Researchers and conservationists are celebrating a “record-breaking” number of humpback whale calves spotted in the Salish Sea this season.
Twenty-one new calves have been photographed in the waters off British Columbia and Washington State, according to the Pacific Whale Watch Association — nearly double the 11 spotted in 2020.
“This year surprised even those of us that have been watching those whales for years and years and years,” said Erin Gless, the association’s executive director.
“Just the sheer number of babies that we’re seeing in 2021 is something that I certainly was not expecting going into this season.”
Humpback whales were nearly wiped out in the area 100 years ago due to commercial whaling, but have been making a recovery for the past two decades.
Gless said the “million dollar question” is why 2021 has produced so many humpback babies.
“Maybe there was just a lot of food in the area,” she said. “Another common sense answer is that, as there’s more adult humpback whales you can expect to start to see more baby humpback whales.
“What will really be telling is if this trajectory continues to increase next year or if this is kind of just a one-off.”
Humpback whales spend the spring, summer and fall feeding in northern waters, before heading south to places like Hawaii, Mexico and Central America to give birth.
Their calves normally spend a year feeding with their mothers in the north before heading off on their own migration journey.
This past year, Gless said Washington naturalist Sam Murphy was doing seasonal work in Hawaii, and spotted a calf with a female humpback known to feed near Victoria and the Canadian Gulf Islands.
The baby and her mother, known as MMY0183 or ‘Dreamer,’ were seen this week in the Strait of Georgia.
Gless said this year’s spike in births is good news for the recovering humpbacks and for whale watchers, but comes with a caution for B.C. boaters.
“As we get more and more whales in the area, it means the chances of encountering whales is higher,” she explained.
“So you have to be on the lookout at all times, operating slowly, keeping an eye, scanning for activity, because as we get more whales, there’s going to be more encounters with humans.”