HUMPBACK WHALES OF THE SALISH SEA

They’re as big as city buses, eat up to six tons of food a day and undertake one of the longest migrations of any mammal on the planet.

Humpback whales are also survivors. Heavily hunted by commercial whalers, their numbers in the North Pacific dropped to as low as 1,200—five per cent of the original population—by the time they were protected in 1966.

Several hundred humpbacks used to spend the summer feeding in the Salish Sea before commercial whalers killed every single one. As a result, for almost 100 years there were no humpbacks to be seen in the entire Salish Sea. That changed in the late ‘90s with the appearance of a whale we nicknamed Big Mama. She started the amazing comeback of the humpback in the Salish Sea! Now, just over 600 individual humpbacks visit the region in the feeding season, with newcomers appearing every year.

Find out more about humpback whales.

Female humpback Zephyr (MMZ0004) breaching / Photo by Valerie Shore, Eagle Wing Tours

What do the ID numbers mean?

Humpback whales move around a lot. In addition to their winter migration back and forth to places like Mexico and Hawaii, they may visit several feeding areas in the summer and fall. This is why assigning official IDs to humpbacks is a regional and North Pacific-wide effort, involving researchers in several areas of coastal BC, Washington State and Oregon. Eagle Wing Tours photographers routinely share photo ID information with researchers as part of a collaborative effort throughout the Salish Sea region.

International organizations such as HappyWhale.com are also instrumental in cross-matching flukes to different areas. This helps us track what breeding and feeding areas are important to the whales.

Salish Sea humpbacks are given alphanumeric codes beginning with BCX, BCY or BCZ, depending on the black and white pattern on the underside of their tails. This pigmentation pattern—often augmented by scratches, scars and divots—is unique to each individual, just like a human fingerprint. “X” whales are mostly black. “Y” whales are a mix of black and white. And “Z” whales are mainly white.

If the whale has MM before the X, Y or Z, that means it’s been given a temporary ID number.

Scientific numbers are one thing. But they’re hard to remember. That’s why many of them have been given nicknames, usually based on those unique tail markings.

Over 600 individual whales have now been documented in the Salish Sea and western Juan de Fuca Strait. Here are some of the individuals we often see near Victoria. Test your identification skills and match them to photos you took on your tour!

(ID photos taken by Eagle Wing naturalists)

ZEPHYR

Zephyr is the 2011 daughter of Divot (BCX1057) and was a first-time mom herself in 2019. She’s been seen in 2021 and has a new calf with her—her second!

Zephyr’s occasional companions include Stitch, Split Fin, Frankenstein and Two Spot.

Zephyr’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMZ0004.


HEMLOCK

Hemlock has been in 2021 and is looking well.

Hemlock was seen flick-feeding in 2019, a feeding behaviour we don’t see very often in the Salish Sea. When flick-feeding, a humpback sweeps its huge flukes back and forth to concentrate its prey and then lunges through the splash zone to engulf its food. Most often, they use this technique when feeding on krill.

Hemlock’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMY0080.


GHOST

We didn’t see Ghost in 202o, but we’ve already seen her many times in 2021, including off Victoria in January! The next time we saw her was July 1 and she wasn’t alone. She has a new baby!

Ghost has been been matched to breeding grounds in Hawaii.

Ghost’s scientific designation in British Columbia is BCX1333.


TWO SPOT

Two Spot has been seen in 2021 and is looking well. He’s a very playful and sociable whale.  His occasional companions include Split Fluke, Nike, Orion, Monarch, Zephyr and Divot.

Two Spot’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMZ0013.


TENOR

Tenor has been in 2021 and is looking well.

Tenor is easy to recognize even without seeing his or her flukes. There’s a rounded notch at the top of the nubby dorsal fin. Tenor has been matched to the Hawaiian breeding grounds.

Tenor’s scientific designation in British Columbia is BCX1069.


HEATHER

Heather is a big favourite in our whale watching community and has brought several of her calves into the Salish Sea over the years, including Split Fluke (2006). She’s also a grandmother to Valiant and to Split Fluke’s 2019 calf, Halfpipe, which tragically was killed by a ship in summer 2021.

Heather’s name comes from what looks like an “H” on the top left of her left fluke!

Heather has not been seen in 2021. While this is a concern since she is such a regular summer visitor to this region, we can’t rule out that she simply chose to visit a different feeding area this year. Time will tell.

Heather was last seen Salish Sea in 2020 and she had a calf with her. We know it’s a boy and he’s been named Neowise after the comet that appeared in summer 2020!

Heather’s scientific designation in British Columbia is BCY0160.


SCRATCHY

Scratchy has been seen in 2021 and is looking well.

Take a look at those flukes and you can see how Scratchy got his or her name. You can also see evidence of a killer whale attack at some point, with teeth rake marks on the tips of both flukes.

