Chapter 20

At last I believe I have found a colony of these elusive mice.

Revelstoke Mountain 1937–1938

Common Minke Whale

Common Minke Whale

Baleaenoptera acutorostrata, Sooke, 1936. Photograph by Cowan. Image Cowan_PH_122 courtesy of University of Victoria Special Collections.
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The Cowans’ return to Victoria in August 1937 coincided with a chance encounter with a much larger mammal, a Minke Whale that had got tangled up in the salmon traps at Sooke, an easy day’s visit from Victoria. At the time, minkes were not well known. There were a few skulls knocking around in the museums in Washington, DC, and San Diego and no one knew for sure if this was the same as the Atlantic species or was a new Pacific species that an earlier biologist had called the Sharp-headed Finner Whale.

This brand new specimen, following hot on the tail fluke of another partial skeleton that had washed up the year before on Vancouver Island, meant Cowan had two specimens to measure and provide a little more weight to that question of new species or not. He writes, “The paucity of material relative to this whale seems to warrant the preparation of a more extended description of our specimens…”51 He lived to eat his words: the preparation of the specimen was epic and as Cowan says, “When I think back to what I did, it was just absolutely ridiculous!” …52

Undoubtedly that early experience of dissecting the whale with Joyce was to have a lasting impact on all his later work on whale conservation, culminating as chairman of the Canadian Committee on Whales and Whaling at a heady time for whale conservation – 1978. Cowan was advising Ottawa on the scientific rationale behind a moratorium on whaling, as Canada was still a member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) then. Interestingly, it was the minke that became the main target of the countries not in support of the moratorium. The pro-whaling countries argued in favour of killing them for “scientific purposes.”53

Sharp-nosed Finner, Minke or Pike Whale [Common Minke Whale]

Balaenoptera acutorostrata

A slender, torpedo-shaped small whale reaching a length of 26 feet. This is the smallest of the baleen whales. Colour blackish, dorsally white beneath. A distinctive mark is the white band across each foreflipper… This is a common whale in the shallower coastal waters. Here it follows the schools of sandlance, herring, anchovy and other small fish upon which it feeds… Inhabits the entire coastline but does not enter the deep inlets nor the eastern parts of Georgia Strait.54


51 Ian McTaggart Cowan, “The Sharp-Headed Finner Whale of the Eastern Pacific,” Journal of Mammalogy 20, no. 2 (May 1939): 215–225.

52 Cowan, interview, November 30, 2000.

53 Stainsby, ”Dean of Ecology,” 36.

54 Cowan and Guiguet, Mammals of BC, 266-267.

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