Whale watchers aboard the Stubbs Island Whale Watching boat Lukwa stand beneath the distinctive whale wise flag during an outing in June of 2011.

Flying the flag for whale awareness

Members of the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association have recently initiated the use of a whale watch flag.

Around northern Vancouver Island, killer whales, also known as orcas, are a common sight. The two populations of killer whales that occur in these waters; northern residents and transients (recently re-named Biggs killer whales) are both considered threatened under the Species at Risk Act. These populations are small and suffer from limited quantity and quality of available prey. Noise such as that created by vessel traffic is thought to interfere with the orcas’ ability to locate and catch their prey. Additionally, several killer whales are known to have been hit and consequently killed by fast-moving vessels over the years.

Humpback whales are also a threatened species that is common off northern Vancouver Island. Just last month, a Campbell River resident was seriously injured when his vessel collided with a humpback whale in Johnstone Strait. Such situations are sometimes unavoidable but in other cases they can be avoided by slowing down, maintaining a diligent lookout and altering course as necessary.

Because of the risks to local whale populations that are already threatened, members of the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association (NIMMSA) have recently initiated the use of a whale watch flag. This flag is to be flown by commercial whale-watch operators while engaged in whale watching to let other boaters know that whales are in the area and that they should slow down or alter course as necessary to be in compliance with the marine mammal regulations. Recent infractions to these regulations by irresponsible boaters have resulted in fines of over $6000.

NIMMSA and its members, which include the owners and representatives of responsible marine-based tour companies that view whales in the north island area are working with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Cetus Research and Conservation Society to promote responsible whale watching and the use of this flag. Locals and visitors planning on whale watching this summer are encouraged to choose a tour with a company that is a NIMMSA member to ensure that best whale viewing practices are followed. For more information or to order a flag or become a NIMMSA member please see www.nimmsa.org.