The Return of The Humpbacks – A Long Journey Home

Having completed numerous trips already this 2016 season, we’re happy to report having seen numerous Humpback Whales once again. It was not that long ago that sightings of these whales were infrequent to the region. When commercial whaling came to an end in 1967, humpback populations in British Columbia had been decimated. The first return sightings in this area were not reported until the early 80s, and didn’t become common until the early 2000s.

The seasonal migration of Humpback Whales is quite a miraculous trek. The whales we have been seeing recently have likely returned from Hawaii or Mexico to feed in these rich waters. Cascadia Research reported in their Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpback Whales in the North Pacific (SPLASH) report, that most humpbacks make this migration in order to mate and give birth in the safer, warmer waters of the tropics. The scarce amount of food in these warm waters motivates mom to begin a migration to colder waters just weeks after the calf’s birth. Here food is more abundant and after their long journey, these whales are all about eating. This time of year expects to see them diving for longer periods of time in order to feed at depth.

Humpback Whale Fluke Photo Credit: Alison Ogilive. The image was taken with a telephoto lens and cropped.

Reaching up to forty tonnes in weight, these mammals can weigh approximately that of four hundred and eighty people according to the. They are huge! As we like to say on our tours, they are as big as a school bus. Amazing, given their primary food sources of krill, herring and other small schooling fish.

As the season progresses we are fortunate to observe these majestic giants, lunge feeding at the surface on groups of small schooling fish sometimes referred to as ‘bait balls’. Humpbacks are baleen whales. Their baleen enables them to filter out the water that they engulfed along with the food. According to the book “Marine Mammals of British Columbia” written by Dr. John Ford, it is arranged in up to 800 plates (270 to 400 plates on each side) hanging on the upper jaw where teeth would normally be found in other species. Made of keratin, the same protein present in hair and fingernails, baleen keeps the food in the whale’s mouth as the water leaves through the filter. This efficient feeding process allows the humpbacks to engulf approximately one and half tones of food a day and build up fat reserves for the upcoming migration back to the tropical waters come the fall.

A typical migrating humpback will swim six to eight weeks  before arriving in the northern pacific.

Six to eight weeks?! How is that possible?

Humpback Whale flukes with B.C. coastal mountains in the background. Photo credit: Jennie Leaver. This image was taken with a telephoto lens and cropped.

While there is no confirmed study on the resting patterns of Humpback Whales we do know that toothed whales like Orca and dolphins have the ability to rest half of their brains at a time. Humpback Whales migrate at speeds of three to nine miles per hour on average and can travel approximately one thousand miles per month. These migrations can reach up to 16,000 kms as indicated from data obtained during the SPLASH project. Not a shocking discovery that the migration of a Humpback Whale is on record as one of the longest migrations of any mammal on the planet!

Seeing the return of these giants is extremely exciting. That being said, they still face many threats. As reported by MERS, the top three of these include: entanglement, vessel strikes and potential prey shortages. With summer approaching and more boats on the water, we frequently relay and practice the Marine Education and Research Society’s (MERS’) motto, ‘See a blow? Go slow!’ Stubbs is proud to assist MERS and other local researchers by relaying sighting information and identification photographs of the animals we see in this area.

The return of the Humpback Whale has been a long road. It is reassuring to note, what once was, is not always what will be. Mother Nature is resilient when we give her a chance to recover as we have done with the Humpback Whales. It is a privilege to see them so frequently on our tours and to have witnessed their return to this area.


1. MERS Humpback Whale Research.

2. 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.

3. Ford, John. Marine Mammals of British Columbia. Vol. 6. Victoria, British Columbia: Royal BC Museum, 2014. Print.

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