British Columbia's Whales - Then and Now

Lunge Feeding Humpback WhalesPhoto: Paul Goldstein

If you have enjoyed time on a trip with Bluewater Adventures, you will have had the pleasure of being in the company of whales. The whales that we see May through October on the BC coast and Southeast Alaska are primarily giant humpback whales, northern resident killer whales (salmon eaters) and Biggs killer whales (mammal eaters). Each year seems to improve in terms of sightings, according to data collected from the BC Cetacean Sightings Network – it’s a come back from a time on this coast that few of us understand. 

The hunting of whales on the BC coast began in the mid 1800s with whalers primarily from the United States and Hawaii in tall ships and dories using hand-held harpoons. This limited their catch to the slower cetaceans like sperm and right whales and kept harvest numbers down for obvious reasons. 

breaching humpback whaleHumpback whales were also hunted in the Strait of Georgia and Queen Charlotte Strait – some of the first whaling stations were built just north of Vancouver in coastal towns like “Blubber Bay” (Texada Island), “Whaling Station Bay” (Hornby Island) and in “Whaletown” (Cortes Island). It was here where whalers would process their catch and render the blubber. It is hard to imagine what our coast would have looked like back then. 

By the 1900s, steam ships arrived on scene providing whalers with the means of outpacing even a humpback whale and supported the use of explosive harpoons – the whaling industry boomed. From 1905 - 1911, five additional whaling stations were erected from Barkley Sound to Haida Gwaii. 

With World War II, whaling began to decline due to the decimation of animals and with the saturation of whale oil on the worlds market. By 1967, the industry had been all but dismantled, but in that short time, it is estimated that almost 25,000 whales were taken in the BC whale fishery. The industry “processed” mostly humpback whales, being the easiest target, but no whale in BC waters was safe. Blue, fin, sei, right whales, sperm, Baard’s beaked and gray whales all fell prey to the industry. The heavily hunted resident populations of humpback whales were hunted to extirpation and never recovered. 

Feeding Humpback Whales

The good news? In 1967, The International Whaling Commission instated a worldwide moratorium on whaling. Although the numbers of Pacific humpback whale populations were very low, time has allowed their numbers to increase in BC waters. Now they are fueling an entirely new and sustainable industry – tourism. With the increased interest in marine mammals, research and conservation groups have rallied to regulate the industry with sustainable viewing standards that protect the interests of the whales.  With a new lens fixed on whales on the BC coast, we have learned that more needs to be done to support the growing numbers of these sentient beings. We now understand that marine “noise” from cargo & cruise ships can have a large impact on killer whales. We know that humpback whales are at risk of entanglement and ship strikes. 

With groups like the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) and the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association (NIMMSA), whales on the coast of BC have great spokespeople educating industry, setting sustainable viewing regulations and creating a culture of protection. 

We have come a long way – but have a long line to haul in the years to come. If you’ve met a whale on a Bluewater trip, you will know how important this legacy is to support. For more information on how you can help, contact MERS and Georgia Strait Alliancefor more information. 

Inquire here to learn about our BEST whale itineraries.

Images: Paul Goldstein, Grant MacHutchon, Tessa Mull


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