth a 1,000 words, will these 14 photos be worth 14,000?

Will they do more than “capture” a moment in the life of our marine neighbours?

Will they communicate the emotion felt when I pushed the shutter button: the overwhelming awe; the relief of humility, feeling smaller and more insignificant when witnessing the wild; and the gratitude and motivation at having second chances with these ambassadors of our life-sustaining seas?

I add them to the 100s of other photos shared in the hopes that, somehow, they relay what I cannot find the words to adequately express.

Into the world they go – to you.

These 14 photos were taken in less than 24 hours in one small area of the cold current-fed waters around NE Vancouver Island while I was aboard with Maple Leaf Adventures.

First three photos: Humpback Whale “Inukshuk” (BCZ0339) exploding out of the misty water. He was acrobatic for over 15 minutes. Threatened population.

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10453

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10456

Female mature Bald Eagle near nest in lichen-draped Cedars.

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10496

“Sonora” (A42) chasing salmon with her 4 offspring. “Northern Resident” Killer Whales are a Threatened population.

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10537

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10567

Pacific White-Sided Dolphins in mirror-calm seas this morning, socializing in a group of around 300 individuals.

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10637

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10675

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10688

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10692

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10698

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10725

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10648

@2016 Jackie Hildering-10759

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.” 

Extraordinary Privilege – From on high to down deep.

Humpback whale BCY0768 viewed lunge feeding from 700+ feet above the whale. Telephoto and cropped. Photo: Hildering

Do you have 2.5 minutes?

I’ve compressed the highlights of my marine adventures of  that last 24+ hours into a little slide show. What an extraordinary privilege it has been.

Yesterday, while in a helicopter some 1,000 feet above them, I watched humpback whales lunge feed. 

Today, on the way to our weekly dive, there was a bit of a diversion . . . 3 matrilines (family groups) of fish-eating killer whales needed to pass before we could proceed.

While getting into our dive gear, in the sunshine, a few Pacific white-sided dolphins swam by. 

Then . . . there was the dive with so much more beauty and bounty.

Sometimes, I feel like I might explode with the wonder and privilege of it all. 

Thankfully, I have avenues like this to share and to feel like I might be able to make these adventures count; to enhance understanding and conservation for all this beauty and biodiversity.

Please share in the wonder with me.

Click this link to go from high above the northeast Pacific, into her depths.

(Last video in the gallery at this link). 

Diamondback nudibranch (sea slug) among red soft coral, sponge and brooding anemones. This specimen only about 5 cm long. Photo: Hildering

Beethoven the Humpback Whale! What’s in a Name?


We now have a Humpback that we’ll refer to as “Beethoven” thanks to the great creativity of Maureen and Dave Towers of Seasmoke Whale Watching.

Let me explain why we think this nickname is particularly clever.

The convention in assigning a British Columbian catalogue number to Humpback Whales is that it reflects the amount of black or white on the underside of the whale’s tail. 

The Humpbacks are determined to be an:

  • “X” if there is lots of black on the underside of the tail (less than 20% white)
  • “Y”  if there is an intermediate amount of white on the underside of the tail (20 to 80% white); or
  • “Z” if there is lots of white on the underside of the tail (more than 80% white)

For example, BCZ0004 is the 4th Humpback with a lot of white on his/her tail to be photographed in BC and catalogued. 

(Note: Up to 2010, these catalogue numbers would be assigned by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), to which we at the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) would contribute our ID photos. Since 2010, DFO has not catalogued Humpbacks whereby there are now also numbers such as BCZuk2012#3. Please see the end of this blog for an explanation of the “uk”).

BCZ0004?  It’s not such an easy name to remember is it?  So, years ago, we started assigning nicknames to the whales with the guideline that the name should somehow give a clue to the identification of the whale. The hope was that this would help people discern the whales as individuals. For example, I am responsible for giving BCZ004 the nickname “Stripe”.  See the ID page from our MERS Humpback catalogue below and determine if you think this name is fitting.

Click to enlarge. BCZ0004 aka “Stripe”. ID photos from DFO catalogue and Hildering.

Okay , so it’s not a creative name but – it worked!  People associated the stripe-like marking with the whale and could identify “Stripe” as an individual. 

Here you have the female “Chunky”, aka BCX0081.

Click to enlarge. BCX0081 aka “Chunky”. ID photos from DFO catalogue and Hildering.

Not to be confused with “Vader”, aka BCX0989, who also has a distinct v-shaped marking (may the force be with you for this one). 

Click to enlarge. BCX0989 aka “Vader”. ID photo contributed to MERS by Jacqueline McGill.

And then there are the more creative names, like “Niagara” for BCY0057 whose tail has a white spot shaped like a waterfall. 

Click to enlarge. BCY0057 aka “Niagara”. ID photos from DFO catalogue and Dr. Alexandra Morton.

“Pulteney”, aka BCZ0297, has been named with the Pulteney lighthouse in mind. See the lighthouse on BCZ0297’s tail?

Click to enlarge. BCZ0297 aka “Pultney”. ID photo contributed to MERS by Bruce Paterson.

Sometimes, the name may seem even more like taking a Rorschach Test (ink blotch test). For example, see the shape of a bear’s head on the left part of “Yogi’s” tail (aka BCY0409)? 

