Whale Mugging on the BC Coast

Every whale watching passengers dream, and every whale watching operators potential nightmare.  And who would have thought it could happen to them.  Being mugged by a couple of Humpback Whales, what a thrill.

What is mugging?  Well we have all heard the new rules, keep away from the whales and view at a distance. Easy for you to say, when you are faced with a couple of 60 ton Humpbacks coming at your boat at 25 km/h.  As the captain, your first concern is the safety of your passengers, then it is the safety of the whales. I don’t know of any operators in my area who do not have complete respect and love for the animals, many of them have been named with affection.

Outrunning the whales can be a dangerous proposition and not recommended. The appropriate action is to stay put, turn off your engines and sit tight for however long it takes.

When a mugging is recognized as inevitable, operators realize it may go on for hours, thrilling your guests and offering a spectacle to other spectators.  But time doesn’t matter, you stay put,  be it a 1 hour wait, or a 12 hour wait, you respect and wait until the whales either become unsatisfied with their new play toy or decide it is dinner time and leave on their own accord.

In all my years traveling the waters of the inside passage, I have never seen anything like this. I have heard of it happening, but the instances are rare and most times not caught on camera, but it is a new age, the whales are back, people are watching, and it is happening with increasing regularity. So much so, that whale watching operators communicate to each other via radio to attempt to avoid this type of attention from the whales.  They sure liked this boat, we watched for about an hour and they were still at it long after we left.

I wonder to myself “What are the whales doing? Is it the vibrant colour of the clothing of the people on the boat that attracts them?  Or are they just people watching? A distraction from their daily routine?”

The inside Passage, off the east coast of Vancouver Island near Campbell River hosts the waters of the Discovery Passage, affectionately known as the Salish Sea, a network of the Georgia Strait. These inland waterways were once home to a thriving population of Killer Whales, Grey Whales, Humpback and Minke Whales.

But alas, as many a story will dictate, at the turn of the 20th century along came the white man, who recognized the monetary value of whale oil, which at the time was at a premium price and in high demand in Europe.

The harvest began in the late 1800’s but in around 1910 whale stations began to appear along the inside passage and the harvest which was already in full swing became even more lucrative as facilities to boil the blubber down were more readily available.

Harvest sounds like such a benign term for the  complete annihilation of several entire species of whales, but that is how the whales were viewed, as a commodity to be harvested.  The greed and lack of understanding in recognising the destructive nature of the harvest only took a couple of centuries to drain the resource and empty the passages of the presence of these magnificent beasts.  

The Killer Whales were a little trickier to catch, they were smaller, faster, dove deeper and were much more aggressive to their captures.  So they were not killed off or run off completely but that did not save them from the hunger of the white man to fill their commercial coffers.

As technologies increased and the curiosity of the public demanded, Killer Whales in the 1960’s and early 70’s were systematically hunted for capture instead, to be put on display in aquariums around the world.  Unfortunately for the whales, many of them did not survive the process.  Dozens of Orca family members were  killed as a result of the capture, again decimating already stressed populations.

The protection of the whales did not commence until the 1980’s and their fate is still somewhat contentious and seemingly at the mercy of the politics of the day and corporate interest. Not so much in terms of harvesting the animals, but today the question is of polluting their habitat, and putting at risk the very essence of their home, the waters they inhabit and our human thirst for oil.


Marine Mammals of the BC Coast – Descriptions of Local Marine Mammals including Whales

Populations Returning from the Edge of Extinction    – The balance of our natural eco system is in question.

Backgrounder: Threats from Tankers in BC’s Inside Passage  –  Written in 2006 and the debate about tankers on the coast is still alive and unsolved.