• Humpback whales are believed to number more than 20,000 in the North Pacific, with at least 2,145 of those calling coastal waters in British Columbia home

    Humpback whales are believed to number more than 20,000 in the North Pacific, with at least 2,145 of those calling coastal waters in British Columbia home. (Photo: Kyle Blaney)

NORTH PACIFIC HUMPBACK WHALE
Megaptera novaeangliae
SARA status: Threatened
Weight: 34 to 45 t
Length: 13 to 14 m
Offspring: 1 every 2 years
Lifespan: 50 years

Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic. Photo-identified whale locations from “Recovery Potential Assessment of the Humpback Whale, Pacific Population, Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat Science Advisory Report 2009/048,” P6, Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Sightings east of Nanaimo represent documented sightings between 1993 and 2008, from Wild Whales (wildwhales.org)

Hunting humpback whales was easy. They’re creatures of habit, returning to the same coastal waters each year, and they’re known for making themselves conspicuous by frequently breaching, lunging and slapping the water’s surface with their large flukes and flippers.

When the International Whaling Commission ended unrestricted commercial whaling of the giants in 1965, the once-mighty North Pacific population had been reduced to fewer than 1,500 — between five and 10 per cent of their historic numbers. From 1908 to 1967, whalers took more than 5,600 humpbacks for their blubber, meat and bone in British Columbian waters alone.

Today, the North Pacific population of humpbacks is estimated at more than 20,000. Knowledge of those frequenting Canada’s Pacific Coast waters may be even less precise, though it’s thought the B.C. populations are now at least 2,145 whales strong.

Entanglement in fishing equipment, collisions with fast ships and the risk of oil spills from higher tanker traffic in coastal waters are among the most common ongoing threats to Canada’s Pacific humpbacks. Although the species is still classified as threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, its steady recovery means that experts are suggesting downgrading its status to special concern.

The mark of a success story, certainly, but as John Ford, head of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s cetacean research program explains, “that doesn’t mean ‘no concern.’ It means the recovery strategy that was developed will turn into a management plan, with many of the same efforts to monitor the population still in place.”