The old whaling industry may be largely gone, but modern industry has polluted their habitat and massively increased shipping by larger vessels that kills them outright.
WE’D CLAMBERED, SLIPPED and butt-skidded down-slope through mossy old growth, getting drenched in the chest-high salal where the littoral flattened abruptly. Just as we broke from the forest edge, the curtains of rain lifted and the breeze hissed through the canopy. A shoreline of rocky shelves punctuated by time-polished pebble beaches spread before us.
The winter overcast shrouded the Strait of Juan de Fuca in battleship grey. We had paused to watch the sea slurping past slick ledges like a current of unpolished aluminum, when our momentary reverie was interrupted. A vast sigh. Then another. And another. Surging toward us along the shoreline, riding a current, breathing as rhythmically as a distance runner in performance mode, came a whale.
I haven’t seen that many great whales in my life, at least not close enough to count myself skilled in identifying them. Orcas in their distinctive black and white I’ve seen in surprisingly close encounters, to be sure, and even, from my years in the Arctic, white belugas and mottled narwhals with their astonishing tusks—teeth tightly twisted into a single unicorn-like ivory spiral. But for me even the ubiquitous grey whales had been mostly faint columns of vapour spouting in the hazy distance off Tofino. The other blue water leviathans not at all.
Logic said this one was probably a grey whale because of its proximity to the shore. Yet to my untutored eye it seemed far too big. It had an enormously long, dark grey back with a big spinal knob about two-thirds of the way to the flukes. Might it have been a sperm whale venturing into the Strait of Juan de Fuca for some unknown reason? Was it lost or disoriented? Was it on some mission into danger known only to whale kind?
Probably not, but who knows? The sea is full of mysteries even as we explore it, chart it, traverse it, plumb its lightless depths, cruise it, commercially exploit it, and trash it with bilge pumpouts, oil spills, garbage, sewage and industrial pollutants. Walk even the most remote beach on the West Coast and you’ll find plastic. We’ve now been defined—or so we like to think—as lords of the anthropocene, the terraforming species that is changing the whole planet into a grid of linked urban nodes surrounded by vast modified hinterlands.
Every living species now encounters the industrial reach of humanity. This wildlife ranges from checkerspot butterflies whose habitat has vanished because it conflicts with high value agricultural land to High Arctic polar bears stressed by bioaccumulating factory contaminants carried there on the jet stream from China. And from shamelessly over-harvested abalone that were once a mainstay food source for British Columbia’s coastal First Nations to Salish Sea orcas. Orcas so laden with industrial chemicals flushed out of the adjacent Cascadian megalopolis that they qualify as toxic waste when they die.
A gray whale, photograph by Merrill Gosho, NOAA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Masters of pollution
Once, standing on a steep bluff during a visit to les Îsles-de-la-Madeleine—the Magdalen Islands to anglophones—a tiny, remote, erosion-prone archipelago where sands and sediments lodge upon an ancient salt dome that bulges up from below the Gulf of St Lawrence, I was struck by the beach below and its gorgeous iridescent shimmer. I scrambled down the crumbling bluff to get a closer look. It wasn’t the beauty of shells shining in the wan sunlight. It was a vast layer of plastic tampon tubes. They were flushed by the tonne into sewers far up the river and cast up on the ocean strand, just like the drifting sediment that made the place.
Walk the beaches on the outer coast of Vancouver Island and you can’t cover a hundred metres without encountering amid the driftwood the yellow flash of plastic oil containers, the orange of detergent bottles, the white of styrofoam, transparent water bottles, blue nylon rope, tangles of monofilament. Nature, acting on its own imperatives, is indifferent to the materials with which it works.
We tell ourselves we’ve mastered the ocean with our bottom-sounding radars, GPS navigation systems and space-based meteorological forecasts. We certainly seem to have mastered it with pollution, whether it’s tampon tubes on the Magdalen Islands or bottled water containers bobbing in the Sargasso Sea gyre in mid-Pacific.
And yet, for all our illusions of command, every shipping season, we lose an average of 70 or more huge freighters carrying cargos of wheat, livestock, consumer goods, oil and chemicals, iron ore and coal. Some simply vanish without a trace, perhaps snapped in half by a rogue wave or suddenly breaking up due to some unforeseen structural defect; perhaps looted by modern day pirates then sold off to be broken up or repainted and reflagged—the industrial maritime version of the urban “chop shop.”
The Salish Sea
Whatever the species of that whale which burst so dramatically into our awareness, it certainly seemed to be going somewhere at a determined pace. We watched, mesmerized, as its wake dwindled on its eastward journey into the Salish Sea.
The Salish Sea is perceived by the people who live within it and on its surrounding shores, as a pristine natural landscape that’s endangered by growth. A large segment of it is now a national park reserve. But, of course, we, and the national park itself, represent the very growth that endangers the wild world. Contrary to our magical thinking about ourselves, we’ve already turned much of nature into a kind of urban, industrial landscape. New satellite research published recently in the science journal Nature finds that human-controlled reservoirs now represent an astonishing 57 percent of all surface water variability on Earth—more than half of all the ebb and flow in freshwater systems on our planet from immense dams on the Nile River to our own water-poor Gulf Islands with their myriad wells tapping precious groundwater and their myriad household septic systems discharging effluent. There are 90,000 septic fields in Puget Sound, maybe as many—or more—in and around the Canadian part of the Georgia Basin. On the American side, only 48 percent of septic fields were up-to-date with inspections.
