MERS Humpback Whale Research

1. Introduction to Humpback Whales
2. Photo Identification Research
3. Threats to Humpback Whales
Houdini ID shot
BCX0022 ("Houdini")
Stripe ID shot
BCZ0004 ("Stripe")

1. Humpback Whales:

At around 15 metres long and 40 tonnes, humpback whales are one of the largest whales commonly seen in British Columbia. They are easily recognizable by their long flippers (up to 1/3 the length of their entire bodies), their large, black-and-white tail flukes, and the series of bumps on their heads, known as tubercles (see the Cetacean Sightings Network website for further information on recognizing humpback whales).

Most humpback whales spend summers in cool, temperate waters and winters in warmer, tropical waters. The whales' activities vary seasonally; summers are spent feeding, while winter is the time for mating and calving. Female humpback whales only have one calf at a time, and usually only once every two to three years. Calves nurse for about one year, and then are almost never seen with their mothers again. There is little food for humpback whales in warm waters, so after calves are born, humpback whales migrate toward more temperate areas. Temperate waters have higher nutrient and oxygen content, and can therefore support more of the krill and small schooling fish that humpback whales feed on.

Humpback whales in the North Pacific Ocean do not all go to the same places to feed and calve. The SPLASH project, which stands for the Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpbacks, suggests that most of the humpback whales that feed in northern B.C. in summer head to Hawaii in the winter to mate and have their calves, while the humpbacks that spend their summers feeding off southern B.C., Washington, and Oregon are more likely to be found in Mexico in winter.

Because calves only stay with their mothers for about a year, they only have one chance to learn migration routes from summer feeding grounds to winter breeding areas. This means that individual humpback whales are very likely to migrate to the same areas that they were first taken to by their mothers, leading to high "site fidelity," or the tendency for the same individual whales to be seen in the same area year after year.

humpback whale blow
The breath or "blow" is one of the easiest ways to spot humpback whales from a distance
A humpback whale's head, showing its tubercles
A humpback whale flipper

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2. MERS Photo Identification Research:

Humpback whales, like almost every other species of large whale, have been the target of intensive hunting around the world, including off Northern Vancouver Island. Coal Harbour, on the northwestern coast of Vancouver Island, was the site of a whaling station that operated from 1947 to 1967. Whalers from this station targeted the humpback whales around Northern Vancouver Island until this group of whales was completely decimated.

The first records of humpback whales returning to the Northeastern Vancouver Island area after the end of commercial whaling are from the early 1980's (the work of Dr. Alexandra Morton). Humpback whale sightings around Northern Vancouver Island remained infrequent, however, until 2004. MERS researchers, helped by Stubbs Island Whale Watching and other members of the whale watching, research, and Northern Vancouver Island communities, have been documenting the return of the humpback whales to these waters since that time. We have been collecting data to help us understand their population structure, habitat use, and the threats to their population.

Individual humpback whales can be identified by the pattern and shape of the underside of their tails and by shape of their dorsal fins. The tails (also called "flukes") range from being all black to all white, and have unique trailing edges. MERS researchers have created and maintain a catalogue of each of the individual humpback whales that has been seen in our study area. We also collaborate with a province-wide catalogue and database maintained by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), to learn more about humpback whale habitat use and distribution throughout the province. By cataloguing the humpback whales in this way, we can keep track of individual whales over time, and can learn about their movements, calving rates, life expectancies, and more.

KC breaching
BCY0291 ("KC"), breaching
Houdini and Arial
Humpback whale mother "Houdini" (BCX0022) with her calf "Arial" (BCY0767) in 2007.
Tail flukes of humpback whales range from being all white to all black. This is the fluke of BCY0057 ("Niagara")

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3. MERS Research into Threats to Humpback Whales:

North Pacific humpback whale populations have been expanding since the end of commercial whaling, but these whales are still negatively impacted by anthropogenic (human-caused) threats. Humpback whales in British Columbia are listed as "Threatened" under the Species at Risk Act, and according to the Recovery Strategy for North Pacific humpback whales in Canada, three major threats to this population include entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, and potential prey shortage.

1) Entanglement in fishing gear - Humpback whales, along with other cetaceans, can experience injuries and even death by becoming tangled up in fishing gear. This threat, which is likely to be a problem in any area where high densities of whales overlap with intensive fishing effort, is currently poorly understood in British Columbia. B.C.'s coastline is huge and most of it is very remote; this makes it likely that many entanglement events go unseen and unreported.

