As she photographed the large animal around 30 feet in front of her, Sunshine Coast resident Tracey Thomas was able to check another item off her photography bucket list: the Pacific grey whale.
“The size just blows me away,” she said of the encounter.
Thomas picked up photography after moving to the Coast six years ago, and now spends most of her time outside – rain or shine – capturing photographs of whales or eagles.
When Thomas saw a post about a grey whale on the Sunshine Coast Whale and Dolphin Sightings Facebook group, she knew it was her opportunity. She’s spent several days photographing the whale from shore, and sharing her photos for others to enjoy. She’ll also be sending a report to researchers, since she was able to capture one photo of the whale’s tail, which can hopefully be used for identification.
Starting April 24, Coasters began reporting a grey whale near Bonniebrook and Roberts Creek. For at least five days, the creature – likely a mature adult, maybe a male – has been feeding near the shore.
Jessica Scott, the senior manager of Ocean Wise’s Whale Initiative, said grey whale sightings at this time of year have been pretty consistent on the Coast for the past decade or so.
“There has often been a grey whale in the Gibsons and Sechelt area feeding in the shallow waters,” Scott said. “It would be rare if we didn't get a report of a grey whale in the spring and summer months. So I was happy to see the grey whale sightings start to come in.”
The whale is on its migration route from winter breeding grounds in Mexico. Starting in April, they will been seen coming to the northern waters of B.C., Alaska, and Russia to feed. This means most of the Pacific grey whale population of around 27,000 will be passing the coast of B.C., and about 240 of them will spend their entire summer season feeding in the Pacific Northwest’s waters near Washington state and B.C. The majority of the grey whales will go all the way to the Arctic.
“This one was weird, because they don't usually stay around too long,” local photographer Martin Davis said. Davis, who turned from photographing humans to photographing the Coast’s wildlife during the pandemic, also spent several days taking photos of the whale as it zigzagged down the beach. It was his first sighting of a grey whale, and at one point he was able to capture it raising its fin, as if to wave "Hi."
So far, the BC Cetacean Sightings Network has received 28 reports of grey whales (between April 1 and April 29). In 2021, there were 153 reports of grey whales in B.C. waters. For all of 2022, there have been 92. This whale’s five-day stay off the Sunshine Coast generated about one report per day.
“We really encourage people to report,” Scott said, as it would be interesting to see how long this whale stays in the area.
“It's so nice to be able to share with everybody walking by,” Thomas said. Sometimes they won’t see what her camera is trained on, and as she waits for the whale to resurface, she tells them: “Wait a few minutes.”
Get to know the grey whale
The grey whale are typically solitary animals, except when a mother and calf may be travelling together. Their path and feeding will be quite visible, since they feed in nearshore, shallow areas. They’re frequently spotted off the coast of Vancouver Island and less so in the Salish Sea.
The Pacific grey whale is designated as a species of special concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Whales. They grow between 11 to 14 metres, and are quite easy to recognize, Scott said.
They’re the only common cetacean in local waters that don’t have a dorsal fin, but a series of small nubs on their backs. They can be identified by the patches of their mottled skin (although those patches change over time) and the barnacles that grow on them. From a distance, their blow can be easily spotted, as it is a low bush-like appearance, similar to the shape of a heart.
“We call them ‘moving rocks’,” Scott said. “You'll see them in like kelp beds off of sandy beaches, usually quite slow moving.”
You may be able to see a tail fluke with a deep notch in the middle when they dive.
Instead of teeth, the grey whale uses its baleen to eat. But unlike other baleen whales such as the humpback or fin whales that feed at the surface of the water, grey whales are benthic foragers, eating small crustaceans in the soft bottom sediment.
“So that's what that whale is doing there. It’s coming in really close to shore and kind of filtering that sediments from the soft bottom and it's like it's getting all those arthropods and things like that. So it's actually just hanging out there, basically eating continuously.”
The lifespan of grey whales is not known, but it is estimated they could live past 80 years old.
Even though the grey whale population has been bouncing back after whaling largely stopped in the late ‘90s and the population has been stable or increasing since 2002, there are other factors that have impacted their survival: predators (primarily transient killer whales) fishing gear entanglements, and ship noise or strikes.
Since 2019, there has been an ongoing grey whale “unusual mortality event,” Paul Cottrell, the marine mammal coordinator for the Pacific region of DFO, told Coast Reporter in March, as he worked on a fin whale necropsy in Pender Harbour. There were 11 dead grey whales found near B.C. in 2019, and his team was able to perform necropsies for about half of them. In 2020, another five grey whales were found dead. They were able to sample four of those five whales (one was too decomposed).
“And then this past year  we also had five more dead grey whales, with the most recent one being a young neonate that washed up in Tofino,” Cottrell said in March.
As of April 1, there have been 531 grey whales stranded since 2019 on the west coast of North America – an unusually high number, Scott said.
This has happened to the species before. Between 1999 and 2002, one third of the population died because of oceanographic factors and limited food supply. When the grey whales are breeding in Mexico waters, they will not eat at all. It isn’t until their northern migration that they begin feeding, having relied on their fat reserves for months, they have to rebuild their supply.
“They're dependent entirely on basically spending all of their summer months getting fat,” Scott said. “So if there's a limited food availability on their northbound migration, if they don't have the fat reserves, you're going to see strandings and emaciated animals.”
Of the recent necropsies done so far, Scott said, there have been signs of emaciation, which was determined to be the cause of the previous unusual mortality event, but has yet to be confirmed.
“It's really important that if people do see a grey whale, that they report it, because that helps us sort of monitor the distribution and the abundance of this population and kind of see if we're seeing any, any trends that are alarming,” she said.
What to do if you see a whale
If you see a healthy whale, sightings should be reported to Whale Report at report.wildwhales.org or through their app. The BC Cetacean Sightings Network enters the submissions into their database of more than 300,000 sightings, which is then available for researchers in B.C. The information can be used to establish marine protection areas and critical habitat.
Sightings are not just valuable for research, but for helping that whale right away.
“If you report in real-time, those reports will actually get used to alert large vessel mariners of whale presence via the Whale Report alert system,” Scott said. So when people are reporting that grey whale, they're actually protecting it against ship strike.” It can be especially useful, she said, if a whale is spotted near a BC Ferries route, as a heads up will allow the captain to slow down or divert course.
Boaters are required to stay at least 200 metres away and slow down to under seven knots when within 1,000 metres. (More information about guidelines and regulations can be found at bewhalewise.org.
If you see a whale in distress or dead, call the DFO Incident Reporting Line at 1-800-465-4336. That team will be able to disentangle a caught whale or perform a necropsy if the whale is found and reported soon enough.