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Captain Cates's whales
In the early 1900s, there was no such thing as a whale-watching tour, but passengers aboard ships operated by the Terminal Steamship Company traveling to Bowen Island would frequently be awed by the site of Humpbacks swimming the waters of Howe Sound. At the time, a hundred or so lived in the Straight of Georgia. Until that time, Humpbacks were relatively safe from whalers, as they were too fast for boats powered by sail and harpoons thrown by hand.
The Pacific Whaling Company, opened in 1905, purchased the latest in whaling technology: steam-powered boats and harpoons fired from cannons with a grenade heads that would exploded inside a whale.
In 1907, the company opened up a whaling station at Page's Lagoon, near Nanaimo, for the express purpose of hunting Humpbacks in the Straight of Georgia.
That same year, Captain J.A. Cates of the Terminal Steamship Company (purchased by the Union Steamship Company in 1920) wrote to his Member of Parliament about whaling in Howe Sound:
It is only natural to say that everything that lives should be allowed a certain amount of protection and I might say that by the extermination of these whales from the waters of Howe Sound it would seriously interfere with our Local Trade as during each year there are hundreds of tourists and others from all over the world who come to Vancouver and engage passage on our boats especially to see the whales in Howe Sound."
When commercial whaling ended in 1967, researchers estimated the remaining population of Humpbacks in the Pacific Northwest to be roughly 2000. Now that population is thought to be close to 20 thousand. Humpbacks in the Georgia Straight have been the last to come back.
Caitlin Birdsall at the Vancouver Aquarium's BC Cetacean Sitings Network says that despite this remarkable recovery, there are still plenty of threats to local whales including ship strikes and entanglement.
A study published on Tuesday in the journal Animal Conservation says that whales in British Columbia's coastal waters are being seriously threatened by shipping noise. This noise inhibits the whales' ability to communicate, search for prey, and select mates.