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Inside a half-renovated garage in Squamish, BC, a grade-six student poured the last light of every school day into one huge project: a life-sized drawing of a humpback whale. The days were growing shorter, the nights longer and there was no heat or electricity in the garage, but Sarah Van van Eerdt still worked away. “It gets so cold that you can’t move your fingers,” said her mother, Mieke. But Sarah was intent on conveying the majesty of a humpback whale to her class at Garibaldi Highlands Elementary.
Every day, Sarah’s class has Genius Hour, a period when students can research any topic they like. Sarah chose humpback whales. Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) were once hunted to very low levels in the North Pacific Ocean, but today they’re experiencing a resurgence. A 2008 report estimated a total abundance of 18,000-21,000 whales, with 200-400 individuals in the waters of Washington and southern British Columbia. The North Pacific population was down-listed from “Threatened” to “Special Concern” under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2014. In recent years, humpback whales have been making frequent forays into Vancouver’s English Bay and Howe Sound, near Squamish — although Sarah hasn’t seen one so close to home yet.
After putting together a slideshow about humpback whales for her class, Sarah decided to demonstrate just how huge the whales actually are with a life-sized drawing. Adult humpbacks grow up to 16 metres long; Sarah’s finished drawing was 14 metres and even that slightly smaller size posed a challenge. Inside the garage, she could complete only four metres of the whale’s outline at a time.
The original plan was to shade in the entire drawing, depicting a humpback whale’s natural grey colouring. But that would take another month, Mieke said. As painted sections dried, Mieke and Sarah rolled up the drawing to make more room. In early October, they started on the tail, which is so big that Sarah can lie down in one of the flukes. They moved on to the whale’s distinctive dorsal fin and its ginormous eye. By-mid November, they had begun the long, curving mouth. The last few weeks they moved all of the furniture out of their house’s living room to complete the final details. They still haven’t seen the whole whale because there’s no place in the house large enough to unroll the drawing. The big reveal came during Sarah’s presentation when she hung the whale on the wall of the school gym.
Growing up in Vancouver’s West End, Sarah lived within walking distance of Ocean Wise’s Vancouver Aquarium, where she has fond memories of visiting the marine mammals. “Humpback whales are my favourite marine mammal. Well, after dolphins,” she explained. In grade two, Sarah and her uncle built a scale model of a bottlenose dolphin from chicken wire and papier mâché. In grade three, she turned her attention to humpback whales for a school passion project, and she’s loved them ever since.
Despite the good news for the humpback whale population, human activity continues to negatively impact the species. Humpback whales are the cetacean most frequently struck by vessels in BC waters, mostly by small recreational boats going over 15 knots. Entanglement in fishing gear is another major concern, causing drowning and starvation. You can help protect humpback whales in BC waters by reporting your sightings to the BC Cetacean Sightings Network. The BC Cetacean Sightings Network is a citizen-science program that collects observations of whales, dolphins, porpoises, and sea turtles for conservation-based research.