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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

June 24, 2013 at 3:01 PM

Humpbacks are back and thriving

Once hunted for subsistence by the Makah tribe and then heavily targeted by non-Indian commercial hunters in the 1900s, humpback whales took a beating. By the 1960s the animals were still being hunted in U.S. waters, with the great mammals slain for pet food.  But today, humpbacks are making a comeback.

It’s no accident. Commercial whaling was banned in 1966. The animals have also been protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act since 1972. And in 1994, the waters off the northern Washington Coast were protected in the Olympic National Marine Sanctuary. 

The results are plain: Cetaceans in Washington waters have rebounded. Grays whales are back. And humpbacks are booming.

A humpback whale shows its flukes in the waters off Washington's outer coast. Photo by John Calambikitis

A humpback whale shows its flukes in the waters off Washington’s outer coast. Photo by John Calambokidis

 

Commercial hunting had reduced populations from an estimated 15,000 prior to 1905 to only 1,200 to 1,400 animals due to whaling. Today, ship surveys turn up humpbacks in abundance off the northern Washington coast. Researchers reported humpbacks as the most common species seen, with 232 sightings of 402 animals during ship surveys from 1995-2002 in the waters off northern Washington.

John Calambokidis, biologist at the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia and other researchers put the numbers of humpback in the North Pacific at more than 20,000 today, with their populations healthy and growing at the rate of 5 to 7 percent per year.

For whale watchers, the return of the humpbacks has been a thrill.

A humpback whale breaches off San Juan Island, WA. (Photo: Justine Buckmaster, Naturalist, Victoria Clipper.  Courtesy: Pacific Whale Watch Association)

A humpback whale breaches off San Juan Island, WA. Photo: Justine Buckmaster, Naturalist, Victoria Clipper. Courtesy: Pacific Whale Watch Association

 

 

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