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'The word's out': Frequent whale sightings bring tourists to small Vancouver Island village

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The tide may be changing on the reputation of a north Vancouver Island waterfront community.

Port Alice, B.C., was once known for its cellulose mill, but years after its closure sightings of one of the largest whale species on earth is becoming the talk of the town.

"Well I think they're a huge deal, it's just magic to see them coming through," said Port Alice resident Jacqueline Mackenzie.

Mackenzie is talking about a small number of humpback whales that live in the waters of the North Island village for a large part of the year.

"There's usually about the same five or six whales," said resident Natalie Stewart.

"It seems like we've got a lot because we're a bit of a captive audience here. Most people in town have a pretty good viewpoint so when they are here in the area they do get reported," she said.

The whales spend their time in the village's sheltered inlet and are highly visible right from the shoreline.

"The whole community gets excited," said Mackenzie. "You see people coming down to the marina, coming down along the sea walk and just checking it out – it's great."

Humpback whales are being seen in larger numbers throughout Vancouver Island waters, and began re-appearing in Port Alice back in 2019.

"It's not that there have been more humpbacks generally in Port Alice but that they have the same neighbours returning to feed there specifically, because that's how humpbacks work," said Jackie Hildering with the Marine Education Research Society.

Local photographers have been capturing plenty of images and relaying sightings to the Canadian Pacific Humpback Collaboration, which tracks the whales.

"Like any good fisherman or fisherwoman, you go back pretty specifically at the time, in the place, using a specific strategy," Hildering said of the whales.

The frequent appearances of the humpbacks is drawing locals as well as visitors to the area.

"It has actually brought tourists up here," said resident Marnie Chase. "The word's getting out."

"We’re getting a lot of European people here and we just have to figure out some accommodations for them other than the B&Bs, they fill up quick," he said.

Something of a 'humpback comeback' is forming in British Columbia, with a record-number of unique humpback whales sighted in B.C. last year.

The increase in humpback whales is leading to some issues, however, like a suspected increase in crashes between vessels and whales, and a rise in entanglements.

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