There’s concern that septic fields are a major source of what the experts call non-point pollution, that is, a kind of generalized seepage of contaminants. In 2017, over 1,400 square kilometres of shellfish beds were closed for both commercial and public harvesting in the Georgia Basin and Puget Sound, two-thirds of them in the BC portion of the maritime region.
The primary cause of these closures—a combination of urban runoff carrying, for example, the unmanaged feces from Metro Vancouver’s estimated 350,000 dogs; uncontrolled sewage that gets flushed through storm drains when sewerage systems are overwhelmed by malfunction or high magnitude rainfall events; and failing septic fields.
In 2018, an outbreak of norovirus sickened 79 people and appeared to be linked to consumption of BC oysters. Faced with a serious threat to confidence in the province’s $60 million-a-year farmed shellfish industry, authorities struck an environmental working group to investigate. It reported that “up to 80 percent of septic systems in coastal BC are in ‘performance malfunction’—meaning there is potential for human sewage to leach into the environment.”
“The full extent of septic failure is unknown,” the team concluded. “Consensus from the working group was that improperly maintained septic systems are most likely another source of human sewage and norovirus into the marine environment and into oyster beds….”
So the Salish Sea, for which that whale we observed was bound, is already a remarkable example of what appears to be a natural marine environment but which, in fact, has already undergone enormous industrial modification to the extent that separating the urban from the wild becomes a difficult task.
An Eden became a ghost camp for whales
Just over 230 years ago, Captain George Vancouver went on deck to take the morning air just south of Quadra Island. He was bound south out of Desolation Sound, so-called because of the dearth of good anchorages, the prevailing weather and an apparent absence of inhabitants—his visit came less than a decade after the first known major smallpox epidemic to devastate coastal communities and he’d already witnessed the aftermath elsewhere. But his spirits lifted at an amazing sight. “Numberless whales enjoying the season were playing about the ship in every direction.” The number and types of whales he reported in the Strait of Georgia were more, he said, than all the whales he’d previously observed on his great voyage of exploration.
Since that remarkable morning we’ve mostly extirpated the whales for whom the Salish Sea was once a playground of abundance and plenty. In less than a century we turned a cetacean Garden of Eden into a ghost camp for whales.
The abundance Vancouver observed is the more remarkable considering earlier log entries on his voyage North from California.
On April 10, 1792, he reported large numbers of whales of “the anvil-headed or spermaceti kind” were cavorting around his ship. On April 19, he’d witnessed “immense numbers” around the vessel, most of them “finners” as he called them using Greenland whaling parlance. To us they are fin whales, the second largest of the whale species.
A fin whale, once found in “immense numbers” in the Salish Sea ( Photograph by Cephas, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Two days later, after weathering an alarming gale and enduring torrential overnight rain, Vancouver’s crowsnest lookouts excitedly reported “strange vessels under sail” along the hazy eastern horizon. Only later did he discern that what they were watching weren’t ships at all, but whales so large that their spouts had been mistaken for billowing sails.
These were likely blue whales, the largest animal known to have existed, a creature so big its heart is the size of a compact car. And if Vancouver’s “deception” seems unusual, on average, one of these whales would be about the same size has his 10-gun warship, Discovery.
His ship was about 23-metres long on the keel, a blue whale averages 24 metres.
Blue whale (NOAA Photo Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
Yet between 1908 and 1967, a span shorter than my own lifetime, all the great whales observed in such abundance by Captain Vancouver had been eradicated from the Salish Sea.
The records are both sad and stunning. In 59 years, whalers in BC waters killed 1,380 blue whales, 7,716 fin whales, 4,180 sei whales, 5,621 humpback whales and 6,514 sperm whales.
Whaling had begun earlier, of course, but not until the 20th Century was it established on an industrial scale with fast steam-powered “whale catchers,” harpoon guns and explosive warheads designed to detonate inside the animal.
Whales were butchered and their blubber rendered into oil—a sperm whale yielded about 40 barrels—at whaling stations on Texada Island, Hornby Island and Cortes. Uses ranged from industrial lubricants to soap to making margarine. Ironically, the frenzy of killing whales in BC waters reached its peak as the whole enterprise was failing globally—markets had superior quality substitutes and there was a rising tide of public distaste. Yet the residue of this bloody business is with us yet, found in the place names we now consider quaint and a lure for the tourists who expect the amenities that further urbanize the landscape we tirelessly market as an opportunity to experience the pristine—Blubber Bay, Whaletown, Whaling Station, Whaler’s Bay.
As the Salish Sea’s whale population was exhausted, the industrial killing machine moved offshore. Other marine abattoirs were established on the West Coast of Vancouver Island and on Haida Gwaii. Historian Kate Humble pointed out in a 2015 article, for example, that one whaling station established on Piper’s Lagoon near Nanaimo was able to operate for only two years before the entire regional population of 95 humpback whales had been completely liquidated.