Scratchy is a very sociable whale and is known to travel with Nike, Divot, Hemlock, Titan and Stitch.

Scratchy’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMY0079.


VALIANT

Valiant is the 2017 calf of Split Fluke and the grandchild of Heather. He or she has already been seen many times in 2021!

Valiant is a spunky young whale, having survived a killer whale attack, most likely as a calf. You can see the tooth rake marks and the tip of the left fluke is missing. Valiant seems to hold a grudge; he or she has been seen “chasing” Bigg’s killer whales several times, most recently in July 2021!

Valiant’s scientific designation is CRC-16820.


DIVOT

Divot is a long-time favourite in our whale watching community. She’s already been seen in 2021 and she has a new calf with her—a son! Divot is an experienced mom and has brought several calves into the Salish Sea over the years, including Zephyr, who made her a grandma in 2019 and again in 2021!

Divot is a very social whale—her known companions include Two Spot, Scratchy and Hemlock.

Divot has been matched to the Hawaiian breeding grounds. Her scientific designation in British Columbia is BCX1057.


CASCADE

Cascade has been seen in 2021 and is looking well.

We don’t know a lot about Cascade yet, except that he or she has a very distinctive fluke pattern! One of Cascade’s occasional companions is Orion.

Cascade’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMZ0045.


SPLIT FIN

Split Fin is the 2006 calf of the legendary Big Mama and is named for a distinctive “split” in his or her nubby dorsal fin.

Known companions include Vivaldi, Frankenstein, Smiley, Raptor and Pantera.

Split Fin has been seen many times in 2021 and is looking well.

In winter 2019-20 Split Fin was matched to the Hawaiian breeding grounds, and was observed participating in a competitive mating group. A photo taken by one of our photographers in summer 2021 proves Split Fin is indeed a boy!

Split Fin’s scientific designation in British Columbia is BCZ0298.


TULIP

Tulip is the 2012 calf of Big Mama (BCY0324) and was named for a distinctive “tulip-shaped” mark on her left fluke.

Tulip was a first-time mother in 2020, showing up in the Salish Sea the spring with a brand new calf! That’s the first known grandchild for Big Mama! Tulip has been seen in 2021 and is looking well.

Tulip’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMX0012.


GHERKIN

Gherkin’s flukes are almost all-white, which is why he or she is what we call a “Z whale,” referring to the scientific number (see below).

In 2019, Gherkin was seen breaching several times, including one breaching spree that went on for more than an hour! Gherkin has been seen in 2021 and is looking well.

Gherkin’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMZ0038.


ZEPPELIN

Zeppelin has been seen in 2021 and is looking well!

We say “he” although Zeppelin’s gender has not been confirmed. Zeppelin has never been seen with a calf, and all those scratches on the underflukes suggest this whale is active in male competitive groups at the breeding grounds.

Zeppelin is another very sociable whale, and has been seen with a number of temporary companions including Tulip, Delta and Gherkin.

Zeppelin has very white pectoral flippers, which we can see as he or she comes near the surface.

Zeppelin’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMX0085.


DELTA

Delta has been seen several times in 2021 and is looking well.

Delta has a very pretty and distinctive fluke pattern and is rapidly becoming a favourite in our whale watching community.

His or her known companions include Hornet and Mosquito.

Delta’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMX0076.


MATHEMATICIAN

Mathematician, who is thought to be a male, has been seen in 2021 and is looking well.

Mathematician is a very large humpback, which we clearly saw in 2019 when he breached almost completely out of the water! He’s been matched to the Hawaiian breeding grounds.

Mathematician’s scientific designation in British Columbia is BCY0785.


AERIE

Aerie, who we know from a photo we took is a male, has been seen in 2021 and is looking well.

Aerie seems to be a bit of a loner but has been seen a few times with Stitch.

Aerie’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMY0106.


SCUTTLE

Scuttle has been seen many times in 2021 and is looking well. On Canada Day, July 1, he treated us to some humpback whale “fireworks” with non-stop breaching!

From a photo one of our naturalists took in summer 2020 we can confirm that Scuttle is a male!

Scuttle has clear evidence of a killer whale attack at some point in his life. Those are tooth rake marks near the top of both flukes.

Scuttle has been matched to the breeding grounds off Mexico.

Scuttle’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMX0084.


BLIZZARD

Blizzard was seen a lot in 2019, especially in the first half of the summer. He or she is named for the white marks on the flukes, which resemble falling snow.

We haven’t seen Blizzard for a couple of years. This is not a cause for concern, however, because there can be gaps of years between sightings of individual whales as they choose to go to different feeding grounds.

Blizzard’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMX0160.


ENTROPY

We don’t know a lot about Entropy yet, except that he or she has been matched to winter breeding grounds off Mexico.

Entropy was seen in 2021, and is looking well.

