Updated article coming in 2020

Dolphins, whales and porpoises have made a triumphant return to Howe Sound after a near 100-year absence, suggesting remediation efforts have been successful in combating the polluting effects of industrial activity. Citizen reporting continues to be a crucial tool in monitoring cetacean populations in the Sound. Still, compared to our impressions of historical abundance, cetacean numbers are low.

Author: Tessa Danelesko, Coordinator, British Columbia Cetaceans Sightings Network, Coastal Ocean Research Institute, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center

Reviewer: Lance Barrett-Lennard, Director, Marine Mammal Research Program, Coastal Ocean Research Institute, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center

Banner Photo Credit: Lance Barrett-Lennard

What’s happening?


Hearing the familiar “whooooosh” of a whale’s blow is becoming a normal occurrence – again – when paddling through, walking along or wading in the waters of Howe Sound. Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) have been making a welcome comeback to the area, after a several-decades-long virtual absence, likely due to human activities.

In 2015, the B.C. Cetaceans Sightings Network received 141 reports from 100 volunteer observers in Howe Sound. 

Harbour porpoises were the most commonly reported small cetacean last year, with killer whales being the most frequently reported large cetacean (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Cetacean sightings reported to the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network in Howe Sound and surrounding waters in 2015.

Why is it important?


Many long-term residents of the Sound and the Lower Mainland are surprised to learn that more than 100 years ago, the Strait of Georgia was the seasonal home for 100-150 humpback whales, many of which fed around Bowen Island. The Cates family ran whale-watching trips regularly between Vancouver and Howe Sound to see these magnificent whales. Sadly, in 1907, the Pacific Whaling Company began operating out of Nanaimo and within a few short years over 140 humpbacks were killed in the Strait of Georgia, abruptly ending the first whale-watching business in the Howe Sound. Low population sizes, pollution from industrial activity and depletion of prey are likely responsible for keeping cetaceans away from the area for most of the 20th Century.

Systematic surveys are a slow and expensive way to assess changes in the abundance of cetaceans, and our understanding of the reoccupation of Howe Sound by cetaceans is largely based on sightings provided by members of the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, a research initiative of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada (Figure 2). The citizen science program solicits sightings from coastal citizens and mariners along the entire coast of B.C. and uses the data for conservation-based projects.

Figure 2. Annual numbers of observers reporting and sightings reported to the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network in Howe Sound from 1990 – 2015.

Residents of the Howe Sound area have been keenly reporting their sightings of these species to the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network since 2003 (although the Sightings Network collects historic data, which for Howe Sound dates back to 1990), and the data they’ve contributed allows the Sightings Network to get a clear picture of where and when cetaceans spend time in the Sound.

First Nations Connections


“I carved this whalebone club to honour our warriors who protected our homelands. It represents a wolf, symbolizing swiftness, and family values. The wolf has a human figure at its center representing the spirit and essence of our connections, transformation. The frog in the foot of the wolf honours the supernatural, shamanism, and power. The handle is a thunderbird wearing an eagle headdress, which honours the sky realm and the power and forces of nature.”  – Xalek/Sekyu Siyam (Chief Ian Campbell)


Picture 1

Whalebone club carved by Chief Ian Campbell, Squamish Nation. (Photo: Gary Fiegehen)

Picture 1

Kwiláḵm (Bowen Island) is the southernmost of Howe Sound’s large islands. It is known by the Squamish people for its excellent clam harvesting. It was also an important sea-lion and whale-hunting site. (Photo: Gary Fiegehen)  – photo and caption reproduced with permission from “Where Rivers, Mountains and People Meet,” Squamish Líl’wat Cultural Centre.

What is the current status?


The number of cetacean sightings in Howe Sound increased significantly in 2010 and has remained high since, as has the number of observers. It is likely that cetaceans visiting Howe Sound have increased in numbers, and this has prompted more observers to report their sightings, but these data alone cannot rule out the possibility that more observers means more sightings despite a similar number of cetacean visitors, however unlikely that may be.