BC’s whaling fleet was ruthlessly efficient. Humble estimates that the carcasses of approximately 25,000 whales of all species were processed at Sechart in Barkley Sound, Coal Harbour in Quatsino Sound, at Kyuquot and at Rose Harbour and Naden Harbour on Haida Gwaii. Look at a colour-coded map locating recorded kills off Vancouver Island and it resembles a sea of red, similar to that infamous Sea of Slaughter that writer Farley Mowat made a metaphor for heedless carnage on the Atlantic coast.
Whaling in BC waters stopped in 1968 but not before many whale populations had been pushed to the brink of extirpation and even, in come cases, to outright regional extinction.
More than half a century later, 19 of the 33 whale species that frequent Canadian waters are still officially listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern under the Species at Risk Act or by the federal government’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
Blue whales, for example, are listed as an endangered species. There are likely fewer than 250 surviving in Canadian waters. The Pacific fin whale that Vancouver observed in such numbers is endangered. The Northern Pacific Right whale is endangered. The Pacific sei whale is endangered.
While the migratory grey whale population is recovering on the West Coast after almost a century of rebuilding efforts, the small, distinct sub-population that stays to feed in waters off Vancouver Island while most of the migrants continue on to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands is still of special concern.
The humpback whale has edged back slightly from the abyss of extinction—but even on the rebound from its population low of 1,400, it remains at only about a quarter of the population observed by Vancouver.
Of BC’s orcas, one sub-population, the southern residents of the Salish Sea, is considered endangered. The other three populations—northern residents, a group that stays off-shore and a transient group—are all considered threatened.
Shipping plays a leading role
All these whales are at growing risk from the industrialization of their living space. There’s the constant din of ship traffic, amplified in enclosed waters with multiple vessels, which both disrupts whales’ communication with each other and the echolocation that enables them to locate food. There’s the risk of fatal entanglement with ocean fishing gear. And as with other urban wildlife and motor vehicles, there’s a constant conflict between wild whale populations and increasing volumes of marine traffic.
The world’s shipping fleet has doubled in size just since 2005. There are now about 90,000 large vessels and at any given moment about 50,000 of them are at sea travelling the marine corridors charted for most efficient fuel use and for time management. Unfortunately, these corridors frequently intersect with the migration routes, feeding, breeding and social congregation areas of whales. Larger ship engines are required to propel larger vessels with greater payloads. Research indicates that there’s been a doubling of disorienting background noise in every decade for the last 50 years.
The journal of Edward Bell, clerk of Captain Vancouver’s ship Chatham, records his fright on the night of October 23, 1791, while at sea off the coast of what’s now Tasmania. He was awakened in terror by “a violent shock as if the vessel had struck upon a rock.” But on rushing above decks to investigate, he discovered the 24-metre sloop-of-war had just collided with a large whale in the darkness.
The species and fate of the whale with which Chatham collided isn’t recorded, but it was certainly at the beginning of a long, and dolorous record of accidental encounters between big ships and great whales, usually fatal for the whale.
Fast, modern steel hulls with the momentum of hundreds of thousands of tonnes shatter whale skulls and break their spines; the huge propellors inflict lacerations and amputate fins and flukes.
In 1951, the last of the endangered right whales ever to be seen in BC waters was killed when it was accidentally run over —the irony is monumental—by a whaling ship pursuing other prey. And then, on June 25, 2009, to the distress of walkers at the Port of Vancouver, the cruise ship Sapphire Princess berthed at Canada Place with a dead 16-metre fin whale jammed between the hull and its bulbous bow. Another dead fin whale came in to Vancouver harbour on the bow of another cruise ship, the Seven Seas Navigator, returning from a voyage to Alaska in 2015.
And the problem increases. As the global fleet increases, so does traffic. Marine shipping grew by 300 percent between 1992 and 2013. In the warming Arctic, where there’s concern about the exposure of highly endangered bowhead whales to greater risk of collision, shipping along the already busy Siberian coastal sea lane increased 58 percent between 2016 and 2019. In less than a decade, estimates the International Whaling Commission, 21 blue whales were killed in shipping collisions off the coast of California. The number seems small compared, say, to collisions between deer and drivers in Victoria—until you realize that there may only be 2,000 blue whales in existence.
In 2018 alone, there were 10 whale deaths due to shipping collisions off the West Coast, a 300 per increase. And as John Calambokidis, a biologist working with the Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington, told a Washington Post reporter in 2019, what’s recorded is likely far less than what occurs.
“One doesn’t mean one,” he said, “one probably means 10 or 20 are occurring. So when you have 10, that’s a pretty big multiplier.”
Something to consider the next time you look out over the “pristine” Salish Sea with its 500,000 marine transits a year by everything from ferries to container ships to oil tankers to aircraft carriers. You are seeing a mirage, an illusion, a dream of a world that has fled, driven off by you and me and our insatiable appetites for convenience.
Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.