Entropy’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMY0077.


BIG MAMA

Big Mama is the “pioneer” of humpbacks in the Salish Sea, being the first of her species to reappear after many decades of absence! She was first documented near Race Rocks in 1997 and she’s been documented here every summer since 2003.

Big Mama has had six known calves, including Split Fin (2006), Tulip (2012) and Pop Tart (2016), nicknamed for her love of breaching in her first year. Curiously, these three grown-up calves were seen feeding in the same area south of Victoria in late spring!

In 2020, Big Mama became a first-time grandmother, with the birth of a calf to her daughter, Tulip!

Big Mama has been seen several times in 2021 and is looking well. Her scientific designation in British Columbia is BCY0324.


VIVALDI

Vivaldi has been seen in 2021 and is looking well. She had a calf with her in 2020, the first that we know of! In fact, we didn’t know Vivaldi’s was a female until then! The male calf has already been named—Mozart!

Vivaldi’s known companions include Orion, Zephyr, Split Fin and Two Spot. She’s been matched to the Hawaiian breeding grounds.

Vivaldi’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMX0128.


GIBBOUS

Gibbous has been seen in 2021 and is looking well.

A photo taken in 2020 confirms without doubt that Gibbous is a male. He was first documented in 2010. The origins of that distinctive notch and pigmentation on his right fluke are unknown but his name refers to it. A gibbous moon is when the moon is more than half full!

Gibbous has been matched to the Hawaiian breeding grounds.

Gibbous’s scientific designation in British Columbia is BCY0770


HYDRA

Hydra has been seen in fall 2021 and is looking well.

Hydra has had two known calves, one in 2017 and another in 2019. Tragically, the 2019 calf, a female, washed up dead on the outer Washington coast in summer 2020. All evidence pointed to a ship strike as the cause of death. This is a growing problem for humpback whales along the coast as their population rises and the number of ships increases.

Hydra’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMY0042.


ORION

Orion has been seen in 2021 and is looking well.

Orion is a very sociable whale. Occasional companions include Split Fin, Divot, Frankenstein, Graze, Vivaldi, Two Spot and Cascade.

Orion was involved in a 2016 interaction with some transient killer whales in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. He/she and several other humpbacks were actively interfering with the transients as they hunted two sea lions. This phenomenon, dubbed by some as “altruistic behaviour,” has been documented between humpbacks and killer whales in oceans around the world.

Orion’s scientific designation in British Columbia is BCX1251.


STITCH

Stitch has been seen in 2021 and is looking well.

Stitch is believed to be a male and is a very sociable whale. His occasional companions include Divot, Zephyr, Split Fluke and Scratchy. He has been matched to Hawaiian breeding grounds.

Stitch’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMX0167.


MANTA

Manta has been seen in 2021 and is looking well.

We don’t know a lot about Manta yet, except that the underside of his or her mainly white tail is beautiful!

Manta has been matched to Mexican breeding grounds.

Manta’s scientific designation in British Columbia is BCZ0155.


FRANKENSTEIN

Frankenstein has been seen quite a few times in 2021—including on Halloween, Oct. 31—and is looking well.

We had guessed that Frankenstein was a male from all the scratches on the underside of the tail, and that is indeed the case. The scratches most likely come from when he’s competing with other males for the attention of females in the winter breeding grounds.

Frankenstein is a social butterfly and we see him with many temporary companions, such as Orion, Graze, Zephyr, Titan, Split Fin, Tulip, Scratchy and Divot.

Frankenstein has been matched to the Hawaiian breeding grounds.

Frankenstein’s scientific designation in British Columbia is BCX1358.


PANTERA

Pantera was last seen in 2020 and was looking well.

Pantera is recognizable by a round scar on the left side of his or her nubby dorsal fin. The scar was caused by a satellite tag used to track his or her travels.

Pantera was one of at least three humpbacks involved in an interaction with transient killer whales west of Victoria in August 2019. It’s not known what the fracas was about, but Pantera was seen afterwards, uninjured.

Pantera’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMX0079.


NOX

Nox was last seen in 2020 and she had a calf with her, which would have been born in the winter of 2019/20! The pair spent quite a bit of time feeding near Race Rocks in the fall.

We don’t know much more about Nox yet, only that her occasional companions have included Stitch, Hale-Bopp and Monarch. We’ll add more information as we learn it!

Nox’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMX0163.


BOND

Someone with a sense of humour named this whale based on his or her scientific designation in British Columbia, which is MMX0007!

Bond was first documented in the Salish Sea in 2014. We’ve seen Bond several times in 2021, usually in the company of other whales such as Smiley and Ocular.

Bond has been linked to the breeding grounds of Hawaii. We don’t know much more about Bond yet. We’ll add more information as we learn it!


MEQE’

Meqe’ is a Coast Salish (Cowichan) word for winter, or snow, which seems very appropriate when you look at that beautiful white tail!

