As the population of humpback and fin whales in B.C. waters steadily grows, so does the threat of giant ships fatally colliding with the animals, a Vancouver marine scientist says.

The whales, which saw their population in the Strait of Georgia decimated almost a century ago by commercial whaling, have made an impressive comeback.

But Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, who oversees the Vancouver Aquarium's whale and dolphin research program, said marine scientists are concerned about the potential threat presented by increased traffic in areas off B.C.’s coast.

Fin whales are especially susceptible to colliding with ships, he said.

“They tend to feed right along the surface. They skim along the surface or just below the surface,” Barrett-Lennard said of the creatures, which can reach up to 80-feet long. “They get very excited and focused on their feeding, and that can put them right in the path of ships.

“Even though they’re so large, being struck by a large ship is usually game over for the animals.”

A ship strike is believed to have killed a massive 68-foot-long fin whale off Washington State coast last week. In the last few years, two cruise ships sailing into Vancouver have also struck and killed fin whales.

A record number of whales have been hit by ships off the coast of California recently. As a result, shipping lanes off the state’s coast have been relocated to make it safer for the animals.

Marine scientists are now pushing for tighter rules and more protection for whales in B.C. waters, especially in the face of proposed pipelines that would see a sharp rise in oil tanker traffic.

Projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline, which is in its final review phase, would expand tanker traffic in areas where whales have proliferated, Barrett-Lennard said.

“If the Northern Gateway goes ahead, ships will come in and out of Cammano Sound, and that’s also an area where there are lots of fin whales and a high ship strike [risk],” he said.

He said a preliminary study by the Vancouver Aquarium has found that an increased threat of ship strikes could adversely affect the fin whale population.

Scientists are now mapping ship and whale traffic to see where the two overlap. The Southwest coast of Vancouver Island, the Dixon entrance north of Haida Gwaii and Caamana Sound are all areas with a high density of whales, according to Barrett-Lennard.

Large ships traveling slower in populated waters would go a long way toward reducing the number of whale deaths and injuries due to collisions, he said.

“That’s huge. That’s the biggest thing that they can do,” he said.

Traveling in daylight hours as well as having a lookout person on board ships to spot whales could also help reduce fatalities, he said.

On the flip side, the proliferation of whales in coastal waters could also mean bad news – for boaters.

Earlier this year, a Campbell River man was seriously hurt after his small boat struck a humpback whale – the whale was believed to be fine, while the man suffered several thousand dollars worth of injuries to his face.

Accidents like that might become commonplace as the whales continue their surge, Barrett-Lennard warned.

“We could see more of them and we will see more of them,” he said. “I think it’s not a question of it, it’s a question of when.”

With a report from CTV British Columbia’s Mi-Jung Lee