The Mighty Migrating Grey Whale
By Tracey Rayson
By most counts, successful whale watching consists of
two factors. First, knowledge of their annual northern
migration schedule. Second, of course, is serendipity.
While you may have little or no control over good
fortune, your sighting chances are favourable from
late February through May. How favourable? Your odds
of a Grey Whale sighting along BC's west coast are
26,000 to 1. Good odds. That's because, all but a few
hundred of over 26,000 Grey whales, pass through the
coastal waters en route from Baja California to the
Bering and Chuckchi Sea.
The most dependable shore-based whale watching is at
Long Beach, Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver
Island. Additionally, good viewpoints include: the
southern tip of Ucluth Peninsula from the Amphitrite
Point Lighthouse; Wya Point at the end of Half Moon
Bay Trail off Willowbrae Trail; Quisitis Point; South
Beach, at the end of South Beach Trail, access from
Wickaninnish Centre; Box Island; Portland Point and
Cox Point. The Grey whales pass by again as they head
south, between September and October.
Their mission: to feed in the colder northern waters
during the summer months. The feeding ecology of the
Grey whale consists of a 24 hour seafood buffet. Their
highly diverse diet includes, but is not limited to;
mysid shrimp, euphausiids, kelp, crab larvae and other
pelagic organisms. Author Bruce Obee of Sidney, B.C.
focuses on two decades of research in "Guardians of
the Whales." He reports that, "about 40 resident grey
whales spend summer feeding off Long Beach's sandy
shores in the Pacific Rim National Park. One study on
grey-whale feeding shows that a single animal will
ingest more than 60,000 kilograms of prey in a five
month feeding stint, increasing the oil content in its
blubber by at least 5,000 kilos. A single whale will
remove amphipods from 23 hectares of bottom sediment."
According to CERF: Coastal Ecosystems Research
Foundation, the Grey Whale is the first cetacean to be
removed from the U.S. Endangered Species list. "There
may have been as few as 2,000 greys left in 1936 when
the international whaling fleet agreed to stop killing
them." As the population recovers further, more Greys
are returning to feed on mysid shrimp in their
historical British Columbia range. Their
16,000-kilometre return migration has been reported to
be the longest of any mammals on earth.
Through marine mammal research, CERF "has been able to
identify several areas where the whales congregate to
feed. We have been sampling the area with plankton
tows and bottom samples for a doctoral study that
began in the 1998 season." Founded in 1993, CERF is a
Canadian non-profit organization that funds research
on whales, dolphins and their environment, through an
eco-tourism program. Each summer CERF leases a vessel,
hires a crew, and opens the marine-mammal research
expedition to tourists. It's a resourceful
amalgamation of ecotourism as an education-vaction.
The life span of the Grey whale ranges between 60 to
80 years. Adults average approximately 12 metres,
(think TranksLink bus) and generally weigh 30,000
A newborn calf may weigh up to 900 kilograms,
averaging four to five metres in length. Increasing
numbers of calves are being born in southern waters.
They remain with their mothers for under a year, and
possibly double in weight before departing their
Tourists and whale enthusiasts migrate annually as
well--to the villages of Tofino and Ucluelet. Since
1987, the whale migration has been celebrated with the
Pacific Rim Whale Festival. This year's event marks
the 15th annual commemoration from March 17th to April
1st. Do not be fooled. There is as much action out of
the water as in. Onshore, over 70 events, from
environmental plays, whaling films, art shows,
lectures and family games showcase BC's sustainable
whale industry. Highlights include the "Chowder Chow
Down" in Ucluelet, and the "Parade of Whales" in
Tofino, just to name a few. On the beach inside the
park's Wickaninnish Nature Centre, is the festival's
focal point. Equipped with an observation deck
sporting telescopes, there's a whale of a chance
you'll see migrating activity.
Whale Watching Information:
How to get there:
B.C. Ferries from the Lower Mainland to Swartz Bay.
Outside B.C. 604-444-2890
Information: 1-888-BC FERRY
Long Beach and the Villages of Tofino and Ucluelet are
reached via highways 1, 19, and 4. Highway 4 from
Parksville to Long Beach is 150 km.
Southeast winds deliver clouds, rain and often instant
gales from September to May.
While climbing on rocks on the west coast of Vancouver
Island, pay attention to very large rogue waves that
can sweep unexpectedly. Heed current fog and wind
conditions for maximum viewing opportunities.
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
Box 280 Ucluelet, B.C. V0R 3A0
BC Parks, Strathcona District (Robson Bight (Michael
Bigg) Ecological Reserve)
Box 1479 Parksville, B.C. V9P 2H4
A total of 119 whale-watching companies are registered
with Tourism B.C.
Call Tourism B.C. 1-800-663-6000
Coastal Ecosystems Research Foundation
-Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of B.C. booklet.
-Johnstone Straight Whale Watching Guide.
Contact Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
#400-555 W. Hastings St., Vancouver
604-666-0384 or www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca
Biological information on whales contact:
Communications Officer Kelly Francis
Pacific Biological Station, 3190 Hammond Bay Rd.,
Nanaimo, B.C. V9R 5K6