On Knowing the Winged Whale
Humpbacks are some of the most watched whales in the world, and yet so much of their lives remains a mystery.
Article body copy
In the middle of Johnstone Strait, close to the northern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, a calm June day has dialed up a plate-flat sea. But that won’t last long.
“Humpback,” says Jackie Hildering from the cockpit of her runabout, Fluke. She turns her head to a distant sound and a vertical cloud rising off the water.
There it is. Or he, or she; gender indeterminate. Hildering, a humpback whale researcher, angles the boat toward the humpback and throttles the engine way back. She’s just close enough to try—with a telephoto lens—to identify this individual by its unique tail flukes. Humpbacks are fairly slow swimmers, but this one’s moving quickly enough to make her job hard. A mobbing is going down. A half-dozen or so Pacific white-sided dolphins are swarming the whale Hildering will later identify from photographs as an adult named Squall.
The dolphins juke around Squall’s head and flanks. Why are they messing with the whale?
“Dolphins can be mystical and complete jerks—both things are true,” says Hildering, cofounder and director of education and communication at the Marine Education and Research Society (MERS), a Port McNeill–based nonprofit studying humpback and minke whales. These dolphins are potentially “learning by provocation,” as Hildering puts it. They’re clearly having a ball. Not so the humpback. This “most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales,” as Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, described the humpback, must be feeling mighty put upon. The whale flexes its body, trying to shake off the harassers, and rolls, exposing one of those great pectoral fins, which can be as long as one-third of its body length, and which gives the humpback its scientific genus, Megaptera, or “large-winged.” Squall slaps it down, apparently in self-defense, like a sweet-natured grandmother whacking a mugger with her umbrella.
As recently as a decade ago, this kind of scene was rare in BC waters. Dolphins routinely splashed about, but not humpbacks. Here in Johnstone Strait, the big show, the prime tourist draw, was killer whales—the salmon-eating residents that prowl the neighborhood. As the humpbacks began showing up in greater numbers in the early 2000s—here and across the North Pacific more broadly—their reputation grew to almost mythic status. They’re big acrobats and fascinating to watch. When researchers discovered that these filter-feeding baleen whales—they prey on small forage fish and invertebrates—will sometimes upend the marine mammal–eating transient killer whales’ dinner plans, that added even more to this new arrival’s narrative. Humpbacks are known to swoop in and disrupt a killer whale hunt, sometimes pulling a targeted seal or sea lion pup safely onto their belly with one of those pectoral fins. You could call them the ocean’s Justice League. “You know how you put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others?” says Fred Sharpe, a research biologist with the Alaska Whale Foundation who has been studying the species for over 30 years. “Humpbacks aren’t like that. They just wade right in to help those in need, as if they can’t help themselves.”
Spend time on the ocean watching humpbacks and you can’t help but be … stirred. Their ingenious feeding strategies, their transoceanic ambitions, the mere fact of their global recovery after a precariously close brush with oblivion, invites a depth of feeling rarely experienced in the average human day. Whatever depths there are to plumb in the hearts of humpbacks, we have been given a second chance to find out.
Hildering doesn’t want us to blow it.
Until the mid-1960s, humans were the villains in the humpbacks’ narrative.
Hunted to near extinction—as few as 5,000 remained, and they had disappeared from BC waters—humpbacks were saved by a 1966 ban on commercial harvesting in the North Pacific. They are managing to bounce back and repopulate in earnest. Of the 14 distinct populations of humpbacks worldwide, only four are still considered endangered. An updated census is in the works, but a 2008 study estimated that the entire North Pacific has around 20,000 humpbacks. The northeast Pacific Ocean has less than half that population: 3,000 to 5,000 each for the Gulf of Alaska and the combined southeast Alaska and northern British Columbia area, 200 to 400 for southern British Columbia and northern Washington, and 1,400 to 1,700 for California and Oregon. The numbers are encouraging. In 2014, the North Pacific humpback whale population was recommended for downlisting from threatened to a species of special concern under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, a change that came into effect in 2017.
