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New baby heralds return of humpbacks to Salish Sea

A whale known as Big Mama was spotted Monday with her calf in Boundary Pass after crossing the Pacific from winter breeding grounds in Hawaii.

Just in time for Mother’s Day, Big Mama the humpback is back in the Salish Sea.

And the prolific female has a healthy new calf in her wake.

It’s the seventh calf for Big Mama, also known as BCY0324, who is considered a favourite among naturalists and whale watchers.

She was spotted Monday with her calf in Boundary Pass between Canada and the U.S. after crossing the Pacific from winter breeding grounds in Hawaii.

Naturalist Bethany Shimasaki of Western Prince Whale Watching reported a humpback whale and calf, but the mother did not immediately show her tail, a feature typically used for identifying humpback individuals.

However, images revealed Big Mama’s signature: a small bump on the right side of her dorsal fin. The match has since been confirmed by B.C.-based researcher Tasli Shaw of the Humpback Whales of the Salish Sea project.

The sex of the new calf isn’t yet known.

“When the news travelled over the radio, there was instant celebration,” said Erin Gless executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

“Big Mama was one of the first humpback whales to repopulate the Salish Sea after the whaling era and has been feeding here regularly since 1997. We always look forward to her return, but even more so when she brings a calf with her.”

In February, Captain Steve’s Rafting Adventures of Lahaina, Hawaii, reported seeing Big Mama with a newborn. The crew shared their sighting to Happywhale.com, which connects researchers, whale-watching naturalists, and citizen scientists, and alerted the whale-watch association.

Locals were holding their breath for the duo’s safe arrival.

“Crossing the Pacific with a calf can be fraught with threats in the form of fishing gear, commercial shipping traffic, and killer whales, but Big Mama is a seasoned pro,” a statement from the whale-watch association said.

Big Mama has given birth to at least seven calves. Her last calf, Pop-Tart, was born in 2016 and named for his or her fondness of playfully popping up out of the water.

Her seventh calf seems to share that energetic spirit. The little one was seen breaching, cartwheeling, and splashing throughout the day.

In the coming weeks, more and more humpbacks will return to the Salish Sea from their breeding grounds in Hawaii, Mexico and Central America. Humpback whales typically remain in the region throughout the spring, summer and fall while they feed on krill and small fish.

Last year, a record 21 humpback whale calves were sighted throughout the Salish Sea.

dkloster@timescolonist.com