Humpback who reversed the extinction of local population, returns for 17th season

Big Mama Photo by Marie O'Shaughnessy

To whale watching professionals, she is known as Big Mama; to passengers, she is a blow and a pair of flukes; and to the ecosystem, she’s a game-changer. Prince of Whales Whale Watching is thrilled to confirm, once again, the arrival of a famous humpback whale, to the interior waters of Southern British Columbia and Northern Washington State.

“The Salish Sea is an amazing body of water,” said Prince of Whales Head Naturalist Jennifer Dickson. “In addition to its spectacular ecological diversity and marine mammal density, we have an incredibly dedicated group of skilled and passionate whale watchers and researchers who come out here, year after year, and document who they see. At this point, Big Mama has become a legend.”

The Salish Sea is the body of water containing Puget Sound, Juan de Fuca Strait, Haro Strait, Rosario Strait, and Georgia Strait. It’s unique topography and climate, combined with nutrient rich waters, sustain habitat for numerous marine mammal species, including the most often seen resident orcas, Bigg’s orcas, Grey whales, Minke whales, California sea lions, Steller sea lions, harbour seals, elephant seals, harbour porpoise, Dall’s porpoise. Likewise, the humpback whale flock here to rest and feed.

Humpback whales spend their winters mating and raising calves in breeding grounds located in Mexico, Hawaii, and Costa Rica. They then embark on an epic migration towards feeding grounds at higher latitudes, arriving in this area between May and July. Historically, BC has always welcomed the return of the humpback, but in a very different way than we do today.

Like other baleen whales including blue, sei, and fin whales, humpbacks were targeted by whalers for their baleen and blubber beginning commercially in 1905. Most whaling stations were located further up the coast, but that didn’t stop the Salish Sea humpbacks from being hunted to extirpation (extinction of a local population) by 1908.

Humpbacks as a species clung to life in other parts of BC, with numbers dipping to a discouraging 1,400 individuals in 1968, when whaling as a practice was outlawed in Canada. In 1985, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) listed humpbacks as Threatened. No humpbacks had returned to the waters of the Salish Sea since the early 1900’s, and it would be a generation before local mariners heard the call “there she blows!” not followed by “ready the harpoon.”

In 1997, Big Mama was sighted for the first time by Mark Malleson, a zodiac skipper with Prince of Whales Whale Watching in Victoria. He didn’t know she was Big Mama at the time of course. She was simply the first humpback to be spotted in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in nearly 100 years.

When Mark’s friend, fellow whale watcher and photographer, Brian Glennon submitted a photo of the humpback to the Times Colonist, he was told they would not print it, because they didn’t accept photoshopped photos! The photo of course, was unaltered, they just couldn’t believe that there was a humpback here. No one had every heard of such a thing. Mark said “The very first humpback that I ever saw was Big Mama near Race Rocks in the fall of 1997. I saw her again in 1999 and then not again until 2003. She has not missed a year since then to return to these waters”

Identifiable by the markings on underside of her flukes, Big Mama, otherwise identified by the Center for Whale Research as BCY0324, has returned to these waters again and again, year after year. Every spring she arrives, thin and ready to feed, and every fall she departs, plump and ready to breed. In 2003, her gender was confirmed when whale watchers reported seeing her travelling with a calf. BCY0324 has since had calves in 2003, 2006, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016. After a few seasons of consecutive breeding, the nickname Big Mama really stuck.
“Humpbacks have a gestation period of 12 months, so every time we’ve seen her after 2010, she has been either pregnant, or nursing a calf.” Dickson notes, “Fingers crossed she’s pregnant with baby number seven right now!” Big Mama’s productive nature is helping the Salish Sea population bounce back at record speeds. “Our marketing material used to say ‘Come join us as we explore and search for the elusive humpback.’ Now they’re our second most common species!”

In 2016, Malleson documented 198 individuals in the Salish Sea and in 2011 COSEWIC re-assessed the North Pacific population of Humpback Whales as Special Concern, with population estimates now over 22,000 individuals.

Welcome Back!

For more information check out The Salish Sea Humpback Census by Keta Coastal Conservation