Cetacea Lab is a whale research facility nestled among the giant red cedars of Gil Island on the remote northern coast of British Columbia, Canada. Surrounding Gil Island are two deep channels known as Whale and Squally. Both names describe this habitat perfectly: the first reflects the boom in the humpback population while the second tells of winter gales that keep boat traffic to a minimum. We built this station more than a decade ago and at the time had no idea that our arrival would coincide with the return of the great humpback whale after years of hunting that ended in the late 1960s.
During our first surveys in 2004 and 2005 we documented 42 individual humpback whales. This number doubled in just four years and by the end of 2014 it had climbed to 335. The nutrient-rich habitat of this stretch of coast is becoming an increasingly important feeding ground for mothers, calves, juveniles and old adults that have seen change come and go. From early spring until mid-summer the most common foraging behaviour observed here is bubble-net feeding. The same whales meet year after year and together they perform an underwater spiral dance of cooperative and bubble-producing movements that force schools of herring from the depths of the ocean to the surface. In a feeding frenzy, giant gaping mouths consume tonnes of fish and krill each day. This dance is repeated over and over in a marathon that lasts from dusk till dawn for weeks on end. As spring becomes summer, the urgency to replenish fat cells after months without food diminishes and we begin to witness more social and robust activities between humpback whales.
Although we continue to share the good news of the return of the great humpback whale to the north coast of British Columbia, it comes at a price. The incidence of these gentle giants accidentally becoming entangled in fishing nets and crab and prawn gear is rising at an alarming rate and along this coast there is no real action plan in place to deal with the problem. More than half the entanglements occur around a humpback’s tail; second and third most frequent are those around the mouth and pectoral fins. When a humpback whale becomes entangled in fishing gear, serious infection can occur from flesh wounds caused by ropes rubbing tightly against its body. These ropes can bind the whale’s long pectorals to its sides and then, unable to move or dive to feed, the giant faces a long and torturous death by starvation. Sometimes the gear is wrapped around its head, with the same result.
Janie and Hermann are working for the protection of Orcas and Humpback Whales in the Great Bear Rainforest by tuning into underwater hydrophones and deciphering the secret language of these majestic animals.