Happy World Whale Day!

We all love whales. They’re big. They’re beautiful. They breathe air just like us. They nurture their young like us. They can have strong family bonds like us. Many are long-lived like us. They think, they play. Just like us!

And yet whales remain shrouded in mystery. They live in a dark, often hostile world. They’re designed very differently. They have sensory superpowers that we barely understand. They speak languages that sound alien to us. And they spend most of their lives out of our sight.

It’s for all these reasons that they captivate us!

Breaching Bigg’s killer whale. Tomis Filipovic Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

World Whale Day is a perfect opportunity to celebrate these incredible marine mammals. It’s also a good time for us to ponder the many threats they’re facing. And more importantly, what each one of us can do to make their lives a little easier.

Here are five challenges facing whales today in and around the Salish Sea. We know these problems can seem overwhelming. But remember that knowledge is power. There are many positive actions you can take in your daily lives—no matter how small they may seem—to protect the whales and their ocean habitat.

1. BC’s killer whales are among the most contaminated on the planet

Bigg’s killer whales. Sierra Hamilton Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

We’ve known for years that BC’s killer whales—southern residents and Bigg’s—are carrying alarmingly high loads of dozens of toxic substances that come from human activity. These chemicals find their way from land into the ocean through sewage treatment plants, industrial and agricultural runoff, and storm drains.

The toxins work their way up the marine food chain where they’re known to disrupt hormonal and immune systems, or affect brain and cognitive function. And keep in mind, many of us love to eat seafood too!

One of these toxic compounds is known as 4NP. It’s found in things like soap, detergents, insecticides, toilet paper and textile processing. There are also PBDEs, which are found in everything from computers to cars to textiles. And there are PFAs, which are used in food packaging, cookware and fire extinguishers.

Bigg’s killer whale. Shorelines Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

What can you do to help?

  • Shop smart: buy recycled and biodegradable products. And buy local!

2. Whales are ingesting millions of manmade microparticles

Feeding grey whale. Shorelines Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

A shocking 2022 study revealed that grey whales off the Oregon coast are consuming between 6.5 and 21 million particles of manmade microparticles every day. Other whales, such as blue whales and humpbacks, are also ingesting millions of microparticles daily.

Microparticles are tiny pieces of plastic and synthetic fibres that are less than 5 mm in size—no bigger than a few grains of sand. They come from many sources—from the breakdown of plastic garbage (microplastics), to microbeads in products like cosmetics and shampoos, to the tiny particles shed from synthetic clothing in our washing machines.

Human-sourced microparticles are now everywhere in the marine food chain. And they’re in our bodies too. The long-term health implications of microparticles for us, whales and other animals at all levels of the food chain are not known. But they can’t be good. And while eliminating these microparticles from the environment will require dramatic changes on a global scale, all of us can find ways to reduce their spread.

Plastic fragments on a beach / Simon Ager Photography

What can you do to help?

  • Give single-use plastics a pass; look for alternatives. Reduce plastic use overall. Recycle properly.
  • Choose and dispose of compostable and biodegradable plastics carefully. Despite what a manufacturer claims, they may not break down easily in the ocean, landfill or your backyard.
  • Stop buying bottled water. Every year, close to 20 billion plastic bottles are tossed into the trash or ocean. Refill a reusable bottle instead.
  • Never release balloons into the environment. They kill wildlife and degrade into microplastics. There are many other ways to celebrate a special occasion.
  • Where possible, choose clothing made from natural textiles. Opt for personal care products that don’t contain microbeads.
  • Volunteer for a shoreline cleanup, no matter where you live.
  • Speak up about ocean plastic pollution. Share ideas! Put pressure on manufacturers, grocery stores and restaurants to find alternatives to plastic!

3. Southern resident killer whales are not getting enough to eat

Southern resident killer whale with salmon. Showtime Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

The critically endangered southern residents are facing many problems, but by far the biggest is a chronic shortage of their preferred food—chinook salmon. At least 80% of their annual diet is chinook, which is the largest and fattiest of the seven species of salmonid in the Pacific Northwest.

