In a deep fjord in British Columbia called the Douglas Channel, where the Kitimat River pours runs of Chinook salmon into the Pacific Ocean, fishermen see singing humpback whales fling themselves into the air.
These barnacled, 40-ton whales with long, ridged flippers were harpooned to the brink of extinction in the 1900s. Only through intense conservation efforts have they found safety in ancient migration routes. Mothers birth a single calf in tropical seas and fast for months as it nurses, before migrating thousands of miles up to the North Pacific. There, in enclaves like the Douglas Channel — a critical feeding ground — the whales nourish themselves on krill.
“They’re amazingly beautiful; they’ll knock your socks off,” says Tracey John Hittel, a fishing lodge owner in Kitimat, a town on the channel. Hittel takes guests to see the whales in a 30-foot fishing boat. “They’ll come so close you can see their eye right against yours,” she says.
Now the humpbacks are the flashpoint of an environmental battle. Environmentalists cried foul last month when the Canadian government stripped the whales of protections under its Species at Risk Act (SARA), Canada’s equivalent of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Stephen Harper’s administration downgraded the status of humpbacks from “threatened” to “species of special concern.” To add to the problem, many fear that a massive pipeline, poised to pump a half-million barrels of crude oil a day into tanker ships in the Douglas Channel, is on the verge of being approved. The Northern Gateway Pipeline, similar to another pipeline roiling politics in the United States, the Keystone XL, would affect the whales’ feeding grounds. An announcement on Northern Gateway is expected in June from Prime Minister Harper.