Click to enlarge. BCY0409 aka “Yogi”. ID photo by Jim Borrowman, Stubbs Island Whale Watching.

For the greater good, we often get local children involved in the naming and as a result have Humpbacks with highly creative nicknames like “Rocket”, “Sprinter”, “Hunter”, “Shark Tooth”, “Barracuda” and “Ashes”.

Otherwise, it is the person who first shares the sighting of the whale with MERS that has the joy of suggesting a fitting nickname. 

Such was the case with Dave and Maureen. They were the first to photograph the whale below on July 19th and relay the sighting to MERS. It is a Humpback that we had not previously sighted in the area. 

Click to enlarge. Photo by Dave Towers, Seasmoke Whale Watching.

See the dot-dot-dot-stripe on the tail?  

While “Dot-Dot-Dot-Stripe” is a very literal name, in musical notation for conductors “dot-dot-dot-stripe” signifies . . . da-da-da-dum. 

Da-da-da-dum!  Like in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony! 

Hence, there is now a Humpback whale nicknamed “Beethoven”.

Thank you Dave and Maureen – a gold star to you!

Note, regarding “uk” codes: Until 2010, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) ultimately assigned a catalogue number to Humpbacks in British Columbia. We at MERS contributed our data for this centralizing cataloguing and would assign a temporary “uk” (unknown) designation for whales not already in the DFO catalogue e.g. BCZuk2012#2 has a mostly black fluke, is not in the 2010 DFO catalogue, and was first documented by MERS in 2012. We are currently (2018) collaborating with colleagues to achieve an updated province-wide catalogue for Humpback Whales sighted off British Columbia’s coast.

The MERS Humpback catalogue can be downloaded via this link. 

Identifying Jumping Giants

This remarkable photo of a humpback whale breaching in front of Campbell River, B.C. was on the July 1st front-page of the Courier Islander newspaper. 

Humpback whale breaches in front of Campbell River on June 24th. Remarkable photo by Caylin Dubé - Oak Bay Marine Group.

As someone who has been working to ID the humpbacks around northern Vancouver Island, I almost jumped as high as that humpback when I saw the photo! I took up contact with the photographer, Caylin Dubé of the Oak Bay Marine Group, hoping she might have images from the June 24th encounter that would allow me to determine who the humpback was. Caylin was extremely generous with her photos, wanting to know who the whale was as much as we at the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) did.

My hunch was quickly confirmed. The ID work of the last 8 years allowed us to conclude that the breaching whale is BCY0291 (DFO catalogue number) who we have nicknamed “KC”. KC is short for “Kelp Creature” but the origin of that name is too long a story to explain here!

We have known this whale since it was a first year calf off the waters of Telegraph Cove in 2002; an area for which this whale has extremely strong site fidelity. However, since last year, KC has also been sighted around Campbell River, only to quickly turn around and swim back to the waters around Telegraph Cove.  We have theories about why s/he might do this but generally – it’s an additional mystery. Although the humpbacks are long-studied and easy to identify as individuals, there is still so much we do not know about these giants that breath the very air we do. For example, KC likely belongs to the population of humpbacks that go to Hawaii to breed in the winter, yet no one knows how the whales navigate to the Hawaiian Islands. 

From the MERS humpback ID catalogue. Fluke ID for BCY0291 aka "KC". Click to enlarge.

From the MERS humpback ID catalogue. Flank IDs for BCY0291 aka "KC". Click to enlarge.

Caylin’s photos also revealed that there was a second humpback with KC. Even without a photo of the underside of the tail (the easy way to identify humpbacks as individuals since the markings and trailing edge of each whale is unique), MERS dedication to also cataloguing flank photographs of the humpbacks allowed us to determine the second humpback very likely was “Arial” (BCY0767) who we also have known since a first year calf in our area in 2007. Very interestingly, these two whales have the same mother but since humpback calves only stay with their moms for a year, to our human knowledge they would not know they were siblings. That these two humpbacks sometimes travel together could be coincidence or not – yet another whale of a mystery to try to solve.

That we at MERS were able to identify the whales from Caylin’s photographs (taken from well beyond the 100 m that boats must stay away from whales) is testament to the value of the great community effort to understand the return of humpback whales to our waters.  We have ID photographs dating back to the 1980s thanks to the relentless vigilance of Dr. Alexandra Morton to understand our marine ecosystem.  Many other ID photographs have been contributed by the whale watching community from Port Hardy to Campbell River (of course taken when following the Be Whale Wise guidelines). Of special note for the consistency and longevity of their contributions is Stubbs Island Whale Watching.

For the work of the Marine Education and Research Society, including our efforts to understand the threat of humpbacks becoming entangled in fishing gear, see  

Below, I include a few more pictures of KC, including the most entertaining ID photo we have ever received – a photo of KC heading in the direction of Campbell River passing the Spirit of the West Adventures kayaking camp. Note the happy humans-in-a-hot-tub in the foreground! Photo by Rick Snowdon of Spirit of the West. 

KC feeding in the area around Telegraph Cove in 2007. Photo: Hildering

KC breaches near Telegraph Cove, July 2nd, 2011. Photo: Hildering

KC heading in the direction of Campbell River in 2010, passing the Spirit of the West Adventures kayaking camp. Photo by Rick Snowdon. Click to enlarge.