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The Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Haida Gwaii once teemed with some of the biggest whales on Earth. Blue whales and fin whales, sei, sperm and humpback whales once fed in these biologically rich waters. Whalers hunted each species in turn, until there were not enough animals left to sustain a commercial harvest. Then the industry moved on to its next target.
None was so thoroughly exploited as the North Pacific right whale, a slow-swimming giant deemed to be commercially extinct before Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick. British Columbia’s whaling industry was already dying by the time the last right whale within its reach was hunted 70 years ago.
But recent sightings of the North Pacific right whale off B.C.’s coast offer hope that one of the rarest of all large whale species may, finally, be starting to recover. The whales likely numbered in the tens of thousands before they were hunted for their oil and baleen, the flexible plates used to filter food from the sea which were in demand for making corsets and buggy whips.
But international treaties that ended the commercial hunt came too late: Today, scientists believe there are, at most, 500 North Pacific right whales. There are two discrete populations, one in the western North Pacific and a much smaller one in the eastern Bering Sea, the Gulf of Alaska and stretching down into B.C.’s coastal waters – but with so few numbers, their range is uncertain. Population estimates for the eastern stock are as low as 30 whales.
James Pilkington was the sole scientist on board a Canadian Coast Guard ship in 2013, conducting a whale survey off the coast of Haida Gwaii when he saw something unusual. In the middle of a group of humpbacks, he spotted a black whale, with knobby white patches of rough skin on its head. Its fluke was broad and triangular, and it had no dorsal fin. “I thought, whoa, this is not a humpback,” says the marine mammal technician for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). It was improbable, but he had just sighted the first North Pacific right whale off B.C.’s coast since 1951.
Over the next three days, leading experts raced out to find the whale still feeding in the same waters where Right whales were once hunted by men in rowboats with hand-held harpoons. Once the sighting was confirmed, the crew insisted that Mr. Pilkington buy a lottery ticket when they returned to shore.
A second whale was then spotted near Swiftsure Bank in the Strait of Juan de Fuca a few months later. A third was spotted in June of 2018, again off Haida Gwaii. The sightings were celebrated, but researchers cautioned it is too early to declare that a recovery is underway.
In June, Mr. Pilkington headed out on the water with Jared Towers, another exceptionally lucky marine mammal researcher who helped confirm the existence of Type D killer whales, a group believed to be a unique species.
The pair were conducting a general survey of whale populations off Haida Gwaii, but they chose the time and place they were most likely to spot the most elusive whale of all.
“We were really, really hoping we will find another one, but we both kind of knew that we probably wouldn’t,” Mr. Pilkington said. “The odds were very much stacked against us.”
Good luck is not enough, of course. The Cetacean Research Program expedition logged hundreds of nautical miles, scouring the remote area where Mr. Pilkington had first spotted the rare whale eight years ago. On June 12, the researchers spent a wretched day in a mostly-open boat, in high winds and heavy rain. “We were just kind of getting discouraged by the conditions and thought we might give up,” Mr. Pilkington said in an interview. But they decided to hang in to do one more sweep, steering along the edge of the continental shelf, where the shallow sea drops off into the cold deep. They spotted a group of humpbacks feeding, and then some fin whales. With international whaling bans in place for many of these species, life is slowly returning to these former hunting grounds
“Then we saw this one blow, and it has this fairly distinctive V shape … We’re thinking, this can’t be happening again.” But as they got closer they could see that it was. “We probably dropped a few F bombs. It’s a combination of excitement, adrenalin, and just being completely humbled that it is right there in front of you.”
Although they are still waiting for genetic samples to confirm their find, this is likely the fourth sighting off B.C.’s coast since 2013, sparking hope for the species. Three of the whales were spotted in the same area near Haida Gwaii, where the waters are dense with the tiny crustaceans – copepods – that make up the primary diet of the right whales, which can reach up to 90,000 kilograms in size.
Canada lists the North Pacific right whale as endangered, and its recovery goal is to “increase the probability of survival, and attain long-term viability, of the North Pacific Right Whale in Canadian waters.”
But almost everything we know about this massive whale comes from the historical logbooks of whalers, which tells us little except where to hunt them. “The current abundance, reproductive rates, distribution patterns, migration routes, feeding and calving grounds of North Pacific Right whales are not known,” Canada’s recovery strategy under the Species at Risk Act states.
The information that scientists are now gathering – in photos, hydrophone recordings, collections of whale scat, and small skin samples – could help with the whales’ recovery, said Thomas Doniol-Valcroze, who heads DFO’s Cetacean Research Program.
“They’re so rare for us in Canadian waters, that there’s not a lot of action we can take to direct research and recovery efforts toward them, but it might be coming, now that we’re starting to see them more often,” Mr. Doniol-Valcroze said. Protecting critical habitat could create some space for them to thrive.
“We have to be careful – just a few sightings doesn’t tell us really if they are recovering and how fast, but it is encouraging,” Mr. Doniol-Valcroze said. “This is a species we have almost written off in Canada because nobody has seen them in over 50 years and now with this trend, four whales in eight years, it just reminds us that these whales are here, and they’re hopefully coming back.”