Humpbacks flood the Salish Sea in astounding numbers

July 14, 2016, 6:02 a.m.
A female humpback is chased by several males in the Pacific Ocean during an instinctual mating ritual known as a "heatrun."
Photo: Tomas Kotouc/Shutterstock

The northeastern Pacific Ocean once brimmed with humpback whales, but after centuries of unchecked hunting by humans, the numbers dwindled to just 1,600 individuals before the practice was banned in 1966. Although it took decades, the population has miraculously bounced back.

According to the Pacific Whale Watch Association, there are now about 21,000 humpbacks in this region, which represents a sizable chunk of the overall 85,000-strong global population.

The robust increase in humpbacks has not gone unnoticed by whale watchers training their binoculars into the waters of the Salish Sea. Whale expert Rhonda Reidy explains that the cause of this burst of population is likely the result of two factors.

"First, as the population of humpback whales recovers to pre-whaling levels, the population may be nearing the carrying capacity of the traditional northern feeding areas, with more whales exploring these southern habitats along their migration route," Reidy tells KOMO News. "Second, their sudden increase may represent shifts in oceanographic and ecological conditions, affecting the local food chain."

While the waters in the Salish Sea are replete with humpbacks this year, there's a noticeable dearth of the region's famous orca whales. Despite an encouraging baby boom last year, orcas are struggling to find enough food after the poor annual returns of their prey of choice: Chinook salmon.

"From all indications, there’s just not enough salmon for [the orcas] to eat," Howard Garrett, a co-founder of the Orca Network, explains to KPLU News. "The Fraser River Chinook is what they depend on most of the summer and they are very scarce this year."