Whale sightings rise across Salish Sea

Wednesday morning revealed some interesting news regarding our environment and the health of whale populations.

According to the Pacific Whale Watch Association and other local research organizations, 2022 was a record year for sightings of Bigg’s killer whales as well as humpback whales. The PWWA operates year-round whale-watching tours in and around the Salish Sea.

PWWA Executive Director Erin Gless explained why the sightings are up.

“The explanation is actually pretty simple. The reason we’re seeing so much success now with species like the Bigg’s killer whales and humpback whales is because we stopped hunting them, or hunting the things they eat,” said Gless.

PWWA experts said that Bigg’s killer whales and humpback whales were the most frequently documented whales in 2022. Different groups reported 1,221 unique sightings of Bigg’s killer whales throughout the Salish Sea.

Last year, gray whales were reported by the group on 200 days, and Minke whales on 158 days.

The group says the salmon-eating Southern Resident killer whale population remains endangered and is rarely encountered by professional whale watchers.

Bigg’s killer whales feed on marine mammals and have been increasing steadily for the past decade.

Gless said while orcas are common across our region, humpback whales were not until conditions changed.

“We are a big humpback whale buffet here. So, we here in the Salish Sea are unique in that we get a mixture of humpback whales from many different parts of the world. We get them from Hawaii, we get them from Mexico, we even get some humpback whales that come all the way from Central America,” said Gless.

Researchers with the Canadian Pacific Humpback Collaboration said that 396 individual humpback whales were photographed in the Salish Sea last year. That’s the highest number in a single year in the past 100 years. The figure includes a record-breaking 34 mothers with calves who traveled from their tropical birthing grounds.

The PWWA says the previous record of 21 humpback calves was set in 2021. Humpback whales, according to the whale watching group, are another success story, growing in number since protective measures were put in place in the 1960s.

The PWWA clarified that a “unique sighting” is a sighting of a specific group of whales on a single day and does not include repeat reports of the same whales on the same day. That number is 154 sightings more than the 2021 record, and double the number of Bigg’s sightings five years ago in 2017. During 2022, the PWWA reported a single-day record with more than 70 Bigg’s killer whales spread in area waters from Hood Canal in Washington to Vancouver Island’s Campbell River region in British Columbia.

Bigg’s killer whales were formerly called “transient” killer whales because they were seen infrequently decades ago. Their growing presence has prompted the research and whale-watching communities to change the name to Bigg’s killer whales, after pioneering killer whale researcher Dr. Michael Bigg.

“When Bigg’s were first studied in the Salish Sea, it was just after the implementation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” said Orca Behavior Institute Director Monika Wieland Shields. “In the decades since, seals, sea lions, and porpoises have all recovered in spectacular fashion. The Salish Sea can now support many more killer whales than it used to, and clearly, word has spread.”

“2022 was a memorable year full of record sightings and dozens of new calves,” Gless said. “Twenty years ago, it was rare to see humpbacks or Bigg’s killer whales in the Salish Sea. Now, we see them almost every day. It really demonstrates what’s possible if animals have an ample food supply.”