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There she blows: Whales of Howe Sound

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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 nearby Gibsons on the edge of the inlet to Howe Sound BC. I continued to watch, and 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 Beach shoreline about 400 meters from the original sighting, only to find the whales hidden by the immensity of the Howe 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. Additional reports from those diving the nearby artificial reef that was created by the sinking of the Annapolis, a decommission naval vessel, confirms an increase in the fish and invertebrate seen. Such recovery has been documented in the 2012 report undertaken by the Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute (CORI). Their findings show that after a century of industrial carelessness "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. While this recovery came in large part to expensive remediation efforts by industry and Government, the results are nonetheless exciting. These sentiments are echoed by research undertaken by the David Suzuki Foundation’s “Measuring the return on Howe Sound’s Ecosystem Assets.”

https://davidsuzuki.org/project/howe-sound/

Whales sightings in Howe Sound are still infrequent compared to sightings in waters offshore from other British Columbia waterways. In Tofino / Pacific Rim National Park the numbers of migrating Grey whales each March / April, are astonishing.  Later in the the summer, the Greys and other whale and dolphin species become frequent visitors to the waters off Haida Gwaii and in Queen Charlotte Strait. 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 provide voluntourism programs 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 the small village of Bergeronnes.  The local population still 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. Belugas whales who are year-round residents, are joined by finbacks, minke, blue whales and the occassional pod of Orcas. Some of my fondest whales memories were when I  travelled each summer 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: 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. 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. I have now taken to eating breakfast, and dinner on the deck with binoculars in hand - waiting for the next blow.

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, NL 
  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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