In the United States, officials removed most humpback whale populations from the federal endangered species list in 2016, although the Mexico population that feeds off the coasts of California, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska was only downlisted to threatened.
We can embrace the humpback resurgence as a rare ecological good news story. Few animals that land on endangered species lists ever get off them, except for the wrong reason—they go extinct. But downlisting has some problems.
For one thing, it can paint a rosier picture than is actually the case. A humpback population can get a blanket bill of good health, while certain subgroups within it struggle mightily. In the Gulf of Alaska, humpbacks are not doing great, says biologist Jan Straley of the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) in Juneau. “I never thought I’d see the day when zero calves would [return to] Sitka Sound.” But for a few years there were no calves. The cause was probably a convergence of conditions six years ago that produced a Texas-sized patch of warm water—called the Blob—in the northeast Pacific Ocean that disrupted marine food chains and sent humpbacks into a nutritional tailspin.
Which is another problem with downlisting. When a species is no longer officially threatened, the sense of urgency can be lost, protections may fall away, and then recovery stalls when they’re suddenly dealt an environmental blow.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) began tracking individual humpbacks in BC waters back in 1989 when their recovery was still in question.
Wildlife populations are typically estimated in one of two ways: by sampling—counting the number of animals through line transects and extrapolating to a broader area—or by mark and recapture, whereby individual animals are caught, tagged, released, and then monitored. Humpback populations are unique in that you don’t need to mark them. “They come pre-marked,” as UAS researcher Ellen Chenoweth puts it, with those tails sui generis as a fingerprint.
DFO researchers systematically photographed the black-and-white pattern on the underside of a humpback’s tail and the pattern of bumps on its edge. They gave each photographed humpback an alphanumeric designation and sorted them into three groups—X, Y, and Z—based on the easiest shorthand visual: the amount of black or white on the tail. (So whale BCX004, for example, was the fourth mostly-black-tailed humpback documented in BC waters.)
In 2010, DFO stopped documenting individual humpback whales. However, MERS and the North Coast Cetacean Society (NCCS) on remote Fin Island, over 300 kilometers north of Port McNeill, and a handful of other groups continued the effort. In addition, they are also collaborating to achieve an updated province-wide catalog for humpback whales sighted off British Columbia’s coast.
Right now a mystery lurks in the local head count: humpbacks cannot reproduce quickly enough to generate the numbers we seem to be seeing in BC waters. “So they’re obviously coming from somewhere else,” says Hildering. Researchers in southeast Alaska have been keeping tabs on individual whales for a very long time, and while a few of their research subjects show up in BC waters from time to time, it’s nowhere near enough to account for the increase. To state the obvious, the ocean is vast and there are only a few scientists at specific locations keeping track of individual whales and comparing notes. It’s easy to lose sight of a whale between feeding grounds in the North Pacific and breeding grounds in Hawai‘i, Mexico, Central America, or Japan—one day you know exactly where it is, and then suddenly an animal the size of a city bus slips through your fingers.
Three years ago, however, a new tool debuted to help with the count more broadly: an online platform called Happywhale, which has brought thousands of citizen scientists the world over into the mix as data contributors.
Invented in 2015 by ecotourism operator and biologist Ted Cheeseman and rocket scientist Ken Southerland, Happywhale uses pattern-recognition software to identify whales. With Happywhale, you take a picture of the underside of a humpback’s tail and the algorithm tries to match it with one of the known humpbacks in its global database. With a good shot, the algorithm is now 99 percent accurate. A digital match isn’t the end of things, though; plenty of curation is still needed. Each entry is manually verified, and this is where local organizations like MERS and NCCS are invaluable. They provide the base data that Happywhale needs to solve the who’s-who puzzle. While a huge, multinational SPLASH project identified nearly 8,000 individual humpbacks from 2004 to 2006 using the old-fashioned method—eyeballing photographs of sighted whales and trying to find a match in a catalog—Happywhale boosted that number almost fourfold. Through the app, people have identified over 30,000 humpbacks worldwide to date, simply through eyes on the water.
