Humpback whale BCY0291

Humpback whale BCY0291

Boat collision injures young humpback

The young humpback whale known as "KC" injured in boat collision.

The young humpback whale known as “KC” is portrayed leaping joyfully in a full breach on the cover of the current North Island Visitors’ Guide.

But he was laid low when he was struck by a boat off the coast of Vancouver Island in late August.

“While, fortunately, KC’s injuries seem superficial (at least for now), this incident is not an isolated one and serves to illustrate the growing problem of vessel strikes on the B.C. coast,” Caitlin Birdsall wrote on the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network blog Wild Whales.

KC, officially identified as BCY0291, came away from the encounter with what appears to be propellor scarring on his dorsal fin. Otherwise, he appeared to be in good condition when photographed following the incident by Jackie Hildering of the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS).

Details of the strike are unknown, as it was not reported. But KC’s boat encounter is just the latest in a series of near-misses — and one notable whale-boat collision — this year in B.C.’s coastal waters. In May, Ray Boyd of Campbell River required facial surgery after a whale breached in front of his boat and collided with it near Kelsey Bay.

That whale was not spotted in the immediate aftermath of the strike and its ultimate fate is unknown.

The incident prompted whale researchers to renew their call for heightened awareness on the part of boaters, with increasing numbers of humpback whales plying local waters over the past decade. Adult humpbacks range from 13 to 14 metres long and can weigh up to 40 tonnes, said Christy McMillan, president of MERS, and their behaviour in the water can be highly unpredictable.

“Baleen whales surface unpredictably, much different from how boat operators are conditioned to expect as their experience is most often with killer whales,” Hildering said. “Humpbacks are new back to the coast and are in unpredictable locations.”

Humpback whales have returned to the straits off Vancouver Island’s east coast in substantial numbers after several decades of infrequent sightings, the result of commercial whaling in the 20th century. Their return requires a new level of awareness on the part of both tour operators and private vessel owners, both MERS and the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network caution.

To help avoid collisions and protect the health of both humans and whales:

• Be on the lookout for blows at all times. Large whale blows can often be seen from a long distance;

• Be aware that humpbacks may surface unpredictably, sometimes after 5-10 minutes underwater;

• Use extra caution when travelling at high speed;

• Ask marinas where humpbacks have been sighted frequently and reduce speed in these areas;

• If you know of a collision or see boats driving recklessly around whales, call the DFO’s Marine Mammal Incident Reporting hotline at 1-800-465-4336.

• If you spot the distinctive whale flag, an orange-yellow-and-black circular image bearing a humpback fluke, on a nearby vessel, it means whales are in the area. Slow down and watch for blows.