A humpback whale appeared on today’s afternoon day trip in the San Juan Islands of Washington. This exciting discovery is the area’s first humpback whale of the spring. We hope it remains in the area and is joined by more of its huge acrobatic fellows.
Today, humpback whales are uncommon visitors in Washington waterways from spring through fall. We believe they were formerly common residents until the early part of the last century, with about 30 individuals or more residing in the Salish Sea. Shore-based whaling stations near Victoria on Vancouver Island, using only row boats and hand-thrown harpoons, removed the entire population in less than a decade.
Humpback whales were heavily persecuted around the world in the decades that followed. Using modern technology and factory ships, hunters reduced the population to about 1% of its original size. Protective laws have allowed the humpback whales to recover to near 10% in recent years. Their nascent recovery has resulted in pioneering individuals returning to their former haunts such as our kayak tour area in the San Juan Islands.
Despite laws outlawing the hunting of humpback whales in the North Pacific Ocean, they are not completely safe yet. Humpbacks specialize in preying on small bait fish species and plankton such as krill. Many of the most important bait fish are now rapidly declining. Pacific smelt have just been added to the federal endangered species list. Pacific herring populations have also plunged in Washington to crisis levels and should already be on the list. Unfortunately, the regulating agency responsible for managing the fish (NMFS) usually does not perform its job until sued in court by environmentalists, fisherman, and other stakeholders.