Humpback Whales in the Salish Sea

Humpback Whales in the Salish Sea

By Bill Merilees                             

 “Whales are disporting themselves in Saanich Inlet. Mr. Warren is preparing whale boats and apparatus for waging war on the monsters of the deep”, so read the British Colonist Newspaper in Victoria, September 10th, 1866.  This was the beginning of whaling in British Columbia. A century later (1967), the whale stocks were so diminished that the last provincial shore based commercial whaling station, at Quatsino Sound, on northwest coast of Vancouver Island, shut down for good. The Humpback Whale population in the Salish Sea and Howe Sound was virtually wiped out in 1907 by the Pacific Whaling Company, operating from Page’s Lagoon, near Nanaimo. 

This venture into commercial whaling was very early in our Provincial history. In fact, and this may be hard to believe, but Mr. Warren’s venture into whaling was just 8 years after gold was discovered on the Fraser River and 17 years following the beginning of coal mining at Nanaimo.  Vancouver, as a city, was not incorporated until 1886. 

By 1967, when commercial whaling ceased in B.C. waters, the provincial stock of Humpback Whale was virtually extinct. Speculation began: would our whale populations ever recover – and – would they ever return to the Salish Sea?

On a happier note, we now know this recovery is underway. Whale watching, of Orcas, Minke and Humpback whales primarily, now supports a local and expanding wildlife viewing industry. Today’s whale observation ventures, however, are not the first enterprises of this kind in B.C. In the earliest years of the last century, Capt. Cates, of the Terminal Steamship Company, up to 1906, operating from Vancouver, took whale watchers to Howe Sound to view these magnificent cetaceans. This abruptly ended, despite Capt. Cates’ protests in 1907, when this whale population of 20 + animals was slaughtered.

It was in 1980, that a display of photographs of the Page’s Lagoon whaling station in a Nanaimo photography shop, that sparked the author’s curiosity. The source of the photos, on glass plates, was located in Nanaimo, and numerous articles published in the British Colonist newspaper were located in Victoria. These revealed (back to the 1866 article quoted above) the story of our province’s industrial whaling industry. This rich trove of information became the basis for the article that was published in the journal, Waters, in 1985.

Whaling in Georgia Strait, now the Salish Sea took place from 1866 to 1907. This industry can be divided into two eras; the ‘historic era’ (1866 to 1873) when carcases (at least 81 in number) were beached and flensed on site, then the blubber transported  to a tri-works for rendering into oil. In the ‘modern’ era (1907-1908), carcases procured in the Gulf of Georgia, were towed to the Page’s Lagoon processing plant. Records from this Station’s Log-book, totalled 97 whales. All are believed to be Humpbacks.

A more detailed account of these whaling activities was published in 1985 in the Journal of Vancouver Aquarium – Waters, Volume 8. A PDF copy of the journal is available from the link below – courtesy of Vancouver Aquarium / An Ocean Wise Initiative.

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