Since the 1970s, chinook abundance on the BC coast has plummeted by more than 50%. Some populations are already extinct. Many others are endangered.

Why? They’ve been overharvested. Their spawning rivers have been blocked with dams and roads. Their spawning and estuarine habitats have been destroyed or degraded. We catch food they need to eat, such as herring, for ourselves. In-water salmon farms expose them to disease and parasites.

In addition, governments continue to allow mixed stock and interception commercial fisheries. These fisheries indiscriminately catch migrating and non-target salmon, and result in wasteful bycatch. In 2022-23 BC trawlers caught and discarded more than 28,000 salmon, over 90% of them chinook. That’s enough fish to sustain three to four southern resident killer whales for a year!

Part of J-pod in 2016. Showtime Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

What can you do to help?

  • Make informed seafood choices. Use a handy guide to sustainable seafood, such as OceanWise and Seafood Watch.
  • If you’re a recreational fisher, practice low-impact catch-and-release with wild chinook.
  • Get involved. Join, support or volunteer with a local stream-keeper group to help restore salmon habitat.
  • Speak up. Tell your elected representative that commercial fisheries must be managed in a more sustainable way that considers the needs of the entire marine ecosystem, including whales!

4. Humpback whales are getting entangled in fishing gear

Humpback with entanglement disfigurement. Joe Zelwietro Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

One of the most damaging types of marine plastic pollution is abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear, commonly called ghost gear. About 10% of the world’s ocean plastic pollution is made up of plastic-based fishing nets and rope.

Every year, an estimated 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoise get accidentally entangled in nets and lines and die a slow and painful death through suffocation, starvation, or exhaustion. Large baleen whales such as humpbacks are especially at risk. It’s estimated that nearly 50% of the humpback whales along the BC coast have entanglement scars. And those are just the ones that managed to free themselves!

Shorelines Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

What can you do to help?

  • Avoid setting fishing gear when whales are near.
  • Reduce excess line; adjust rope lengths between fishing gear and buoys.
  • Remove any fishing gear you’re not actively tending.
  • Ensure lines and buoys are in good working condition and clearly marked as required.
  • Report whale entanglements immediately to the DFO hotline at 1-800-465-4336. Don’t try to remove the entanglement yourself. Leave that for the experts!

5. Whales are being hit by vessels

Humpback with healed vessel collision injury. Shorelines Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

Imagine if high-speed vehicles were driving through your kitchen, living room or bedroom? It sounds pretty horrible, right? Substitute vehicles with ships and smaller vessels and this is what many species of whale live with on a daily basis, especially if they live near coastal areas.

Whale and large ship collisions are occurring at an increasing rate around the world. Many of these collisions result in severe injury or death for the whale. Governments, the shipping industry, researchers and conservation organizations are all working hard to find ways to lower the risk. These include moving shipping lanes, reducing ship speeds in key whale areas, and new whale detection and warning technologies.

Recreational boater speeding by a humpback whale. Shorelines Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

In the meantime, collisions with smaller vessels are mostly preventable. There are plenty of things we can do to lower the risk. Humpback whales and grey whales are especially vulnerable to collisions. They can surface suddenly and be difficult to avoid, especially if your boat is travelling fast. Remember, a collision risks injury not only to the whale, but to you and your passengers as well!

What can you do to help?

  • When you’re boating anywhere along the coast always be alert, especially if you’re transiting a known whale hotspot. Look for signs of a whale nearby, such as a blow or gatherings of birds (baitballs). See a blow, go slow!
  • If you see a vessel flying the Whale Warning Flag, it means whales are nearby. Slow down!
Whale Warning Flag / Photo courtesy of MERS

Eagle Wing Tours is committed to protecting marine wildlife and the ocean environment. It’s why we do what we do!  Learn more about our award-winning initiatives in conservation, sustainability, research and education!

Come and see a whale for yourself!

Want to meet some whales in person? To book a marine adventure with us, give us a call or book online!

Breaching humpback. Sierra Hamilton Photography / Eagle Wing Tours

Blog written by Valerie Shore, Marine Naturalist

Published February 2024