Whale Heritage Sites are globally unique areas where the importance of cetaceans is apparent through their prevalence in culture, community, conservation, commerce, policy, science and arts. NIMMSA is working with the World Cetacean Alliance and representatives from regional government bodies, the tourism industry and local non-governmental organizations to ensure that Vancouver Island North is accredited as one of the world’s first Whale Heritage Sites by 2017. This will result in enhanced oppurtunities for whale conservation and commerce in this region. Below are a few of the things that qualify Vancouver Island North as a Whale Heritage Site.
The Vancouver Island North region is home to people of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nation. Connection to the Max’inux or killer whale can be traced back thousands of years not only through art, song and dance but also through the verbal history of the Max’inux clan, whose ancestors are said to have descended from killer whales. Killer whale totems, carvings and paintings adorn the land, streets, and buildings in several coastal communities in the Vancouver Island North region including Campbell River, Port Hardy and Alert Bay also known as “Home of the Killer Whale”.
Vancouver Island North is where pioneering orca researchers Paul Spong, Michael Bigg, Graeme Ellis, Helena Symonds, John Ford, and Alexandra Morton all began their long-term conservation-based scientific research on cetaceans that frequent the area. In the early 1970s Spong developed remote acoustic and visual-based recording networks based at Orcalab on Hanson Island to track killer whales throughout the region. Around the same time Michael Bigg and Graeme Ellis pioneered the cetacean photo-identification research technique and used it to discover many surprising aspects about the natural history of killer whales. These researchers have inspired many other biologists to conduct conservation-based studies of cetaceans in the Vancouver Island North region resulting in hundreds of scientific publications and many books.
A 1715 hectare area including part of Johnstone Strait and part of Vancouver Island North was designated as the world’s first ecological reserve for whales in 1982. The Robson Bight Michael Bigg Ecological Reserve includes favoured foraging habitat for resident killer whales as well as unique smooth pebble beaches where the whales systematically return to year after year to rub their bodies. With the passing of the Species at Risk Act in the early 2000s an additional 905 square kilometres of core killer whale habitat was protected off Vancouver Island North and designated by the Canadian federal government as critical to the survival of these whales.
Whale-watching off Vancouver Island North was pioneered in 1979 by Jim Borrowman and Bill Mackay, pre-dating all other killer whale-focused marine ecotourism industries in the world. Today, several types of vessels including sailboats, cruiseships and kayaks are used to conduct whale-watching tours off Vancouver Island North. This is due in part to the fact that the area is protected from rough seas and open ocean swells. The volume of vessel traffic off Vancouver Island North is low when compared to whale-watching areas off the south and west coast of Vancouver Island. As a result, few boats view whales simultaneoulsy in this relatively pristine region. In total, only 25,000 to 40,000 people make excursions on commercial ecotourism vessels departing from Vancouver Island North each year while several thousand more view whales from ships passing through the region. Shore-based whale-watching also occurs on Vancouver Island North on the northernmost leg of the Whale Trail and from several coastal communities.
The foundation for responsible whale-watching practices in Canada was established by whale-watch operators and researchers based in the Vancouver Island North region. These practices are incorporated into whale viewing guidelines and marine mammal regulations all over the world. Vancouver Island North vessel-based whale-watching behaviour is monitored by local charitable organizations and enforced by federal officers.
The North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association is comprised of members from several organizations including over 90% of all eco-tour companies operating in the region. NIMMSA promotes sustainability of the whale-watch industry and actively engages in initiating or funding conservation based stewardship activities that benefit marine mammals and their environment off Vancouver Island North. NIMMSA members promote the use of a whale flag that is flown by vessels engaged in whale watching to educate other boaters that there are whales nearby and that they should be vigilant so as to avoid being in contravention of whale watching guidelines or regulations. NIMMSA members also avoid using promotional material that displays non-ethical whale-watching behaviour or sets unrealistic whale-watching expectations.
Whale conservation and education is promoted in the Vancouver Island North region by several charities and non-profit organizations. The Whale Interpretive Centre hosts the articulated skeletons of every species of cetacean that can be found in the area including a 20 metre long fin whale. The Marine Education and Research Society (MERS) educates boaters with their “See a blow, go slow” campaign in addition to providing on the water response to incidents involving marine mammals such as stranding, vessel strikes or entanglement in fishing gear. Local organizations, tourists and the general public all convene during an annual Orcafest in Port McNeill and Whalefest in Campbell River.
The waterways off Vancouver Island North are not only home to resident killer whales but also to several other species of marine mammal including: Bigg’s killer whales, humpback whales, minke whales, Dall’s porpoises, harbour porpoises, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Steller sea lions, harbour seals and sea otters. The areas also hosts several other species of cetacean, terrestrial mammals and a diverse range of marine fish and bird species.
Jared Towers (NIMMSA co-founder and administrator) making an expression of interest for Vancouver Island North as a Whale Heritage Site in the Azores, Portugal in October 2015