Off northern Vancouver Island alone, we know of multiple humpback whale entanglement events, including one individual, BCY0710 ("Twister"), who became entangled twice in a period of three weeks in 2009. Luckily, MERS researchers, along with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Cetus Research and Conservation Society, were able to free "Twister" from the fishing gear both times, and this whale returned to our area in the summer of 2010. He/she had a few scars left over from the entanglements, but seemed to otherwise be healthy.

Not all entangled humpback whales are so lucky, however. Some, like "Canuck" a whale that was seen entangled in the Strait of Georgia in 2011, was reported entangled but responders were unable to free this whale from fishing gear, and Canuck's health deteriorated. Click here for more information about Canuck. For other whales, entanglements can result in death before anyone sees, reports, or responds to the incident.

Recognizing the seriousness of this threat to humpback whales, MERS researchers are currently studying the problem of entanglement for humpbacks in British Columbia. In addition to documenting any entanglements that we witness, we also look for certain types of scarring and injuries on whales' bodies that entanglements leave behind, and this is starting to give us a more complete picture of the scope of this threat to humpback whales in B.C. See our Wildlife Response page for more information about how MERS is working to reduce the threat of entanglement for marine wildlife.

Twister entanglement
BCY0710 ("Twister") became entangled in fishing gear twice in 2009. The orange buoys seen in this photo are part of the fishing gear entangling Twister.
Twister head
A close-up of Twister's head, showing the entanglement
Twister in 2010
After two successful disentanglements, Twister was seen feeding off Northern Vancouver Island in 2010

2) Vessel strikes - Although it is known that humpback whales are affected by vessel strikes, the scope of this threat is also poorly understood in BC. Knowing the humpback whales that spend time feeding off northern Vancouver Island allows MERS researchers to learn more about the number, severity, locations, and long-term effects of these strikes. See our Wildlife Response page for more details.

Slash injuries
The parallel cuts seen here on the back of BCY0177 ("Slash) are indications of a recent ship strike. Slash was first photographed off northern Vancouver Island in 2006 with these raw injuries. She survived the incident, and was seen with a calf in 2008.
Houdini 06 calf
This is the tail of Houdini's 2006 calf, after he or she was hit by a boat in the summer of 2006. Not long after this photo was taken, the calf disappeared, and has not been re-sighted since. Photo credit: Chantelle Tucker
Slash in 2013
Slash the humpback whale, seven years after her vessel strike injuries occurred.

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3) Potential prey shortage - Because humpback whales spend their winters in warm, nutrient-poor waters, they must obtain all of the energy that they require for an entire year while they are in cool, temperate waters like BC. MERS has been conducting research on the prey species, energetic requirements, and foraging strategies of humpback whales off northern Vancouver Island. See this blog post for more details.

krill swarm
The pink area seen here is a dense swarm of krill, which provides food for whales, birds, and fish
bait ball
A dense school of herring. These schools, known locally as "bait balls" provide much of the energy that humpback whales off northeastern Vancouver Island require
lunge feeding
Humpback whale BCX1187 ("Frosty") lunge-feeding through a school of small fish

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Calambokidis, J., E.A. Falcone, T.J. Quinn, A.M. Burdin, P.J. Clapham, J.K.B. Ford, C.M. Gabriele, R. LeDuc, D. Mattila, L. Rojas-Bracho, J.M. Straley, B.L. Taylor, J. Urban, D. Weller, B.H. Witteveen, M. Yamaguchi, A. Bendlin, D. Camacho, K. Flynn, A. Havron, J. Huggins, and N. Maloney. 2008. SPLASH: Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpback Whales in the North Pacific. Final Report for Contract AB133F-03-RP-00078.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2010 Recovery strategy for the North Pacific humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae in Canada [DRAFT]. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. x = 51 pp. Ford, J.K.B., A.L. Rambeau, R.M. Abernethy, M.D. Boogaards, L.M. Nichol, and L.D. Spaven. 2009. An assessment for the potential for recovery of humpback whales off the Pacific coast of Canada. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2009/015. iv + 33 p.
Rambeau, A.L. 2008. Determining abundance and stock structure for a widespread migratory animal: the case of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in British Columbia, Canada. Master's Thesis, The University of British Columbia. 70 pp.
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.

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