A whale researcher will ask Vancouver Island residents to be good neighbours to marine giants in an upcoming webinar presented by Nanaimo Area Land Trust.
Jackie Hildering, humpback whale researcher in Port McNeill, will explain how humans can help protect humpback whales in the Return of Giants, a webinar about getting a second chance with the whales that she says came close to extinction before numbers rebounded.
Hildering said data is poor on how many whales there were when whaling was halted in Canada in 1966, but “sightings were the exception” along the B.C. coast up into the 2000s when their numbers rose from an estimated seven humpbacks sighted in 2003 to 96 counted in the waters of northeast Vancouver Island in 2019.
“It truly is a second chance and it’s not just population growth post-whaling. They’re also shifting from somewhere…” said Hildering, who is director of education and communications for the Marine Education and Research Society. “We don’t know where that shift is from and what that means in terms of climate and/or prey, so this is a unique chance to learn so much.”
She said there’s knowledge to be gained about climate, ecosystems, social associations and feeding strategies from the whales, which can rest just below the water’s surface or surface unexpectedly after very long dives.
“What has also become so incredibly necessary is boater education,” Hildering said. “[Humpbacks] are a game changer for all flavours of boaters on our coast because they’re giants. The mature females are as big as big as school buses.”
Humpback habits, physical size and even how they sense their environment is different from orcas and dolphins that hunt with their natural form of echo-locating sonar that allows them to track and pinpoint prey and other objects, such as boats.
“[Humpbacks] don’t have the bio-sonar of toothed whales,” Hildering said. “Especially when they’re feeding, having left our rich waters to go to the breeding lagoons of primarily Mexico and Hawaii, they are hungry. They are feeding and they are most often oblivious to boats, so that’s one huge educational need to bring across to people.”
It’s also difficult to portray how high the risks of net entanglement and collisions are, she said, because most whales sink when they die. With no dead whale bodies floating on the water’s surface there’s no evidence of a death, but 50 per cent of the whales studied show scars of boat collisions and net entanglement.
“There wasn’t even the legal obligation to report collision or entanglement up to … 2018 and even Transport Canada hasn’t caught up,” Hildering said. “It will change, but how is even the best-intentioned boater supposed to know about whale behaviour, let alone what the marine mammal regulations are?”
Hildering is often asked why humpback whales are here, but the better question, she said, is why would humpbacks leave an area where they’re finding food. The whales belong here because the waters around Vancouver Island are rich in the “planktonic soup” they thrive on, the researcher said.
“There’s this thinking that they’re in transit, but what our research supports is these are neighbours that come back to specific spots on our coast year upon year upon year,” she said. “Of the 96 I referenced from 2019, 89 per cent of those were whales we had documented previously. They are specialists in certain strategies for certain prey in this area … knowing what works in a certain area like fishermen and fisherwomen do.”
Hildering, also known as ‘the Marine Detective’ and standup comic of marine conservation, is an educator, cold-water diver and underwater photographer, who has worked on-camera with PBS, BBC and Animal Planet, so next week’s webinar promises to be entertaining and educational, said NALT in a press release. The free webinar will be presented Thursday, Jan. 21, at 7 p.m. Links to attend the webinar will be made available Monday, Jan. 18. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.