Humpbacks Return To Cortes Island

By Roy L Hales

Humpback whales were passing through our area long before the first people arrived. Whaletown is one of Cortes Island’s principle villages.  Whaletown Road passes right through Squirrel Cove. There is a “Whaling Station Bay,” on Hornby and “Blubber Bay,” on Texada Island. Up until a few years ago, there have been no humpback whale sightings since 1871. This morning’s broadcast consists of a series of  interviews about the humpbacks return to Cortes Island.


What Happened To The Whales?

James Dawson’s schooner “Kate,” which was based in Whaletown, Cortes Island, in 1869 – Courtesy Cortes Island Museum.

According to Lynne Jordan, curator of the Cortes Island Museum, the ancient Salish inhabitants of Smelt Bay used to herd whales onto the beach. They took advantage of the giant creatures’ sonar. After a lookout sounded the alert, a long line of canoes paddled out in front of the whales.

“At a given signal, the natives would all start dropping [clam] shells from their canoes. Whales coming up would get that signal in front of them and it would tell them there was a solid wall … If they could beach one whale then, as the tide receded, they could kill at their leisure.”

This kind of hunting was sustainable.

The humpback population was not seriously threatened until European companies arrived.

In 1869, James Dawson set up a whaling station  in what is now known as Whaletown. His company killed 14 whales, producing more than 450 barrels of oil. They  moved on to Hornby Island the following year and by the end of 1871 there were so few whales left that the industry collapsed.

In addition to numerous clippings and documents, the Cortes Island Museum holds a couple of flensing knives left from Dawson’s brief sojourn.

“Flensing knives are for cutting the skin and blubber off. You cut it into chunks and then put it into tanks, where they cooked it for rendering into oil,” explained Jordan.

This is believed to have taken place on the rocks between the BC ferry dock and Whales Rest Park.

The Years  They Were Away

BC Ferry dock in Whaletown- Roy L Hales photo.

There does not appear to have been any humpbacks left when David Forrest arrived at Squirrel Cove, in 1913.

His grandson, Ron Forrest, remembers a large whale visiting  Squirrel Cove for three days around 1941.

“Everyone lined up on the wharf [to watch]. I was pretty small. It was a big one. Somebody said it was a blue whale – Tom Sunt, he seemed to be in the know.”

Though they no longer visited Cortes, Forrest has a number of whale stories from the years he worked further up the coast.

“I’ve seen lots of whales going into Rivers Inlet and out from the Pacific,” he said.

One of Lynne Jordan’s friends told her about the humpbacks visiting Salt Spring Island.

“Not too long ago, the humpbacks used to come into Vesuvius Bay. There is a very steep rocky cliff that goes straight down into the water … the whales used to come right up against it and rub on the rock … He said that some of the local kids had a rope swing up above and when the whales were rubbing they’d swing out over top of the whales and look down on them…”

Humpback Whales Return To Cortes Island

Humpback whale Courtesy J. Moore – HIHWNMS/ NOAA Permit # 15240 via Flickr (Public Domain)

One of the first humpback sightings between Cortes and Quadra occurred in 2011 or 2012.

Don Tennant talks about a sighting in 2014:

“We were walking the dogs off Hollyhock beach when they swam through there. There was a cow and calf and a bigger male that kept showing off his tail.”

Andy Vine reported another 2014 sighting on the Cortes Tideline.

Two humpback whale sightings were reported in 2016, when the Vancouver Aquarium did a census over the BC Day weekend.

Helen Hall, Executive Director of Friends of Cortes Island, says that in 2017, ” … They had 58 different sightings of humpback whales. Some of those might have been the same humpback whales, but there was a large number of humpback whales … There has been a huge increase in numbers this summer. I’ve certainly noticed that, living  on the coast of Cortes I’ve seen humpback whales every day during the summer.”

The Cortes To Quadra Whale Watching Tour

BC Ferry unloading at Whaletown, Cortes Island – Roy L Hales photo

I saw a number of whales myself, on ferry trips between Cortes and Quadra Islands. One day in early July, after observing three humpbacks still in the area after four hours, I asked a ferry worker if she had any whale tales.

“There have been whales all day, every day, for the last few weeks I’d say. It seems like the humpbacks have been hanging out in groups of twos, three and maybe even fours. We are seeing one or two groups along our route here. We often go around them, it would be bad PR if we ever hit a whale – so we are not game for that. ” said Jessica Towers

After a particularly entertaining show by three breaching humpbacks in Whaletown, the ferry captain announced, “Welcome to the Cortes to Quadra Whale Watching tour.”

(Listen to more whale tales in the podcast above.)

A pod of four or five humpbacks visited Squirrel Cove early in November, 2017.

“There seemed to be about four or five because their breaths were coming up … one after the other  … They are way bigger than a killer whale, when they come up for air they make that big [sound like a whale]. It shook the whole area here. I cam outside and I knew what it was right away. I think one rubbed itself against the wharf because that wharf was jingling to beat heck there. And they made big swells coming into the beach … maybe eighteen inches high, ” says Ron Forrest.

Why Have They Returned?

There are a number of theories about the humpback’s return. Ron Forrest suspects they may have come to escape the increase of nautical traffic, and sonar, along the Johnson Strait and Discovery Passage. Lynne Jordan suggests that the matriarchs familiar with this area were killed off in the 1870s.

“It has only been in the last few years that one or two whales have discovered the Juan de Fuca entrance into the Salish Sea and along the route that leads north on the Inside Passage. Those whales have been passing the knowledge on to their young each year because there is good feed here in the summer time. As the years go by I think we are going to find an increase in [the number of] whales coming up through the Inside Passage,” she says.

Helen Hall has another, though not necessarily contradictory, explanation, “One of the biologists I spoke with thought it might be because the herring fishery has recovered. It was really depleted in the past and the herring are starting to come back and that is what the whales are here for – to feed in the summer months.”

Top photo Credit: Humpback Whale sighted near Campbell River, BC– by Yutaka Seki via Flickr (CC BY SA, 2.0 License)

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