Marine researchers investigate cetaceous encounters on east and west coasts

A coastal whale tale

Marine researchers and whale watchers are wondering what to make of starkly different cetaceous encounters on Canada’s east and west coasts in recent weeks.

A pair of humpback whales off the coast of Newfoundland made headlines recently. Locals named them Mutt and Jeff, and they’ve stood out not only for their friendly behaviour—the two whales wave their tails and slap their fins for perfect photo ops—but also because they appear to be twins. It’s extremely rare for twin humpback whales to survive because of their size at birth. It’s also uncommon for two of this type of whale to stay together, yet Mutt and Jeff have been spotted off the Newfoundland coast, side by side, two years in a row.

But if Mutt and Jeff have endeared themselves to whale watchers, it appears several boaters had unpleasant run-ins with a particular grey whale off the coast of Vancouver Island last month. A surfer at Cox Bay, near Tofino, was startled when a grey whale snuck up on him. The next day a similar looking whale nearly tipped over a small motorboat. There have been other similar incidents in the area. “We don’t know if it’s a ‘friendly,’ ” says Paul Cottrell of the B.C. department of fisheries and oceans, referring to whales that become overly comfortable around people. Officials can’t say for sure if it’s the same whale, but they’re not happy the incidents are happening—it’s not good for the whale, or the people involved.

As for whether East Coast whales are friendlier and West Coast whales have a chip on their fins, Cottrell advises strongly against applying human traits. “We stay away from that,” he says. “You could say they have different behaviours among individuals.”