Although tourist season is wrapping up, and many recreational boaters are heading home, there is still a risk of boater and whale collisions as humpback whales are feeding in North East Vancouver Island waters.
Jackie Hildering, communications director for the Marine Education Research Society (MERS) and also an underwater photographer known as the Marine Detective, is working to raise boater awareness to prevent boater and whale collisions.
“There are fewer recreational fishermen on the water, but we have people who are regularly commuting through these waters so there is a reduction in traffic, but there is still a risk of collision,” said Hildering, adding “there is this strange misconception that if tourists go away, whales do.”
She said MERS has whales documented all year round, “but from May into October this is humpback central” and that when “we get into this time of the year there are mating-related behaviours that are fast and unpredictable.”
MERS’s campaign “See a blow? Go slow!” aims to put signs in areas of high whale density along the coast and help raise awareness of the risk to boaters.
“Generally boaters are unaware that there has fortunately been a very large increase in humpbacks off the coast of B.C., and we who live around North East Vancouver Island are lucky to be one of the denser areas of where the humpbacks feed,” said Hildering.
Humpback whales have rebounded since the end of commercial whaling in 1965. In 2003, Hildering documented seven humpbacks in the Broughton Archipelago, and in 2016 there were 91.
“Imagine if there were suddenly vastly more elk on Vancouver Island and you had people speeding along without the knowledge that an elk could jump in front of their car,” said Hildering.
Whale and boater collisions have taken place in B.C. this summer, most notably a man became paralyzed after a collision in Haida Gwaii in June, and a couple was hospitalized for three weeks after a collision near Victoria in August.
Hildering said there are collisions that happen in the North Island. “I’ve had people leave me phone calls and I have had people say they have heard or experienced a collision themselves,” she said, adding “there is one whale that had propeller marks on its side which was never reported, but it absolutely happened in our area.”
She said it is important to report collisions so there is a better understanding of why collisions happen and so researchers can track the welfare of the whale.
Another aspect of MERS’s campaign is raising awareness of whale entanglement, with MERS evidence suggesting one in two whales will become entangled in nets.
“Those who try to disentangle the whale themselves, not only are they putting themselves at incredible risk, but in most cases they wouldn’t be helping the whale,” she said, explaining, “the reason why is because if they remove any rope or netting at the surface there could still be lots below the surface and no one would realize it, and this could cause infections and reduce the whales ability to move properly and result in death.”
Hildering cautioned that only trained professionals should attempt to disentangle, as rescuers need to assess the whale with underwater cameras to determine how to remove the lines and what equipment to use.
“If there is an entanglement, the absolute most important thing is that it gets reported as quickly as possible,” said Hildering, who also noted disentangling a whale is extremely dangerous. “There is a high risk, because you are putting yourselves next to a large animal that moves unpredictably and may be in distress.”
If boaters spot a disentangled whale, they should immediately report it to the DFO incident line at 1-800-465-4336.
Hildering will be hosting a presentation on humpback whales on Oct. 13 at the Gate House Theatre in Port McNeill and admission is by donation.
“When we started documenting the whales, we never would have known it would turn into this, and we now find ourselves being leads provincially on disentanglement research,” said Hildering, adding “we are so thankful for the support from the community.”
For more information on whale and boater safety, visit seeablowgoslow.org.