Yet all this unsynced data can be confusing. Like international spies with multiple aliases, many humpbacks ply the oceans under different names. “I think the most we have is eight for one whale, traveling between Hawai‘i, British Columbia, and southeast Alaska,” says Cheeseman, who is a PhD candidate at Southern Cross University in Australia. Cheeseman is managing data from 74 different humpback catalogs worldwide. “The coordination,” he says, “is being figured out.”
Hildering and Janie Wray, of NCCS, are relentless in their data collection, gathering information from their personal sightings and those of local whale watchers and private boaters. When someone submits a sighting to MERS, Hildering and her colleagues look for a match in the MERS catalog. If a match is found, the sighting information is entered into a database, a record that keeps track of the whale. If a match can’t be found in any of the catalogs, the submission may be a first for an undocumented whale.
Whatever the system, at the top of the data-collection funnel is still a pair of human eyes. And Hildering’s are among the best.
Nikon dangling from her neck, Hildering steers her open boat out toward Weynton Passage. The wind blows her hair around. She stands five foot two (1.6 meters) but looks taller at the helm of Fluke. Gulls are circling, and common murres are diving in and bursting out of the water. That catches Hildering’s attention: the bird activity means there’s likely schooling herring, the same diet humpbacks in these waters enjoy.
“There,” she says, pointing. I see nothing at first, then, faintly, what looks like campfire smoke on the shore. It’s a blow, two meters high and straight up. That’s textbook humpback. “What we do now depends on who this is,” Hildering says. “If it’s a known whale, we document its location. If it’s a new whale we have to do more.”
Unlike killer whales, which can largely be identified by the shape of their dorsal fin, identifying humpback whales by their stubby little dorsal fin is trickier. “It’s like identifying humans by their nose,” Hildering says. “You can do it, but you can also go crazy trying.” But sometimes dorsal fins are distinct enough to offer a nickname. Gender is trickier. If a whale is lying on its back, tail lobbing, a bump called a hemispheric lobe is sometimes visible. It’s a telltale sign of a female. You can also tell a humpback is female if it’s seen with a tiny calf. As for the chances of spotting a male appendage, unless somehow caught in the act of mating, a penis is never visible.
The whale Hildering has spotted dives and resurfaces, draped in seaweed; he’s playing in the kelp beds. “I’m almost positive this is Ojos Blancos,” she says, pulling out her little yellow notebook. That’s white eyes in Spanish, named for the dots on the whale’s tail flukes.
“Who gets namer’s rights?” I ask.
“You don’t get namer’s rights,” Hildering says. The first to spot an unidentified humpback “gets the privilege of making a suggestion,” she says. The name ought, ideally, to evoke some distinctive physical feature of the whale. One local humpback has a dorsal fin with a little lean; it’s called Pisa. Another’s tail flukes boast what looks like a musical score—dot dot dot stripe. Da Da Da Dum. That’s Beethoven. Names like Zephyr and Poptart and Jigger are more likely to make the cut than, say, Humphrey. (Wait: that one did stick.)
There’s another reason to use names rather than serial numbers: it creates a connection. And connection is the royal road to conservation—as environmentalists discovered when they started giving names (like Luna or the Carmanah Giant) to individual trees within forests they were trying to protect. Whales have an advantage over trees in that you don’t have to split philosophical hairs about whether they’re actually sentient beings. It’s narrative engagement with humpbacks—becoming part of their story—that Cheeseman credits for the success of his Happywhale app. (After you report “your” whale, you get an email notification when it’s next spotted; you can track its progress as it lives out its life.) And that’s also why a number of marine nonprofits, including MERS, have adopt-a-whale programs—feeling a kindred spark with an individual humpback is a good way to open wallets.
