A close-up visit, captured on video, by a humpback whale in the Strait of Georgia left two women in BC ecstatic, and a marine biologist hoped the area’s mammal population continues to grow.
The huge whale surfaced right next to the small boat that the residents of Comox, Lauren Lan and Sonya Schum, were sitting in as they went to a friend’s cabin.
“It was really cool to just look next to the boat and see the whole length of the whale and see all the little barnacles up close,” said Lan, who videotaped the entire incident.
Ten years ago, something like this would never have happened, said Andrew Trites, a professor at UBC’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, adding that humpback whales are making a comeback after nearly disappearing from the area in the early 1900s.
Lan and her friend Schum spotted the humpback whale’s blowhole in the distance on Thursday night and decided to get closer, but then the whale dove out of sight.
“We just stopped where we were and just thought, well, we’ll just wait,” Lan told CBC News. “Sometimes they come very far away, and sometimes they come to the same place.”
“And then, about five minutes later, [it] came right next to the boat,” Lan said.
VIEW | The humpback whale that comes close to the boat:
Videos taken by Lan show the whale diving and resurfacing multiple times, blowing steam from its blowhole and even hitting the surface of the water with its white fins.
Lan, who has lived on Vancouver Island for more than a decade, said it was the first time she’d been this close to a humpback whale.
“It was exciting to see it up close, but also a little disturbing because I’ve seen them break through before,” she said. “I didn’t want him to do that with us above him.”
Finally, after quite a few minutes of the whale circling Lan’s boat, she said she accidentally stepped on the lever of the bilge pump — which was used to remove water from the boat’s surface. This caused a loud bang and the whale swam away.
Lan and Schum nicknamed the whale Stinky.
“I don’t know how you would know this, you’re never really that close, but humpback whales stink,” she said with a laugh.
Prof. dr. Trites said whales have “very bad breath” because of their diet.
“In British Columbia, their primary prey is krill — like small shrimp — and it gets stuck on their baleen,” he said. “It rots a bit and…so when they breathe, that smell often gets in their breath.”
The kind of encounter Lan and Schum had is very rare, Trites said, adding that by turning off the engine and staying still, they were doing the right thing to protect themselves and the whale.
He said he couldn’t deduce the whale’s gender from Lan’s video, but that it was probably hit by a motorboat before based on the lacerations to its back.
“Obviously this one has already had some very close encounters,” he said. “It’s probably a whale that comes back here regularly to eat.”
“There’s a good chance it’s part of the Hawaiian population, although some of our humpback whales here are from Mexico as well…it has such clear markings that I’m sure it’s a known individual.”
Adult humpback whales can grow up to 14 meters in length and weigh up to 34 tons, Trites said.
Humpback populations have recovered
Humpback whales were nearly wiped out in the Strait of Georgia after a whaling station was set up in Nanaimo, about 70 miles north of Victoria on Vancouver Island, in the early 1900s, Trites said, adding the return of mammals to the area is relatively recent. .
John Calambokidis, a research biologist at Cascadia Research in Olympia, Washington, who has been tracking whales along the West Coast for 35 years, said their numbers have increased more than tenfold, at an annual rate of about seven percent.
And he said the increase was even greater in the Salish Sea, which includes the Strait of Georgia area.
Trites said the return of the whales is one of the biggest marine success stories of recent years.
“It’s just amazing that these two people got to experience the restoration of nature, to see it here,” he said.
“If they had been there 10 years ago, they would never have seen this. The ocean would just look empty.”