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Watch: Humpbacks and a sea lion fishing in Pender Harbour

'They were so close to shore. I was literally standing on the road and they were right there,' says Randene Neill of Lee Bay

For the past few nights, Randene Neill has heard the breaths of humpback whales, the sounds coming through her peekaboo view of the ocean at her Pender Harbour home. “It’s a really weird sound, but it’s quite loud,” she describes. 

When Neill finally saw the whales, they were closer than she’d imagined. 

Neill had just gotten back from walking the dogs on Oct. 24, and noticed a little blow off her deck, so she ran down the road to Lee Bay. The whales were circling the bay, along with a sea lion jumping along with them, “They were so close to shore. I was literally standing on the road and they were right there,” says Neill. She captured the encounter on video. "It was amazing to see them so close."

Expert weighs in

While in the video it may appear that the humpbacks are flinging a sea lion, it’s actually a curious critter, buzzing around them. “The humpbacks don’t seem to mind much, just a small ‘trumpet’ type sound that I hear when one takes a breath that indicate the whale might be irritated,” said Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. “We’ve actually, on more than one occasion, seen humpbacks come to the rescue of sea lions that are being chased by orcas, something documented both here and in other parts of the world.

“Sea lions feed on the same types of small fish as humpbacks, so it’s not unusual to see them in the same place,” said Gless. “Despite being so big, a humpback’s throat is only about the size of a grapefruit, so they have no interest in sea lions.”

Many whale sightings

It’s not just Neill who’s had such encounters with whales.

In the eight years of the Pender Harbour-based Loon Foundation monitoring project in the Salish Sea, executive director Michael Jackson says he’s never seen so many humpbacks in the area. “When we first started doing this monitoring, it was very rare to see humpback whale at all,” Jackson said on Oct. 25. “Now, there’s so many out there it’s crazy.

“There must be a lot of food out there for them to be staying put like this because normally, they would be just passing through on migration down to Hawaii and Mexico.”

Jessica Scott, senior manager of Ocean Wise’s Whales Initiative, agrees that there are a lot of whale sightings being reported around the Coast. 

“We usually get numerous sightings of humpback whales on the Sunshine Coast, but this seems quite unprecedented,” said Scott.

Scott says she’s heard reports this month of a group of seven humpback whales in the Pender Harbour area and another group of three off of Francis Peninsula, so she estimates there’s around seven to 10 whales in the area, but she hasn’t had good enough identification photos to be sure or to tell who the whales are. 

(Anyone who gets photos of the underside of tail flukes can send them to [email protected] so researchers can try to match them in provincial catalogues, part of a collaborative effort of several B.C. research groups.) 

And while it does appear there are more whales, Scott notes it’s also possible that more people are seeing them and reporting them with the rise of Facebook groups like the Sunshine Coast Whale and Dolphin Sightings group.

In general, Scott says they do tend to see humpbacks throughout the B.C. coast this time of year in quite big groups, as far north as Prince Rupert. Right now they’re also seeing large groups off of Victoria and around Bowen Island.

Members of the Howe Sound/Átl'ka7tsem Cetacean Sighting Group on Facebook have spotted several humpbacks in recent days in the Bowen Island-Howe Sound area. Gless identified brother-sister whales 'Split Fin' and 'Divot' for group moderator Diana Izdebski, who spotted them near Worlcombe Island. 

Why are they here?

“As prey distribution moves along the coast, you'll see them pop up in different areas,” says Scott. “I think they're really drawn here to Pender Harbour from just small schooling fish that are around little bait fish and krill in the water.

“They’re fattening up and getting ready for their southbound migration down to their breeding grounds in Hawaii and Mexico.”

The feeding in B.C. is extremely important to humpbacks as they’ll need the reserves to travel the 15,000 km roundtrip to their breeding grounds, according to Ocean Wise. They feed very little during migration and overwintering, and in the case of many females, they give birth to and nurse calves before they eat again. 

Where to see them

Luckily, the Coast has several areas where whales are often sighted: Francis Peninsula, Davis Bay, Roberts Creek Pier and not too far away, Cape Roger Curtis on Bowen Island, according to Ocean Wise (see more sighting locations at 

When people see whales, Ocean Wise says to be sure to report them to the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network App, WhaleReport!. That data is used not only for research but also for alerting large vessels so as to help prevent ship strikes and disturbances. 

Unfortunately, Scott says they have seen two or three humpback whales wash up on shore or been seen floating on the surface recently in B.C. – relatively young and otherwise healthy whales.

“[Humpback] populations are increasing at around four to five per cent per year in B.C., which is great,” she said. “But as those numbers increase and as the number of boats on the water increase, there is that concern of increased vessel impact.”

“So it's really important for people to make sure when they're out on the water, they're keeping an eye out for blows and splashes they're slowing down, they're keeping at least 200 metres away,” says Scott. She also notes it’s important to keep an eye out for entangled whales, like the one recently freed in the Powell River area. 

Humpbacks in the bay

Neill and her husband have had their place in Lee Bay since 2017 but moved there full time just two months ago. Her husband, a biologist, thinks the whales have been sleeping in the bay, which is why Neill could hear them overnight. 

“We’ve seen orcas but this was the first time I’ve seen the humpbacks,” said Neill. 

Neill’s still marvelling at the Sunshine Coast wildlife passing by her doorstep.

“We had bears here last month, just passing through, and all the deer and now everything on the water.

“It’s such a blessing, it really is, to be up here.”