Meqe’ is believed to be the 2017 calf of a female known as Pillar. Meqe’ was frequently seen in late summer 2020 and through the fall and winter into February 2021! The next time we saw Meqe’ was early July and we’ve spotted him or her several times since then. Meqe’ has not quite reached breeding age, so it’s possible he or she didn’t bother migrating south last winter.

Meqe’s presumed mother, Pillar, has been linked to the Hawaiian breeding grounds. Calves learn the migration route from their mothers, so that’s likely where Meqe’ will go when he or she finally gets the urge to migrate and breed!

Meqe’ currently hasn’t been assigned a BC designation number.


OCULAR

There’s no mistaking the flukes of Ocular. This young whale is a lucky survivor of one of the biggest threats facing humpback whales globally—entanglement in fishing gear. Ocular was entangled a few years ago but fortunately managed to shed the lines without intervention. Many whales aren’t so lucky.

The ordeal left scars on the back and flukes, and bulging scar tissue on the tail stock. Research shows that 50% of humpback whales off the BC coast have scarring from entanglements.

We know that Ocular was born in 2016 to a whale known as Slash, more often seen on the north end of Vancouver Island.

In 2021, Ocular has been seen several times west of Victoria, usually in the company of others such as Trifecta, Seabird and Nike.

Ocular currently hasn’t been assigned a BC designation number.


POP TART

Pop Tart is the 2016 calf of the legendary Big Mama. From an early age he or she has had a reputation for breaching (jumping out of the water), and that’s how he or she got their name!

We’ve seen Pop Tart several times in 2021. The first time, he or she was breaching! That was the same day two other grown calves of Big Mama were in the same area, just several hundred metres apart. Coincidence or not? We wish we knew!

In 2019, Pop Tart was seen travelling with a grey whale for a day!

Pop Tart’s mother, Big Mama, has been linked to the Hawaiian breeding grounds. Calves learn the migration route from their mothers, so that’s likely where Pop Tart will go when he or she finally gets the urge to migrate and breed!

Pop Tart currently hasn’t been assigned a BC designation number.


SEABIRD

Seabird is the 2017 calf of a female known as Europa. We’ve seen Seabird several times in 2021, usually in the company of other whales such as Ocular, Delta and Trifecta.

Seabird’s mother, Europa, has been linked to the Hawaiian breeding grounds. Calves learn the migration route from their mothers, so that’s likely where Seabird will go when he or she finally gets the urge to migrate and breed!

We don’t know much more about Seabird yet, and look forward to getting to know this whale better in the coming years!

Seabird currently hasn’t been assigned a BC designation number.


SMILEY

Smiley was first documented in the Salish Sea in 2015 and has been seen quite a few times in 2021. She’s a very social whale, and is known to associate from time to time with Split Fin, Bond, Vivaldi, Zig Zag and Titan.

Smiley’s fluke pattern is an excellent example of why we sometimes have to look very closely at the detail of the markings. Her flukes are so similar to a male known as Aerie that they’re sometimes mistaken for each other!

Smiley has had at least one calf—Chip (2017), who was tragically killed by a ferry in Puget Sound in 2020.

Smiley’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMY0065


SPLIT FLUKE

Split Fluke is a well-known humpback in this region. She’s the 2006 calf of another longtime favourite, Heather. She gets her name from the V-shaped notch on the trailing edge of her left fluke.

Split Fluke has had three calves that we know of: Valiant (2017), Halfpipe (2019) and a new daughter in 2021! Tragically, Halfpipe was killed in summer 2021 after being struck by a ship somewhere at the mouth of Juan de Fuca Strait.

When she’s not taking care of a calf, Split Fluke is a very sociable whale. She’s been seen with Big Mama, Divot, Stitch, Two Spot, Orion and others. And in 2020 she was even seen with Valiant, her 2017 calf!

Split Fluke’s scientific designation in British Columbia is BCX1068.


TRIFECTA

Trifecta was first documented in the Salish Sea in 2016. We saw him or her several times in 2019, but then didn’t get a sighting until June 2021. We’ve seen Trifecta several times since then, usually in the company of other whales such as Ocular and Seabird.

We don’t know much more about Trifecta, but look forward to getting to know this whale better in the coming years!

Trifecta’s scientific designation in British Columbia is MMX0077.


YOGI

Yogi is rapidly becoming a favourite because of his love of breaching! On July 1, 2020, on our first tour after the COVID-19 shutdown, the first whale we saw was Yogi, and guess what he was doing!

Yogi was first documented in the Salish Sea in 2002. He’s been seen in 2021 and is looking well. He seems to be somewhat of a loner is rarely seen here with other whales.

Yogi has been linked to the Hawaiian breeding grounds.

Yogi’s scientific designation in British Columbia is BCY0409.