The kayakers had planned a weekend trip near the mouth of Work Channel where humpback whales are known to frequent.
Alex Weirich wasn’t as experienced as her friends, and as they crossed the most exposed part of route, where waves crashed on jagged rocks, she thought, okay this is the worst part. She was in the zone, paddling slightly behind her friends when she felt the back of her kayak lift up.
“Then I totally got flipped over. Twenty feet away from me the whale resurfaced and that’s when I knew I got hit by a whale,” she said.
The kayak was completely flooded and the rudder had been ripped off. Her friends rescued her amid the waves, they rafted their kayaks together and helped her climb back in, coaxing her to pump the water out of the hatch. Despite the close call, they carried on, fixing the damaged rudder at a nearby fishing lodge where they watched the humpback whales breach and bubble feed.
“This is such a good example that they’re not always aware of where you are. Vigilance is really important,” said Caitlin Birdsall, the coordinator for the Vancouver Aquarium’s North Coast Initiative.
Historically, humpback whales numbers depleted due to whaling but they have recovered with an increasingly stable population. But while other whales tend to stay offshore, humpbacks are more coastal and more visible to fisherfolk, tour groups and kayakers.
To better understand the humpbacks inhabiting the region, the North Coast Initiative team has taken the summer to focus on building a catalogue — they have recorded more than 100 humpback whales and counting. With two extra staff, and support from Prince Rupert Adventure Tours, they have been taking and collecting identification photos and adding them to the growing catalogue of humpback whales in the Chatham Sound and Work Channel areas.
The whales can be identified by their flukes, the two lobes that make up the tail, which is like a fingerprint.
“We can tell who’s who. Having a catalogue is useful to see if they’re using the area in the winter, summer and fall, which whales spend time together, what their social demographic is and even when a whale has a calf,” Birdsall said.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) used to manage a catalogue for the whole coast called SPLASH — Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks, but after 2014 when humpbacks were down-listed from the endangered and threatened species list there was less federal funding for the program.
“Our mandate from the federal government is that most of our research efforts are on endangered or threatened species. Maintaining that coast-wide catalogue isn’t a priority and it’s been put on hold,” said Lisa Spaven, a researcher with DFO’s Cetacean Research Program.
Between 2004-2005, the SPLASH project identified approximately 8,000 whales through photo identification and collected more than 6,000 tissue samples for genetic studies.
Since the catalogue was put on hold, the Vancouver Aquarium initiative in Prince Rupert has picked up a focused effort on humpback surveys. There are also other non-governmental organizations collaborating to update and maintain a coast-wide catalogue, including MERS (Marine Education Research Society) out of Alert Bay and Port McNeill, and the North Coast Cetacean Society in Camaano Sound.
Birdsall said they’ve been working with these groups up and down the coast. They’ve also been tagging along with Captain Doug Davis, the owner of Prince Rupert Adventure Tours, who allows the researchers to join the tours as well as sharing his own photos from his trips out of the harbour.
“I’ve always taken ID photos and it’s more of a self interest for me but I’ve been making a bigger effort to try to catch who’s in the area and where we’re going to watch them and sharing them when they [Vancouver Aquarium staff] come on,” Davis said.
Staff aboard the tour boat, Inside Passage, have made their own names for the whales they see regularly. One humpback they’ve named “Spot” because it has two identical spots on either fluke.
The Vancouver Aquarium North Coast Initiative asks if anyone else from the area has photos of whale flukes and they want to contribute to the catalogue the photos can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, to be extra careful of unpredictable feeding humpbacks when out in a fish boat or even a kayak.