Humpback rhapsody – October 12 2007

After being totally eliminated from Northern Vancouver Island waters in 1967, humpback whales are gradually making a return. The Coal Harbour whaling station, on Vancouver Island’s northwest coast (near Port Hardy) was the last whaling station in North America. In 1967, faced with a shortage of whales in nearby Pacific waters, the whalers travelled around the top of Vancouver Island into Queen Charlotte Strait, Blackfish Sound and Knight Inlet. There, they found a tiny remnant population of 13 humpbacks. Every last one of them was killed – all the males, all the females, all the mums, all the kids, everyone.

A long period of silence followed. Then, on Easter Sunday in 1982, a lone humpback was spotted traveling east past Alert Bay towards Johnstone Strait. Possibly, this explorer brought news to other humpbacks, because in the years that followed, humpbacks gradually began to return to these waters. Their pace was slow at first, but by the turn of this new millennium, humpbacks had become a common enough sight that they formed a reliable part of the whale watching scene. Nowadays, whale watch operators who can’t show orcas to their passengers can almost count on humpbacks to fill in the gap.

Interestingly, the humpbacks who first arrived were never vocal, so far as we could tell from listening to our hydrophones. But over time, they began to make a few tentative sounds. Last year, on October 14th, we made a wonderful recording in which the A30s and a humpback were vocal at the same time in Robson Bight. We had no idea whether this was some kind of interspecies exchange, and it didn’t last long, but it did make us reflect on the comfortable presence the humpbacks have become in these waters. This year, we have become even more convinced that this is so, that the humpbacks are truly at home here once more. Not only are they here in greater numbers than ever, but they are becoming more vocal. This year, on September 11th, we recorded a 10 minute long vocal session from a humpback in Blackfish Sound, and on October 11th we recorded what sounded like a complex “song” that lasted a full half hour. Here it is: click for audio clip (150mb).

Possibly, this was a song-in-the-making that will become popular in the coming social season in warmer waters. It isn’t yet known where these humpbacks spend their winter months, though Hawaiian waters are likely. Like others around the world, we are looking forward to hearing the songs of Hawaii’s humpbacks via when they return to their warm water home. This time, we may recognize the tune!

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