Pop Tart, the youngest calf of the humpback whale known by local ecotourism companies as Big Mama, feeds at the surface. The whale was one of three siblings spotted close together recently by a whale watching company, a rare occurrence for humpbacks, experts say. (Photo by April Ryan/Maya’s Legacy/Pacific Whale Watching Association)

Pop Tart, the youngest calf of the humpback whale known by local ecotourism companies as Big Mama, feeds at the surface. The whale was one of three siblings spotted close together recently by a whale watching company, a rare occurrence for humpbacks, experts say. (Photo by April Ryan/Maya’s Legacy/Pacific Whale Watching Association)

Rare whale siblings gathering in Salish Sea has researchers excited

Scenario a rarity for humpbacks, experts say, more research needed about how whales interact

Every year, hundreds of humpback whales return to the Salish Sea to feed in the abundant waters.

A rare sighting this month saw three humpback siblings feeding in the same area near Port Angeles, an unusual occurrence since the species is known to separate from family early in their lives.

Unlike orcas, which maintain close family bonds, humpbacks leave their mothers before they’re a year old and don’t remain close to their siblings – or so researchers thought.

“We just have to wonder, do they know if they’re brothers and sisters? We don’t know the answer, but this is a rare example that makes us think there’s something more to it than what we read in textbooks,” said Erin Gless, a marine biologist with Pacific Whale Watch Association, an industry group that includes a number of Victoria companies.

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Gless has been reaching out to other researchers across North America to find out if they’ve seen anything similar, and will continue to study relationships and interactions between whales as more findings are uncovered.

The star of the show every whale watching season is Big Mama, a humpback that has given birth to six calves since 2003.

The three calves spotted together are Big Mama’s offspring who were feeding within a few hundred metres of each other in waters off Port Angeles. The whales were identified by the whale watching community as Split Fin (born 2006), Tulip (2012), and Pop Tart (2016), Big Mama’s youngest calf.

“Once we actually learn about these animals on an individual level by finding that personal connection, then you care a lot more to ensure their environment is clean and healthy,” said Gless. She added that research and stories like these may inspire people to value and protect the ocean and marine life that much more.


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