My interest and love in the ocean began in Massachusetts. It was there, as a young girl, that I saw my first Humpback Whale. Right then, I knew I wanted to devote my life to marine conservation. Coming from a small town in Southern Ontario, it was a dream of mine to move to the West Coast of Canada to experience the abundance of marine wildlife found in British Columbia waters. Each experience with a wild animal is absolutely breath taking and leaves me without any words. I have traveled and experienced whales in many different weather conditions and seas including the Atlantic and Indian Ocean but nothing has quite compared to my time on the Pacific Ocean.
My most memorable experience was when we set out of Victoria Harbour and headed South toward Rock Pile within the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This is a shallow part of the Strait which drives the herring and other fish up near the surface of the water which makes it easier for the whales to feed because they spend less energy. The first few minutes we spent with the Humpback Whale showed some common behavior. The whale was coming up for about four to six breaths at a time and then diving a little deeper while feeding for about ten minutes. I noticed the humpback was a bit shy in showing its back flippers, or flukes, while diving. Typically, the humpback whale will arch its back and show its flukes while propelling their body deep into the waters. As we were in shallow waters, it made sense that the whale didn’t need to bring its tail out of the water as high as it was not diving as deep. As a naturalist, it is so important to get a photograph of the whale’s flukes as that is how we are able to identify what exact whale we are looking at.
After a few minutes of the Humpback Whale being under the water, it popped up on the port side of the Marauder IV. These social whales are often quite curious of their surroundings. This close encounter with the whale always gives me a great perspective on just how large these mammals are. At this point, the whale finally showed her flukes and we were able to identify that the whale we were on scene with was Big Mama, a frequent visitor to BC waters.
Big Mama then began engaging in some irregular behavior. At first, she propelled her entire body out of the water as she breached onto her right side. She made a huge splash and set up a bit of a wake. As she was coming up to breathe, she began lobbing her tail in the air almost as if she was waving to us. Shortly after, Big Mama started slapping her pectoral fin against the surface of the water. I have seen a behavior like this a few times before with other Humpback Whales in another part of the world. Rather than slapping her flukes against the water surface, she was lobbing it front and back a few times before setting down into the water. No one knows exactly why these whales do this, however scientists have a few different speculations as to why they do.
First, scientists believe they are trying to attract the attention of other whales in the area by making a large noise as the flukes slap against the water surface. Secondly, scientists believe they may have an itch on their body that they are trying to “scratch” and are able to make that happen by slapping it against the water. Humpback whales are often found with many barnacles on their body so a fluke slapping may be a way of getting the barnacles detached from their bodies. Lastly and what I personally believe was the reason in this particular case was that the humpback whale was happy after feeding. Like humans, we need to eat food to have energy and often feel happy after a big meal. After Big Mama was done her feeding on Rock Pile, her belly was full and she was one happy whale. Who wouldn’t want to jump for joy?
Overall, my experience as a naturalist with SpringTide on board the Marauder IV has been phenomenal. It is an exhilarating adventure every time I board the vessel as you never know what the day will bring. With so many factors including the weather, wind direction, animals sighted, tides coming in and out and the passengers on board, each trip is uniquely special.
Written by Naturalist Jessea.