Hildering finally gets a positive identification on the seaweed-draped whale—and I can practically feel her vibrating with satisfaction when she does. It is Graffiti, so-named because of the patterning on its tail flukes—to me, a pretty good facsimile of a Jackson Pollock painting.
While we do have an idea of where Graffiti, or Zephyr, or Poptart roam in any given year, humpbacks keep researchers on their toes: a couple of studies have shown that individual whales sometimes switch breeding grounds. One left the eastern North Pacific feeding grounds to breed in Japan one year, and went to Hawai‘i the following year. Another whale, spotted in Hawai‘i one year, was sighted in Mexico the next. Overall, what we know is still swamped by what we don’t know about humpbacks.
They don’t use echolocation like toothed whales do—so how do they navigate to their breeding grounds? “Five degrees off and they’d blast right by the Hawaiian Islands,” says Hildering. One theory: animal magnetism. Biomagnetite crystals have been found in whale brains.
How do they hunt? There are only theories, and one of the more fun ones is that they listen for the farts of their prey. The truth is, however, that “nobody on Earth knows how baleen whales find their food,” Hildering says.
How long do they live?
“We haven’t had enough time to figure out how long they can live,” Hildering says.
Why do they sing?
Hildering leans close.
“We’ve been studying the question for over 40 years and still nobody knows why humpbacks sing.”
The first whales Hildering had the privilege of seeing in the wild weren’t humpbacks but killer whales—the matriline A12—here in Johnstone Strait. “Let’s call it what it was—an epiphany,” Hildering says. She heard them before she saw them: that telltale crunching of stones, through the hydrophone of the whale watching boat hovering outside the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve where the whales were rubbing their bodies in the shallows full of smooth pebbles. Then, together, they swam out of the reserve. “And slowly, I saw this family in unison. It felt like I’d been slapped upside the head,” Hildering says. “I realized that I’d drifted off course.”
At the time, Hildering was visiting from the Netherlands where she worked as the deputy head of Rotterdam’s international school. The killer whale encounter changed everything. Hildering moved back to Vancouver Island, where she’d grown up. Stubbs Island Whale Watching, the company that had delivered her transcendence, gave her a job as an interpreter. It was 1999 and humpbacks were still an absolute rarity in these waters. But as her boat tours ranged the area in search of killer whales, humpback sightings became more frequent. A true naturalist with insatiable curiosity, Hildering had to know who these whales were. Her position out on the water allowed her to do just that.
And so, aboard the tour boats, she told the humpbacks’ story.
How each spring they leave their tropical breeding grounds and make the long return trip back to their feeding grounds as far north as the Bering Sea—the second-farthest mammalian migration on the planet (gray whales are thought to swim farther). Humpbacks can put as much mileage on their odometers each year as the average North American puts on a car—up to 16,000 kilometers round trip.
Because Hildering was out on the water every day, she kept track of the local humpbacks: just seven in 2003 and double that the next year. The summer of 2019, she identified 93, perhaps more when all the data is logged. Hildering, a biologist and teacher by training, built her credibility as a humpback researcher through sheer dogged reporting—just observing the animal, taking notes, and reporting what she finds. The first humpback she ever identified—BCX0022, aka Houdini—hasn’t been seen in years, but some of her calves are still around. There are over 380 individuals in MERS’s catalog, and Hildering can often pretty much anticipate their movements. “Once Argonaut comes back, I know very likely where he is,” she says. “I know what Slash does when she has a calf. … Some of them are incredibly predictable in how they behave. But then suddenly things will change. Like, there’s a whale called Freckles that has incredible site fidelity, and then this year, she wasn’t sighted in our area at all; she was sighted in Alaska. Like, what the heck, Freckles?!”
Hildering has an accomplice at MERS: Christie McMillan, a marine biologist who is director of humpback whale research for the organization. The two make a formidable team; together they have made some unique contributions to the field.
