Looking for Orcas

We looked like astronauts as we headed out to the boat in our environmental suits. Initially, it was hot and we were feeling rather sheepish in our full-body gear. However, as we left the warm city and hit cold open water, the environmental suits were barely enough to keep us warm. Add water into the mix and we were glad for the full-body protection.

We were on a Wild Whales Vancouver tour and on the agenda: orcas, whales, porpoises, seals, dolphins, and bald eagles. The key focus of the tour is orcas, who are a dolphin and not a whale.

It took us roughly a couple of hours to get to our destination… in amongst the Gulf Islands. On the way, we saw a couple of elusive harbour dolphins and plenty of harbour seals. Shy harbour dolphins will quickly disappear and we were lucky for our glimpses.

Seals, on the other hand, are curious and rather smart. Our naturalist tells one story told by the local fishermen of a migrating pod of orcas hunting a seal (migrating orcas eat seals, the local orcas eat salmon). The seal knew it was being hunted and in terror jumped up onto the fishing boat and refused to budge. After many attempts to get the seal back into the water, the fishermen gave up and headed back to land. Only when safe did the seal leave the boat.

By the time we reached the Gulf Islands we knew it was going to be a good orca watching day. The hydrophone periodically picked up vocalizations and reports of sightings were coming in from other boats. Already numerous vessels lined the water, all hoping for a glimpse. By law, boats are supposed to stay 100m away from the pod.

There are roughly 4-types of behaviours you will see from pods: resting, travelling, foraging and socializing. When resting they will move forward slowly as a unit. When travelling you will see faster movement and a lot of dorsal fins as they move as a group.

Foraging brings dive down action as the individuals look for food. The pod spreads out to better their chances. When socializing the orcas will jump in the air and do those spectacular stunts that everyone wants to photograph. We’re told that this happens only 1 in 5 trips. Today, the orcas were foraging, which encompasses roughly 60% of their day.

For weeks the pods were absent. A salmon run on the other side of Vancouver Island kept them all fed and happy. The day of our tour was their glorious return… they being the K and L pods. Wildlife officials try to keep track of the pods. Orca numbers are dwindling and with each loss it is a tremendous hit to the population and puts the species closer to extinction. There are only 90 resident orcas left (with one being a newborn). As an aside, orcas have no natural predators… only humans and our pollution.

We spent roughly two hours watching the whales forage. Some were playful, most were not. We saw males, females and juveniles. There were many close to the shore and out of photographic range. The boats were respectful and kept their distance.

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