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There she blows: Whales of Howe Sound

there-she-blows-minke-whales

Last week our deck dining was interrupted by the unmistakable sound of whale blow. I turned in time to watch two humpbacks ever so close to shore finish their breath and submerge

Earlier in the day neighbours had reported whales off Hopkins Beach, Howe Sound BC so my brain made the immediate connection to what was happening. I then watched as a third humpback broke the surface before disappearing.  We heard one more blow moments later, although the view was now hidden by trees. With binoculars in hand we raced toward the Hopkins shoreline only to find the whales hidden by the immensity of the sound and its islands.

The last three years have been exciting for cetacean lovers of Howe Sound with sightings of Grey, Orca and Humpbacks on the rise in addition to improved sightings by the dive community of fish and invertebrates. According to new report undertaken by the Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute (CORI), after a century of "industrial management and abuse......the sound shows signs of a remarkable recovery.” And, although still vulnerable to the combined pressures of industry, development, shipping and fishing the outcomes are encouraging. For the first time in a century Salmon were found in Brittania Creek. And, while perhaps this recovery owes itself to expensive remediation efforts by industry and Government (ultimately BC taxpayers), the results are nonetheless rewarding. These sentiments echoed by research undertaken by the David Suzuki Foundation’s “Measuring the return on Howe Sound’s Ecosystem Assets.”

http://www.davidsuzuki.org/publications/downloads/SoundInvestment-HoweSoundEcosystemAssets.pdf

Whales sightings in Howe Sound are still infrequent compared to sightings in waters offshore from other British Columbia waterways. In pllaces such as Tofino / Pacific Rim National Park the numbers of migrating Grey whales each March / April, the are astonishing.  The waters off Haida Gwaii and in Queen Charlotte Sound boast numersou species each summer as the whales gather to forage. Another notable hotspot is Johnstone Strait, undoubtedly the best place in the world to kayak or be in the water among Orcas from mid-July through to early September.

My own love affair with whales began about 30 years ago after meeting New Lynas in a 4’th year Zoology course at the University of Toronto.  He had already been conducting research on finback whales of the St. Lawrence for two decades.  After graduation, we combined efforts to launch voluntourism program that combined tourism with whale research for one week periods in July and August.  The location was three and a half hours northeast of Quebec City in a magical place called Bergeronnes.  The local population under 700 persons, swells in the summer months to witness the return of the whales that gather in the St. Lawrence River to feed in the nutrient rich waters near the confluence with the Saquenay River.

Aside from the Belugas whales who are year-round residents, other species arrive in mid-June.  The waters host the return of several species of whales and dolphins. 

For one week during three separate summers, I travelled to Bergeronnes to spend time among the whales with the other volunteers.

Each day we would leave the dock on half-day sessions in zodiacs, small motor vessels and even a historic schooner.  On the very first outing, after barely leaving the dock when the first minke appeared.  At 25 ft it would be the smallest of the baleen whales we would encounter.  During one outing, a minke whale swam underneath the zodiac we were in.  25 feet seems much larger from this perspective.

On most days, we were “whale waiting”, sitting or standing and waiting for various whales to surface between feeding intervals.  After a time, we began to know when to expect the whale to reappear.  Where, was another matter as the whales could dive to deep depths and surfaced a long distance from where they were last observed.

Finback whales, the second largest animals on the planet are quite plentiful here.  Due to their adept feeding methods, they quickly became my favourite whales.  Groups of them would often feed together, circling the krill and plankton and often travelling at great speeds to trap the prey in their baleen.

It was during my third summer session that the most memorable event occurred. Eight blue whales, the largest animals alive, and maybe the largest that have ever lived on the planet, were feeding near the village.  They are up to 110 feet long and can weigh nearly 200 tonnes.  One surfaced just 40 meters away - the force of its blow resembling a large explosion.  For half a day, we watched them take short dives and every so often fluke their tails as they began a deep dive.  And then, silence as we waited another 20 or so minutes for a hopeful re-appearance.

9 Hot Spots for whale waiting in Canadian Waters

  1. Bergeronnes / Tadoussac, QC
  2. St Ann’s Bank / Cape Breton, NS
  3. Strait of Belle Isle, NL
  4. Witless Bay / Trinity, NLs 
  5. Churchill, MB
  6. Lancaster Sound, NU
  7. Pacific Rim National Park / Tofino, BC
  8. Port McNeill / Telegraph Cove / Johnstone Strait, BC
  9. Haida Gwaii, BC / Queen Charlotte Strait, BC
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