In the Salish Sea, there lives a humpback whale who is known by all. When her name is spoken only one title comes to mind—a living legend! We’re talking about none other than Big Mama, and she’s the next whale we’re featuring in our “Meet the Whales” series.

Let’s meet Big Mama the humpback, also known as BCY0324, and find out how she got her name and earned her legendary status!

Big Mama the humpback whale breaches right out of the water!
Big Mama breaching / Karac Lindsay Photography for Eagle Wing Tours

The whaling era

To fully understand Big Mama’s story, we must look to the past—to the middle of the 19th century. In and around the Salish Sea, there were stories circulating about the presence and abundance of big whales frolicking here during the summer and into the fall.

The local Coast Salish nations told stories about how you could step on the backs of the humpback whales across the islands because there were so many of them.

But the thing about stories is, they travel fast. They soon reached the ears of whalers and, boom, whaling began off British Columbia. There were two waves of whaling in the Strait of Georgia. One occurred from 1866 to 1873. The second ran from 1907 to 1908.

The primary product the whalers were after was oil, rendered from a whale’s blubber. It was calculated that one adult humpback whale could yield approximately 1,250 gallons of oil!

Whaling ended in the Salish Sea in 1908, but continued on the outer coast of Vancouver Island until 1967 when the last station was shut down. In total, whaling off British Columbia lasted 101 years, with humpback whales being a primary target.

What did this mean for humpback whales in the Salish Sea?

They were all gone. Every single one. Would they ever return?

Big Mama the humpback lunges to the surface as she feeds on small fish in the Strait of Georgia
Big Mama lunge-feeding in the Strait of Georgia, 2013 / Shorelines Photography for Eagle Wing Tours

Strong site fidelity

It’s important to this story to know that humpback whales show strong site fidelity. What the heck does that mean? Well, these animals are very intelligent beings who are thought to pass down information culturally. The first year of life is very important, because that’s when a calf learns a lot of this cultural information from its mother.

In other words, it learns how to become a successful humpback whale.

More specifically, this is when the migratory path is learned. In spring, the calf travels with its mother to the feeding grounds for the first time. In the fall, it usually follows her back down south to its place of birth.

Once split from mom, year after year, that calf usually returns to the same locations, or sites, on either end of the migration route because that’s all it knows. That’s site fidelity—an animal’s tendency to return to a previously occupied location.

Big Mama the humpback dives, showing the trademark wart on the top of her right fluke
Big Mama showing the trademark “wart” on her right fluke / Shorelines Photography for Eagle Wing Tours

A glimmer of hope

Fast forward to the mid-1990s in the Salish Sea. Whaling was long gone, but there were still no humpbacks to be seen. Why? First of all, whaling had drastically reduced humpback numbers in the entire North Pacific. From a pre-whaling estimate of 15,000, there may have been as few as 1,400 left.

Secondly, eliminating every single humpback from the Salish Sea wiped out the cultural knowledge that this feeding ground existed. This area was not known by other whales; the few remaining survivors were travelling to other feeding grounds, just as their mothers had taught them.

For almost 100 years, humpbacks were virtually absent from the Salish Sea. There were two sightings in Puget Sound in 1976 and 1978. But no regular returnees.

Then, in the fall of 1997, a single large baleen whale was spotted in Juan de Fuca Strait near Race Rocks, just west of Victoria. It was a humpback! There was big excitement. And a lot of questions. Where did this whale come from? Was it a male or female? Would it keep returning to the Salish Sea? We would have to wait to find out.

Big Mama dives showing us the underside of her flukes. The black and white markings there are unique to her, just like a fingerprint!
Big Mama’s distinctive underflukes / Shorelines Photography for Eagle Wing Tours

Big Mama is baaack!

By this point, researchers had determined that individual humpbacks can be identified by unique pigmentation markings and scratches on the underside of their flukes. These markings stay relatively unchanged throughout a whale’s life—just like a fingerprint!

The mystery whale was not seen in 1998, but it was documented in the area in 1999 and 2003. More importantly, in 2003 it returned to the Salish Sea with a new calf! That’s when the whale got her name—Big Mama!

Big Mama has now been documented in the Salish Sea every year since 2003. Over the years, she has brought in seven calves, many of which also call the Salish Sea home for the feeding season.

Most importantly, in the years following 2003, more adult humpbacks trickled into in the Salish Sea. Did Big Mama spread the word to other humpbacks that she had “discovered” a great feeding ground? Clearly, the word got out somehow. In only 20 years, more than 500 individual humpbacks have now been documented in the Salish Sea over the summer and fall.

The “humpback comeback” in the Salish Sea is in full swing and it all started with this beloved whale pioneer known as Big Mama!

Big Mama's 2016 calf, Pop Tart, breaches out of the water. This behaviour is how this young whale got its name!
Big Mama’s 2016 calf, Pop-Tart / Shorelines Photography for Eagle Wing Tours

Meet Big Mama’s kids

Several of Big Mama’s offspring—now adults—are also regulars in the Salish Sea and have become big favourites within the whale watching community.

There’s her son Split Fin (BCZ0298), born in 2006. Another son, Beak (BCX1606), was born in 2014. Daughter Tulip (BCX1560), born in 2012, made Big Mama a grandmother in 2020. And then there’s Pop-Tart (BCY1014), born in 2016, who got that name for his or her love of breaching as a calf. We don’t know yet whether Pop Tart is a boy or girl!

Curiously, three of Big Mama’s grown-up calves were seen feeding in the same area south of Victoria in late spring 2021. And on one day in August 2021, Big Mama was seen travelling side by side with adult son Split Fin! Were they swapping family stories? We can only wonder!

Big Mama and her 2022 calf swim side by side. Thanks to one of our photos, researchers already know it's a boy!
Big Mama and her 2022 calf—a son! / Showtime Photography for Eagle Wing Tours

A new bundle of joy

Baby alert! This past winter while Big Mama was down in her breeding grounds off Hawaii, we heard that she was seen with a brand new calf. The news created a buzz throughout our whale watching community as we awaited her safe arrival and the chance to meet her seventh known baby.

Punctual she was! Big Mama typically returns to the Salish Sea each year at the beginning of May and, sure enough, on May 2 she and her calf were spotted near Pender Island north of Victoria. We first saw them on our May 3 tour. From our photos that day, we worked with researchers to determine that the new calf is a boy!

Welcome back Big Mama, and congrats on successfully showing another little one that the Salish Sea is a great place to spend the summer feeding season!

Big Mama is seen swimming in calm waters with her tall blow backlit against the afternoon sun
Big Mama / Shorelines Photography for Eagle Wing Tours

A successful conservation story

If you’re looking for a dose of hope that conservation does truly work, the story of Big Mama and the humpback comeback is a great example! What did we do to allow for this rebound? We simply stopped killing them!

We all need to do what we can to protect this very special ecosystem that they call home for the summer, so that Big Mama and future generations of humpbacks will continue to thrive for many years to come.

Join us on a tour for your chance to meet Big Mama and her new son, and to learn more about the whales and wildlife of the Salish Sea! To book a tour give us a call or book online

Blog written by Melissa Blake, marine naturalist with Eagle Wing Tours

Published May 23, 2022