A graphic photo of a humpback whale with part of its lower and upper jaw missing, captured near Aristazabal Island on B.C.’s Central Coast, is helping to raise awareness of the risk of whale and vessel collisions.
The photo was taken in late September, by Luke Hyatt of the eco-tourism company Mothership Adventures, and has since been widely shared online by whale researchers hoping it will help educate boaters.
“We have checked in with fellow researchers and we can’t say definitely this is a vessel strike injury because nothing like it has been seen before,” said Jackie Hildering, communications director for the Marine Education Research Society (MERS) and also an underwater photographer known as the Marine Detective.
“But the consensus is that it’s hard to imagine it’s anything else,” she added.
Researchers from the North Coast Cetacean Society (NCCS) have identified the whale from photographs as one they know well and have nicknamed “Knobby”.
Hidlering noted that although “it is hard to imagine that a whale would be able to survive this kind of injury” researchers remain on the lookout for the whale.
Humpback whales have rebounded throughout BC’s coast, since the end of commercial whaling in 1965.
“We are so fortunate to have these giants back, but it’s a game changer that necessitates increased awareness for us all,” said Hidlering. “This is a reality we need to consider on our coast – that there is a greater overlap between vessel traffic and the presence of whales.”
Hildering said humpbacks are far more at risk of being hit by boats than orca, because of their size and lack of bio-sonar.
This makes humpbacks incredibly oblivious of boats and where they can surface is also very unpredictable because their dives can be long and they often feed and travel in random patterns.
Hidlering noted that if Knobby’s injuries were the result of a collision it would have most likely been with a large vessel.
“They certainly should have been aware they were in an area with a lot of whales,” she said, adding “This is problematic because large vessels can’t divert course immediately.”
She said the lack of awareness about the risk of collisions is apparent in boater behavior, and that for smaller vessels the safety risk is significantly greater.
“I’ve heard from people who’ve said ‘oh I thought the humpbacks are gone now – they are not,” said Hildering, adding that she’s heard of many close calls on North East Vancouver Island, one of which resulted in a man needing 15 stitches on his chin and his pregnant girlfriend breaking three ribs.
“We have whales we see with great regularity who don’t have scarring, and then suddenly we see they have scarring, so somebody hit the whale and it wasn’t reported,” she said.
Hildering said she is grateful to those who have reported Knobby’s injuries and that “there is a record of this whale being injured.”
Knobby has been well known to NCCS since 2013 and has come back to BC Central coast fo feed every year. “If he or she doesn’t show up next year, it is impossible to know whether that confirms the whale has died or if it’s somewhere else,” said Hidlering.
She explained that it’s difficult to know the population impacts of collisions because if accidents go unreported and whales die most often their bodies sink to the ocean bottom, unbeknownst to anyone.
Reporting collisions may also help reduce the risk of future collisions from occurring.
“It is really important to know how these incidents happen or when these incidents happen to get an understanding of locations and circumstances where there is a human and whale safety risk,” said Hildering.
Hidlering said she hopes the federal government will announce amendments to the Marine Mammals Regulations that would require reporting to DFO of any accidental contact with a marine mammal including instances of entanglement or collision, as there is no such requirement in the current regulations.
By Hildering’s estimation, Knobby’s photo has reached over 100,000 people online and has been shared internationally.
“What is extremely heartening, and is why we put that horrific photo into the world, is just how much awareness it has led to,” she said adding, “This poor whales plight has led to greater awareness around the risk of collision with humpbacks.”
To learn more about boater and whale safety visit seeablowgoslow.org or to report collisions or sightings of injured or entangled whales call DFO incident line at 1-800-465-4336.