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Home sweet humpback: Landmark B.C. study makes whale of a discovery

Lengthy study discovers how humpbacks choose habitats as they migrate along the coast. It’s not just for food—but perhaps the best spots to sing and socialize.

Humpback whales in B.C.'s Douglas Channel, where they were observed for thousands of hours thanks to a landmark partnership study between Gitga'at Nation and three research institutes in Canada and the U.S.

Humpback whales in B.C.'s Douglas Channel, where they were observed for thousands of hours thanks to a landmark partnership study between Gitga'at Nation and three research institutes in Canada and the U.S.

The iconic humpback whale has been the subject of thousands of scientific papers.

But it took nearly a decade for researchers in B.C. to discover something completely unexpected about the cetaceans’ seasonal movements up and down the province’s coast.

In large numbers as they migrate, humpbacks repeatedly return to certain habitats in what the researchers compared to a previously undetected “wave” pattern, according to the newly published study in the marine science journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

And it turns out that humpbacks may be picking their favourite coastal fjords not just based on food supply, but also how well the whales’ singing sounds and how good they are for socializing, according to their thousands of hours of observations.

The phenomenon, said the study’s lead author Eric Keen, “likely results from humpback familiarizing themselves with this critical habitat over many years and developing specific behaviors,” he said in a statement,  “coordinated to the specific oceanography of this fjord system, that enable them to make the greatest use of its resources.”

Keen, a PhD candidate with the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, partnered with Gitga'at Nation to observe humpback over a decade.

“The whale wave is being driven by needs other than food,” explained a press release announcing the study’s publication, “potentially including physical and social habitat needs such as bathymetry and acoustic properties of the fjords for communication and singing, and companionship for the purpose of traveling within a group or mating.”

Whale researcher Janie Wray, with the North Coast Cetacean Society, said the behavour may allow much higher densities of humpbacks in the “relatively undisturbed coastal habitats of the northeast Pacific than would otherwise be possible.”

The study is part of a growing body of research closely involving Indigenous peoples, enabling observations over many years, tapping into traditional knowledge of local ecosystems, and building First Nations skills at the same time.

"This study shows just how intricate the relationship between humpback whales and their habitat is, and it raises important questions about their conservation," said Gitga'at  Chief Coun. Arnold Clifton. "In light of the industrial pressures facing our territory, our Nation's reliance on the sea and the sensitivity and complexity of the area's ecology, our leadership's commitment to conservation and long-term local monitoring by our Gitga'at Guardians has never been more important or stronger."


The findings came thanks to a long-term partnership between the First Nation and the North Coast Cetacean Society, the Scripps Institution, and the Southwest Fisheries Science Centre of the highly-respected National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

One of the researchers’ biggest questions now, however, isn’t just about why the whales move in a wave pattern to choose habitats — but what happens if those carefully balanced marine ecosystems are disturbed by increased shipping traffic or industrial activity on B.C.’s coast.

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