The temporal distribution of cetacean sightings in Howe Sound for 2015 showed some deviation from the typical annual pattern (Figure 3), with August seeing a spike in the number of sightings reported (35), followed by June and May which saw 23 and 20 sightings reported, respectively. A slight temporal shift in humpback sightings occurred in 2015, with the majority occurring in August. In past years humpback whales were most frequently observed in September and October. While it’s difficult to determine what caused this change with certainty, it’s possible that they were attracted by one of their prey species, northern anchovy, which was observed and reported in Howe Sound several times in the summer of 2015, for the first time since 2005.


Figure 3: The historical monthly pattern of cetacean sightings reported to the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network in Howe Sound (1990 – 2014) compared to the pattern in 2015.

Spatially, southeast Howe Sound is where the majority of cetaceans were seen in 2015, with clusters appearing along the ferry routes, near Lions Bay and at the southeast entrance to the Sound. Unsurprisingly, it is in these areas where we also find more eyes out on the water due to a significant level of vessel traffic, waterfront homes and human activities occurring in these places.

To better understand abundances of cetacean species and their spatial use of Howe Sound (and elsewhere in B.C.) and to remove the bias of uneven observer effort, the Sightings Network team, along with marine mammal researcher Erin Rechsteiner, created a GIS model to adjust or correct Sightings Network data to reflect the distribution of observer effort. According to the model we would expect high abundances off Whytecliff Park in Horseshoe Bay, near Lions Bay, and off the east side of Gambier Island, as well as at the very north end of the Sound near Squamish. These are all areas where sightings were reported over the past year.


What can you do?



Individual and Organization Actions:

  • Report what you see with WhaleReport, the Sightings Network’s new smartphone app, available for iOS and Android devices in the iTunes and Google Play stores, respectively. Alternatively, sightings can be reported via an online webform, by calling 1.866.I.SAW.ONE, emailing sightings@vanaqua.org or by hardcopy logbooks, available by request.
  • When viewing cetaceans from a boat, follow the Be Whale Wise Guidelines to avoid disturbing or displacing them.
  • Purchase sustainable ocean wise seafood. In your business, ensure food sold or supplied is sustainable (if applicable).
  • Purchase products that do not contain harmful toxins such as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).
  • Participate in a shoreline cleanup. Organize a community or company-wide cleanup.
  • Recycle and properly dispose of garbage to prevent marine debris that can be harmful if ingested, or cause entanglement. Ensure workplaces are equipped with proper disposal options.
  • Minimize the use of plastics, especially single-use plastics.


Government Actions and Policy:

  • Monitor pollutant levels, enforce and where necessary amend pollution regulations.
  • Monitor and when warranted restrict fishing to protect the prey resources of cetaceans in Howe Sound.
  • Continue to update Species at Risk Act (SARA) reports on a regular basis to reflect current status of species.
  • Continue to aid and support population studies of Species At Risk, or potential Species At Risk.
  • Continue to support and facilitate growth of the Marine Mammal Response Network to ensure timely and safe incident responses coast-wide.
  • Increase public education regarding species of cetaceans, the risks they face, and how the public can help. Continue to support children and youth educational programs.
  • Support citizen science and grassroots initiatives related to cetacean conservation.
  • Empower local communities by ensuring they are educated on the proper actions to take in the event of an oil spill. Provide the required resources for communities to safely respond and assist in the event of a spill.
  • Provide large vessel captains and pilots with cetacean resources that include distribution of species, and how to safely transit when whales are in the area (e.g., The Mariner’s Guide to Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises of B.C.)
  • Legislate against the production and use of harmful chemicals (e.g., POPs).
  • Legislate against the production and use of single-use plastics (e.g. plastic grocery bags).
  • Legislate mandatory safe-distance for vessels from cetaceans (e.g., using Be Whale Wise Guidelines).
  • Facilitate the creation of ecosystem-based species management plans in order to help ensure a sustainable predator-prey balance.


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