BC’s whale watching industry has hit a tourism goldmine this summer, with an estimated half a million people heading out to catch sight of humpback whales, killer whales and other giants of the deep -all thanks to greater-than-normal numbers of whales seen swimming and feeding close to Vancouver Island and along the BC coast.
Michael Harris, executive director of Pacific Whale Watch Association says the resurgence over the past few decades in the region’s humpback whale population has a lot to do with it. “We’re seeing them in groups of 15, 20 whales in one area,” says Harris in conversation with Vancouver NewsTalk 980. “Lunge feeding, doing all of these things that normally you would see them do in Alaska or Hawaii. Doing them right out here off of Victoria. And it’s been a big, big boom for the whale watch industry.”
Nearly hunted to extinction in the mid-20th century, humpback whale populations have since been on the mend, in large measure due to the 1966 decree by the International Whaling Commission to ban commercial whaling of the humpback. In the North Atlantic, where numbers had dwindled to an estimated 700 individuals, officials now put the humpback population at around 12,000, and in the Northeast Pacific, current numbers said to be upwards of 21,000.
“This year it’s been the humpback comeback,” says Harris. “Humpback heaven.”
BC tourism has in general seen an uptick this year, according to recent estimates which show a 12 per cent increase during the first half of 2016 over 2015 numbers. The rise has been attributed to a low Canadian dollar and increased international air service to Vancouver, now bringing in tourists from places like Mexico City, Mexico, and Kunming, China.
“Tourism is off to a spectacular start this summer,” says Marsha Walden, CEO of provincial the province’s tourism corporation, Destination B.C. “With particularly high numbers from China and Mexico, and steady increases from the rest of our key markets, we expect international visitor arrivals to remain strong.”
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For the whale watching industry, however, the results are especially poignant, coming just months after the Leviathan II capsized off the coast of Tofino on October 25, 2015, killing six people. The tragedy led to concerns over emergency procedures and added trepidation over the start of this year’s whale watching season. In March, Tofino Mayor Jose Osborne stated in conversation with the CBC that the people in town took time over the winter to process the events before the start of the new year. “There’s an element of maybe almost nervousness in the air, not knowing exactly what questions people will ask,” stated Osborne, “but everyone is very receptive and open to being asked those questions.”
Along with international tourists, local BC residents have been heading out whale watching in larger numbers this year, according to Harris. “Frankly a lot of local people, especially up on the B.C. side who have never gone whale watching, suddenly wanted to go out and see their neighbours in the marine environment,” he says.
Recently, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge released initial details on their upcoming eight-day trip through BC and the Yukon, including four stops in Victoria alone. Might a whale-watching trip be in the works for Prince William and Kate? Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and family were spotted out whale watching in Tofino.