In 2011, Hildering observed a young whale named Moonstar, just three years old at the time, engaging in some highly unusual behavior. Humpbacks in these waters are typically lunge feeders, surging up from the depths, mouth agape, to engulf the schools of fish neatly rounded up by diving birds. But what Moonstar did that day was totally different. He was at the surface, poised with his mouth open like a Venus flytrap, letting the birds do the work of scaring the fish into his mouth, and using his pectoral fins to give the fish the final push in. Little Moonstar and an adult male named Conger were the only ones doing it. Hildering was stumped.
“I thought, What the hell are you doing?” Hildering recalls.
Conger and his young pal Moonstar had hit on a sensible way to snack on a few stray juvenile herring. The new technique, which they dubbed trap feeding, soon spread through the local humpback neighborhood—at last count to 25 whales. All animals adapt or die. But it’s rare to observe one, in real time, MacGyvering a solution to changing conditions.
McMillan reckons trap feeding may be a response to dwindling fish stocks. Add in the other observed anomalies—humpbacks returning from breeding grounds to Alaska waters with fewer calves, and changing migration patterns—and the plot thickens. A prevailing theory is the new behaviors are linked to changes in ocean conditions, such as acidification of the water and the vexing Blob that’s been messing with their prey.
Hildering and her colleagues continued to study the behavior and in 2018 published a much-cited paper, coauthored with McMillan and Jared Towers of MERS.
It would be interesting to know what humpbacks are making of these massive changes in their lifetime, if only they could talk.
But of course they can.
On the rocky north shore of Hanson Island, just off Telegraph Cove, in the waters of the Inside Passage of northern Vancouver Island, sits a weathered building perched on pilings. It looks like either a destination brunch place or a redoubt to ride out the end of the world. This is OrcaLab, and on a Saturday afternoon, Hildering noses Fluke up to the dock for a visit with its founders, the husband-and-wife team of Paul Spong and Helena Symonds.
If whales had an undersea liberty monument, Paul Spong’s name would be on it. At the front of the push to ban killer whales in captivity—a stance that got him fired from his research position at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1974—Spong, a neuroscientist by training, is also credited with persuading Greenpeace to pivot from banning nukes to saving whales.
In 1980, Spong and Symonds built OrcaLab and set up a hydrophone array to capture killer whale conversations as they bounced along the acoustic window between northern Vancouver Island, the BC mainland via Johnstone Strait, and Blackfish Sound. For 40 years, volunteers have spelled each other off at the audio deck, 24/7, recording every sound. The by-catch of all that killer whale data is hundreds and hundreds of hours of humpback vocalizations.
That is what we’ve come to hear.
Symonds pushes play on some recent recordings, and, with the acoustic smog of boat traffic filtered out, humpback chat fills the room.
I hear pops and squawks and whirrs and clicks. Humpbacks sound quite different from other vocalists in their environment, unless they don’t, by choice: humpbacks have been known to mimic their neighbors. Sometimes they sound like killer whales, sometimes they sound like birds. Not long ago, OrcaLab picked up a particular humpback call followed by a rush of bubbles. It was puzzling. That call had previously been thought to be a kind of dinner bell, mustering up the group to get in position to eat by bubble-net feeding, a strategy where whales release bubbles from their blowholes to create a curtain around their prey, which panic and form a bait ball. On a signal, the pod lunges up to devour the fish. Each humpback has a particular role and a particular position. They all surface at the exact same spot in relation to others, every single time.
But this humpback was alone. “If they’re doing it on their own,” Hildering says, “that suggests the call has at least as big a role in getting the fish to school up.”
