Wildlife - Humpback Whales

Humpback Whale - Megaptera novaeangliae

Humpback whales are migratory, and a growing population of these ocean giants spend their entire summer feeding in BC waters. Humpbacks that spend their summer in BC typically begin their migration South in the early fall. They spend their winters breeding in Mexico and Hawaii, and return to the BC coast in the springtime.

Although humpback whales are one of the largest predators on the planet, they have no teeth! Instead they have baleen plates made of keratin that act like a giant sieve to filter food, including krill, herring, pilchard and possibly even anchovies. This makes humpback whales part of the taxonomic group mysticetes, which is a branch on the evolutionary tree representing the baleen whales. Humpbacks can use their baleen plates to feed in a variety of ways. However, most humpbacks in BC prefer to lunge feed which involves rushing upward from the depths to nab a mouthful of food at the sea surface. Lunge feeding attracts a lot of attention, not only from whale watchers but other coastal wildlife too. Sea lions, seals, gulls, murres, cormorants, and other marine wildlife are often seen scavenging the leftovers from humpback whale meals.

Humpback whales in British Columbia are classified as “BCX”, “BCY”, or “BCZ” depending on the amount of white on the underside of their fluke. Big Momma’s fluke is a mix of white and black, making her a BCY whale. Interestingly, most humpback whales in BC are BCX whales (their flukes are mostly black). Have a look at Big Momma’s ID photograph and you’ll see that the fluke markings are quite distinctive. This is how we know which humpback whale is which – by the fluke patterns and shape.

The humpback's biggest threats in BC are vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Sadly, dozens of Pacific humpback whales are lost each year as a result of entanglements and vessel strikes. 

As humpbacks continue to return to BC’s coast in the spring and summer months, it’s important to determine their role in the marine food web and find out how they are using the Salish Sea habitat. This information can help us to better understand and protect them.


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