In the heart of the Olympic rain shadow, a whale leaps skyward. With a giant splash and clap of thunder, the humpback falls back into the sea.
Rising to the surface, a spout towers skyward and sparkles in the sunshine. A giant tail then arches and the leviathan slips below the waves. The Salish Sea humpbacks have returned.
Humpback whales once were common in the waters surrounding the Olympic Peninsula. In the 1800s, these leviathans attracted the attention of whalers on tall ships. When a spout was sighted, hand-rowed longboats were lowered, and the chase was on. Harpoons were thrown by hand, and captured whales were towed ashore and rendered on the beach.
Whales had a good chance of escaping, and the local population appeared little affected. Most of the whaling effort occurred in the Strait of Georgia, where place names such as Blubber Bay, Baleenas Islands and Whale Bone Point remind us of this period.
All were slaughtered
Industrial whaling began in 1907. Humpbacks were no match for steam-powered ships and harpoons with exploding tips. In one season, all the Salish Sea humpbacks were killed, and whales vanished for nearly a century.
In the late 1960s, a world moratorium on hunting gave humpbacks a reprieve. Regionally, our humpbacks began to recover first along the outer coast. Swiftsure Bank at the mouth of the Juan de Fuca Strait has become a favored feeding ground for these animals.
During the past decade, humpbacks began to wander eastward into the Salish Sea. A large female called Momma was among the first humpbacks to reappear. She now returns each summer to the Salish Sea, as do her children's children.
Swimming more than 5,000 miles a year, our humpbacks arrive from winter birthing grounds in Polynesia or Mexico. A few individuals even make the long trek from Costa Rica.
Envy of the world
Humpbacks can be rambunctious. Herman Melville wrote that they were the most gamesome and lighthearted of whales. Our North Pacific humpbacks are behaviorally complex.
In southeast Alaska, humpbacks gather into hunting teams that number more than a dozen whales. Individuals form bonds that endure for decades and perhaps for a lifetime. Some become team leaders and blow large bubble nets for their pod. Others give haunting calls to chase fish into the bubble corral.
Here in the Salish Sea, humpback numbers have not recovered to form such complex social institutions.
An international census of North Pacific humpbacks, the SPLASH project, has been completed. Sponsored by John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, the study has estimated upward of 400 whales summer along the outer coast of Washington and Vancouver Island.
The modest, yet encouraging recovery of humpbacks in local waters has been documented by Mark Malleson of Victoria, British Columbia. Over the past decade Malleson has documented more than 40 different whales roaming past southern Vancouver Island.
As humpbacks numbers grow, it is remarkable to watch our attitudes also evolve. In Victoria in 1866, an article in the Times Colonist noted:
"Mr. Warren ... is preparing whale boats and apparatus for waging war on the monsters of the deep."
Today, whale enthusiasts blog about spouts, spy hops and friendly whales.
Humpbacks may live up to a century. Some individuals are alive today that survived the final flurry of killing in the mid-1960s. It is unlikely that they have forgotten, but they do appear to forgive.
The best is yet to come. The SPLASH project found that more than 20,000 humpbacks now grace the waters of the North Pacific. This population is growing at a brisk 7 percent a year.
If this population continues to recover - and we make room for them - the Salish Sea may be home to their trumpet calls and breaching. Humpbacks are ancient, momentous beings. We have yet to decipher their songs and social calls.
Each set of flukes is powered by an enigmatic personality. Their brains are the largest among animals that ever roamed this earth. Their return comforts us and somehow remind us that we are not alone on this earth.
However, they still are at our mercy.
The Salish Sea has become humanized and risky. Fishery depletions, military sonar, collisions with ships, boat propellers, entanglements in fishing gear, noise pollution, contaminants and industrialized shorelines pose potential threats.
You can celebrate celebrate our local whales, seals and seal lions in many ways:
_ To see fluke identification images of our local humpbacks, visit the Humpback Whale Catalogue at the Center for Whale Research at whaleresearch.org.
_ The Port Townsend Marine Science Center and The Olympic Coast Discovery Center in Port Angeles are great places to discover whales and their marine ecosystems.
_ Listen to the sounds of orcas in the Salish Sea at orcasound.net.
_ To get daily news of our local cetaceans and to report whale sightings, visit orcanetwork.org or call 866- ORCANET.
The recovery of great whales gives us cause to celebrate. Like the breaching of the humpback, now we too have a reason to jump for joy.
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