Rare whales surface in Robson Bight

 Threatened fin whales showing up near Island in increasing numbers

One of the two fin whales that paid a rare visit to Robson Bight this week. Fin whales, the second biggest species, are listed as threatened and are more usually seen in the open ocean. Photograph by: JARED TOWERS, DFO

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Posted 20 September 2011, by Judtih Lavoie, The Victoria Times Colonist, timescolonist.com

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The sound of lengthy whale blows echoing through the fog in Robson Bight caught whale researcher Marie Fournier’s attention Monday as she kept watch at an OrcaLab outpost.

Then, out of the fog, swam two massive fin whales — something never previously documented in Robson Bight, located off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

Fin whales, the second largest animal after blue whales, are starting to return to B.C. waters after being almost wiped out by decades of whaling, but they usually prefer the open ocean. Recent sightings have been several kilometres offshore.

“I was completely surprised. I had to do three or four double takes to make sure what I was seeing,” Fournier said.

The identity giveaway was the size of the animals, estimated at about 22 metres, and their huge blows, reaching five metres into the air, said Fournier, who called Jared Towers, a Fisheries and Oceans research technician.

When Towers arrived to take identification photographs, he discovered that he photographed one of the whales in Hecate Strait last summer.

“Just by luck it turned out to be the same animal,” Towers said.

It is hoped that the growing catalogue of photos will give some idea of the size of the fin whale population off Canada’s west coast, he said.

Fin whales are listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act.

John Ford, a marine mammal specialist at Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Pacific Biological Station who is conducting fin whale research, said the animals have previously been seen about 10 kilometres away around Malcolm Island, but not around Robson Bight.

“Something like this is very unusual. It’s the first time,” he said.

This year, about 50 fin whales were seen around Langara Island. In previous years, it was considered unusual to see five or 10, so it appears the population is probably increasing, although there is not yet a good estimate of the abundance, Ford said.

“Thousands of them were killed off before the last coastal whaling station closed down in 1967,” he said.

“They have likely been recovering over the last 45 years, and we may now be seeing a steep curve of population growth.”

Scientists in areas such as Alaska have also reported a return of fins, Ford said.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist
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