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Sir David Attenborough shines a global spotlight on B.C. humpback whales

On April 21, stunning and inspiring whale footage from MERS will air on BBC Earth
A Humpback Whale breaching the surface waters. (Marine Education and Research Society supplied photo)

Just in time for Earth Day, Canadians will be able to watch the episode of Planet Earth III that features British Columbia’s humpback whales.

On April 21, the stunning and inspiring footage resulting from the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) working with this world-acclaimed nature documentary series will air on BBC Earth.

Jackie Hildering, MERS Humpback Researcher and Director of Education and Communications, stated that they could never have imagined “our research boat carrying the extraordinary wealth and volume of camera gear and working with famous nature documentarians, let alone that Sir David Attenborough himself would say the name of one of the humpbacks we nicknamed and that we would spend weeks looking for whale poo.”

BBC producer Fredi Devas first became interested in the humpback whales in B.C. waters after learning of MERS’ research on a novel humpback feeding strategy that has been dubbed “trap-feeding”.

This feeding strategy is used under very specific conditions by some humpbacks near northeastern Vancouver Island. If juvenile herring are in small, diffuse schools, these humpbacks set a “trap” by positioning beside the fish with their mouths wide open. The fish then collect near, or in, the mouth of the humpback to escape predation by birds.

In 2011, a young whale named Conger was one of only two humpbacks known to use this jaw-dropping new feeding strategy. MERS has now documented that at least 32 humpbacks have learned to trapfeed. It is Conger’s name that Sir David Attenborough says when trap-feeding is explained in the episode.

“It was wonderful to watch producer Fredi Devas, who has filmed all over the world, fall in love with the area, experiencing the abundance and biodiversity of marine life sustained in BC waters” said Hildering.

Humpback whales are ambassadors for how productive these cold, high current, oxygen and plankton-rich waters are. Humpbacks bulk up with small schooling fish and krill in B.C. to be able to migrate and sustain themselves in warm water breeding grounds where there is little to no food for them.

Christie McMillan, MERS humpback researcher and science lead shared, “Commercial whaling only ended in British Columbia in 1967. When we began documenting the return of humpbacks from the brink of extinction, we wanted to know who individual humpbacks were and to make it count for conservation. We applied our research to create awareness and action for the threats they continue to face – climate change, entanglement, vessel strike, and noise.”

The return of humpback whales provides a message of hope and capacity for human values to change. It is now understood how important whales are for the world’s climate.

The MERS team spent considerable time looking for whale feces when working with the Planet Earth III film crew in order for this connection to be communicated in the episode. By defecating at the surface, whales fertilize algae leading to carbon capture. It’s estimated that every large whale sequesters (removes) approximately 33 tons of carbon from the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of around 30,000 trees.

MER’s involvement with Planet Earth III was motivated by the opportunity to communicate the vital importance of whales and how our daily actions connect to the welfare of whales.