It’s in the tropical waters of their mating grounds that humpbacks really let fly acoustically. There, males issue purring “pickup lines,” a term coined from the research of University of Queensland, Australia, scientist Rebecca Dunlop. Males also dial it up; songs are louder than the non-musical social sounds humpbacks make. Researchers have recorded decibel levels well over 150 from more than 10 kilometers away—in comparison, a jet engine chimes in at 140 decibels from 30 meters away. Some have deemed these tours de force, with repeating refrains, crosses between a Bach fugue and “Stairway to Heaven,” as beguiling and downright sexy.
Those are the sounds that saved the whales.
Those tones pierced the heart of biologist Roger Payne in 1970, when he heard a recording of them captured by a US Navy vessel. Payne did something that now looks like genius: he released those humpback songs on vinyl. They caught an Age of Aquarius updraft to the top of the pop charts. Meanwhile, Payne’s peer-reviewed paper on humpback song was steaming toward publication as the lead article in the journal Science. Soon humpbacks were the face of the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, Sweden. “Really, [the recording] ushered in the modern ocean conservation movement,” says Sharpe. “It paved the way for stewardship of the oceans just generally.”
Payne called humpback song “the most evocative, most beautiful sounds made by any animal on Earth.” And NASA apparently agreed. Aboard the Voyager 1 and 2 probes, launched in 1977 and now soaring through deep space, is the calling card of our planet: a golden record of a soundtrack from the third rock from the sun. Interspliced with greetings from UN diplomats, along with other natural sounds—thunder and crickets and the sound of a kiss—are songs of the humpback whale. In our only deliberate attempt to represent Earth to extraterrestrial beings, we gave humpback whales a status equivalent to our own. Which is not so far off Indigenous perspectives of humpbacks. To the Indigenous people of northern Vancouver Island, for example, humpbacks are the record keepers, repositories of ancient wisdom, swimming libraries. But in the Eurocentric telling, the story of humpbacks has been completely reversed. Two centuries ago, they were monsters. Half a century ago, they were hamburger. Now they are the ocean’s mystical elders. Not like us: in some ways better than us.
They are our janitors, even if they don’t know it, reversing our most egregious mess: climate change. The great whales are carbon-sequestering machines. The surface phytoplankton blooms nurtured by their poop pull vast amounts of carbon out of the air. And when a humpback dies, the 30-odd tonnes of carbon its body absorbed sinks with it. Not long ago, economists at the International Monetary Fund tried to put a dollar figure on those cetacean carbon credits, along with tourism and other economic benefits. The average great whale, such as a humpback, they reckoned, is probably worth US $2-million.
They share songs and embellish them, in a way that’s effectively jazz, yet, in a way, they’re ahead of humans when it comes to communication. Chatting across whole oceans, Sharpe says, their songs are such marvels of data compression—whereby songs are “packed up” for their transoceanic journey, like concentrated orange juice—that they’re now being studied by scientists at the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, California, as an analog for interstellar messaging. Humpbacks also use tools (bubbles), and they learn from each other (hunting strategies).
There’s nothing to call that but culture. The Justice League? Well, that’s harder to settle. Whether humpbacks are genuinely altruistic remains a matter of fierce debate.
In October 2017, marine biologist Nan Hauser was filming a humpback in the Cook Islands when it seemed to turn on her, nudging her roughly back toward her boat. She climbed to safety, the only blood on her from scrapes from the barnacles that cling to humpbacks. Only then did she see the tiger shark. She’s convinced the humpback was saving her life. “I’m a scientist, and if anyone told me this story, I wouldn’t believe it,” she says. Having been scooped from the path of a tiger shark may produce a forgivably rosy view of humpback altruism, but scientists are inclined to explain such behavior in terms of an instinctive protective response against any predator that might hurt a baby humpback.
Still, the desire to anthropomorphize and interact with animals on our own terms can be strong.
Paul Spong himself was not immune. At the Vancouver Aquarium he’d observed that the resident killer whale seemed to like listening to music, and so “that first summer I was here at OrcaLab, I played music I thought the whales might be interested in,” he says. Through underwater speakers, he piped Beethoven and the Stones to see if the whales would respond.
