Researchers say nearly 400 humpback whales were spotted in the Salish Sea this year, the highest total ever recorded. 

There have been 396 individual humpback whales documented in the Salish Sea, including 34 mothers with their first-year calves, according to the Canadian Pacific Humpback Collaboration, a collection of groups that collate sightings from researchers, ecotourism captains, naturalists and citizen scientists.

In 2017, 293 whales were documented. 

The news comes after at least four humpbacks were recently found dead on B.C. beaches in the span of a few weeks.

Tasli Shaw, project lead for Humpback Whales of the Salish Sea, says there can be a misconception that humpbacks are just passing through the Salish Sea. In reality, the whales return to the same areas to feed and can stay for months at a time.

“They come here very specifically to feed, and they’re very experienced and very skilled at what they do,” she said. 

“They know the best places to come and find prey and how best to capture it. So we actually see the same individuals year after year.”

Shaw says the slow but steady rise in humpback whales traces back to the ban on commercial whaling put in place 55 years ago.

Jackie Hildering with the Marine Education and Research Society says as more humpbacks are spotted in the Salish Sea — which includes the Juan de Fuca Strait, the Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound — it’s critical to protect them from threats, such as fishing gear entanglement and shipping traffic. 

“We are so lucky [to have] a second chance with giants,” Hildering said.

Hildering says part of her society’s mission is to teach boaters how to avoid collisions with marine mammals and what to do if one occurs. That mission is more important than ever, she says, as the Salish Sea has become the whale equivalent of a “busy school zone.”

Shaw says it remains to be seen if the number of humpbacks will continue to rise. 

“Humpback whales can move around the coast, of course, so it’s hard to really predict what the continued humpback comeback will look like in the future.”

Hildering says the growing numbers raise questions. Some of the increase, she said, can be traced to humpbacks shifting from elsewhere. 

“It’s not just population growth. It’s too fast for that, so it’s also shifting from somewhere else. What is that telling us about a changing environment in terms of temperature and prey?”

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