“Eventually I got it,” Spong says. “Their lives are centered around each other. And we really exist on the periphery for them.”
That’s more or less Hildering’s position as well.
Some people may feel a need for a relationship but it’s very one-sided, and respect on the whale’s terms has been slow to sink in, so noticeable by how unmindful we really are of their needs. Quieter oceans, yes, but also litter-free. Roughly half of the humpbacks in Hildering’s study area bear the scars of entanglement. Those are the lucky ones, the ones that broke free from our forgotten garbage or ghost fishing gear. It’s anyone’s guess how many, less lucky, sink to the bottom each year.
On a still evening in late June 2019, locals, visitors, and a few dozen local business operators file into the whale museum in Telegraph Cove, a picturesque outpost on northern Vancouver Island that, in summer, is usually a bustling base camp for ecotourism. At this preseason meeting, which includes organizations such as MERS, DFO, BC Parks, and others, people take seats under the skeleton of an 18-meter fin whale hanging from the ceiling. Jim Borrowman, a former whale watching captain who now runs the Whale Interpretive Centre, introduces everyone, and then the presenters get up one by one to speak.
“Show of hands,” says Hildering, when it’s her turn. “Who here has hit or almost hit a humpback whale?”
Eighty percent of the hands shoot up.
“I myself have almost hit one,” Hildering says. “They are that unpredictable.”
In the inshore waters of British Columbia, boaters have become used to navigating around killer whales—they are, usually, pretty obviously going somewhere. They generally travel linearly with their iconic black dorsal fins often visible at the surface. Humpbacks, meanwhile, can surface suddenly after a long dive. They travel in unpredictable patterns. On top of that, they will burst into acrobatic action. Hildering sees it over and over: a boater assumes the humpback is going in a straight line and steers accordingly, like a driver casually calculating to just miss a crossing pedestrian. And the rest is trauma care.
Hildering keeps news reports at the ready as cautionary tales: in May 2013, a Campbell River man needs facial reconstruction surgery after a humpback suddenly breaches in front of his fishing boat, sending him through the windshield. In 2017, a customer in a guided fishing vessel off Haida Gwaii is thrown when the boat collides with a suddenly appearing humpback. He breaks his spine.
Hildering considers this the most urgent work of MERS right now: “To try to close that awareness gap—that you’re putting yourself at risk if you’re just bombing along as per normal not realizing that a whale could suddenly surface in front of your boat.”
In May 2019, humpbacks were spotted in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, lured there by the good hunting and undeterred by freighters, ferries, and cruise ships so big they can kill a whale with their bow. Humpbacks can be astonishingly oblivious to boats. Most of the time, it’s become clear that humpbacks don’t know where the boats are, Hildering says. “Or, they might be aware of a boat, but choose to keep feeding.” And those boats have an impact beyond the risk of collision. Hildering says all marine mammals could well have hearing loss from the low- and high-frequency noise we add to their acoustic environment. It’s not a far-fetched theory. Some biologists believe that the sounds of modernity—like explosive seismic testing for petroleum resources, loud military sonar, and boat engines—significantly harm all kinds of ocean animals.
Whether or not marine mammals are actually going deaf, there’s growing evidence noise is a stressor for them. The first evidence came out of the unanticipated experiment that was 9/11. Two New Brunswick–based research teams had been studying right whales in the Bay of Fundy when the tragedy happened. Shipping along the East Coast was suddenly and completely shut down, and for a few days, the ocean got very, very quiet. The whale researchers had been finding high levels of stress hormones in whale poop. But as the seas briefly returned to 17th-century tranquility, the stress levels in whales eased up.
Anthropogenic noise likely impacts whale communication—exactly how much is under scrutiny. Like most whale species, humpbacks only became objects of scientific interest in the 1970s, and until we know more, giving the whales lots of space is probably the kindest, most sensible thing we can do.
Which is, of course, exactly what most people aren’t inclined to do. At the meeting in Telegraph Cove, an image of a section of Johnstone Strait where whales ply is beamed onto a screen. Boats cram the frame.
Hildering has complicated feelings about the whale watching industry as a whole. On one hand, she knows firsthand the power of seeing whales in the wild; it can be the gateway to a lifelong appreciation for, and stewardship of, nature. Endangered species are never saved if no one cares. Research shows commercial whale watching operations are far less likely to flout the law and encroach on whales than pleasure craft are. And from the very beginning, whale identification has been a joint project of researchers and whale watching captains, deckhands, naturalists, and other citizen scientists who supply valuable field data. Of course, not all whale watching is the same. The difference between doing it respectfully and doing it for the almighty dollar can be subtle. Those that roar in, deliver the guaranteed sighting, and roar out is a perpetuation of the idea of human above nature. That’s also a lot of carbon in the air, a lot of decibels in the water.
There is a passage in Diane Ackerman’s 1991 book The Moon by Whale Light in which the intrepid author acts on a “swim with the [fill in the blank]” zeitgeist. She swims close enough to a humpback and its calf to touch them. She peers into the mother’s eyes and sends messages of loving kindness. It’s a scene so seductive it made a whole generation add “swim with whales” to their bucket list.
Hildering’s mission is to undo this kind of thinking. To explain why getting up-close and personal is a bad idea. To limn the tricky balance of appreciating these animals and celebrating them, without making everyone think they have to mind-meld with them.
“Burdening them with our spiritual needs” is the last thing humpbacks deserve, she says. “They’re not monsters and they’re not gods. They’re just wild.”
In a few places in the world, there are opportunities to dive or snorkel with humpbacks, considered among the most docile of whales and unlikely to do you intentional harm. But they are rather large. As one online poster in a forum on swimming with gray whales, called friendlies, in Mexico mused: “Would you stand out on the interstate to get a closer look at the 18 wheelers?” They’re not out to get you, but they’re dangerously big.
Swimming with whales—interacting with any wildlife on our own terms, in general—is about ourselves, not the conservation of the species.
In fact, if you were a jerk, you could go have an interaction with a humpback called Two Spot near Campbell River. “There are whales that, for whatever reason, sometimes choose to interact with boats, and if you have the knowledge of how to identify these whales, you can set up an interaction like that,” Hildering says. “You have contributed to the hot breath of humanity wanting to get closer to whales. So you have your close encounter, and then you post it online. And now you have helped contribute to the habituation. And if next week Two Spot is sushied up by a boat motor, that’s on you, buster.
“Look, not wanting to suck the pure joy out of it—it does happen that sometimes they just come up to you,” Hildering says.
“What should you do then?” I ask.
“If, unexpectedly, a whale suddenly is close to the boat, and you can’t slowly get out of the way, then shut off your engines,” Hildering says. “The experience you’re having should be as close as possible to the wildlife doing what it’s doing as if you were not there.”
Watching whales should be like going back in time in a thought experiment: you can’t touch anything, or do anything, or even say anything that could even slightly knock off-kilter the natural progress of events. Interference is deadly, but in ways impossible to comprehend in the moment.
In our last hour on the ocean, Hildering hitches Fluke to some bull kelp and cuts the engine. From a cross section of kelp she fashions a horn, which she tips to the heavens and flugels out an almost-recognizable “Baby Shark.”
Hildering has a more ambitious agenda than simply educating people about marine creatures.
“The humility we need to have about humpbacks suggests a humility we should also have about the world in which they live,” she says.
A question we have no business asking of charismatic mammals—“Do you love me?”—ought to be replaced with the more useful “Who are you?” ecologists have suggested. But that latter question can be turned on ourselves. For if whales tell us things about the health of the ocean, they are also a barometer, Hildering says, of our own value systems.
So it’s probably worth making a habit, at every turn, of questioning where we are in our relationship with wild animals and wild spaces in general—how do we fit into their world?