Orcas and Humpbacks | Our encounters on two whale watching trips, Vancouver Island

Wherever we are in the world we try to do a whale watching trip and so far we’ve seen humpbacks in Hawaii, sperm whales in Norway, blue whales in Sri Lanka and Orcas in Alaska. With a little research I found out that Northern Vancouver Island is one of the most reliable places in the world to see orcas and humpbacks during the summer months. The Gulf Islands to the south of the island also offer whale watching trips but the southern resident orcas who live there are battling with extinction. Their numbers are drastically dropping and researches haven’t pinpointed why, but a lack of salmon seems to be high on the list along with polluted waters and boat noise.

A little bit of Orca 101 for those that are interested (which should be all of you because they’re INCREDIBLE animals).

There are three different types of Orcas:

• Transient (also called Biggs) Orcas live in small pods and are very stealthy hunters, creeping up on their prey such as dolphins, seals, porpoises etc.

• Resident Orcas are fish eaters, predominantly eating salmon. The southern residents travel from the centre of Vancouver Island as far south as California while the northern residents go the opposite way, up to Alaska and back. They are very sociable and will meet up with other pods, chatting underwater in their different dialects.

• Offshore Orcas live out in the deep sea and hunt sharks! These ones are less likely to be witnessed on a trip.

We ended up doing two trips to maximise our chances of epic encounters so here’s how they went…

Telegraph Cove with Price Of Whales

$145 for 3 hours.

Whales have been known to come right into the harbour of this tiny fishing village and it’s one of the top whale watching destinations. Our first outing was actually cancelled due to 5-8ft waves and strong winds so instead we visited the Whale Interpretive Centre which was filled with whale facts. From one end of the building to the other was a humongous Fin Whale skeleton who was sadly killed by a cruise ship.

The following day was the complete opposite with perfectly calm conditions. It was drizzling just before we set off and fog was hanging low but at least the sea was flat and the sun did eventually come out. We were onboard a 12 seater zodiac which strangely had benches as appose to the usual single seats that you straddle so it meant we had to share the bench with a stranger who inevitably got in the way of photos.

The sea was mesmerising to glide over; totally glassy with birds gently bobbing on the surface and pieces of driftwood and seaweed floating by. We did the usual stop at a rocky island to see some harbour seals and stellar sea lions and then a couple of porpoises showed up. They darted under our boat at lightning speed. Porpoises are really cute, they’re similar to dolphins but smaller in size and dressed in a little tuxedo, almost looking like mini orcas.

Soon after we spotted three humpbacks diving for fish very close to a forested island. The captain turned his engine off so we could watch the whales come to the surface to breath. They gave us good warning every time with a loud blowing noise as they shot water meters high from their spout, creating a majestic mist above them. They were enjoying feasting on the abundant herring after spending five winter months further south in the warm seas, nursing their newborns and playing in the tropics but not eating a single thing in that entire time.

News came in on the radio that some orcas had been spotted so we sped off into an open area of the sea where three other boats were. A couple of them were research vessels with permission to get closer to the orcas. We could see big splashes in the far distance so we knew the orcas were being very active but it was hard to see exactly what was going on. We got a little closer but it still seemed so far away and more than the required 200m distance. The fog seemed to be clearing but then it built up again, making the surrounding boats look like ghost ships.

We were looking at a pod of about 5 Transient Orcas who seemed to be celebrating a kill. From what we heard on the radio they’d taken down a seal and were very happy about it!! Their normally a quiet bunch, not wanting to reveal themselves to unassuming prey but as our guide slipped the hydrophone into the sea we could hear them squeaking to one another, I guess they were pretty chuffed with their meal. They were spread out so it was hard to know where to look as I’d focus on an area but hear a splash elsewhere. It was amazing watching them breach though, flying through the air like nimble ballerinas but creating a massive splash as if an elephant had fallen from space. Sometimes they rolled sideways or slapped the surface with their tails. We didn’t see it happening but on the radio the closest boat said a couple of orcas were playing with a common murre, (little black birds that hang out at sea). The two orcas were slapping the bird between them using their tails and treating it like a game of ping pong – a classic orca characteristic as they like playing with their food. We were also told there was a very fresh baby amongst the pod, maybe a week or so old and very noticeable not just because of its tiny size but because it’s white patches were a peachy, orange colour, supposedly because it doesn’t have enough blubber so it’s veins are all visible. But we didn’t see the baby, we really were quite a distance away which was a shame as it was hard to appreciate the incredible show that was happening.

The captain decided to head west to try and find some resident orcas and on the way we passed a couple more humpbacks. We were the only boat in the area and the sea was so mirrored that it didn’t even look real, it was like we were on a film set. Ahead of us was a huge gathering of seagulls flying circles above the sea and squawking like mad. The sea beneath them seemed to almost be bubbling with herring so I was really hoping we were about to witness one of mother nature’s greatest shows – a humpback bubble netting. This is when either a group or a lone humpback swims in circles while releasing bubbles, the bubbles trap the herring in the centre of the circle and then the humpbacks rise up with their mouths wide open to gobble up herring by the millions. Sadly with a drop of the hydrophone we could tell there weren’t any humpbacks singing in the area so it didn’t seem to be the show I’d dreamt of and instead the captain was able to move right up to the bait ball. A couple of seals were amongst the silver mass while the seagulls had easy pickings on the surface. The sea looked like it was filled with glitter afterwards as silver fish scales drifted through the water.

Overall it was a lovely trip, we were so lucky to see the orcas in such a playful mood but it was a shame all the encounters were from such a great distance. So three days later we embarked on a trip in Port McNeil, slightly further north.

Port McNeil with Mackay Whale Watching

$130 for 5.5 hour trip including lunch.

This trip was onboard a 35 person boat which didn’t sound very appealing but the family run company had great reviews and were cheaper and almost double the duration as the Prince Of Whales. It was kind of an awful designed boat in regards to getting a good view though. There was the main seating area downstairs with plastic curtains which were rolling up when the boat stopped for whales, but there was also an upper deck with space for about half the passengers. Therefore as soon as we were allowed to move around everyone headed upstairs and it was carnage when a whale came along because the crew didn’t have a system in place to make sure some people remain seated and some stand.

Humpbacks seemed to be surrounding us and we saw their blows rising all around but the captain wanted to get to the orcas. It was funny because the guests were trying to tell him to stop for the whales and he did a fake yawn and said “they’re just humpbacks…booring! We’re gonna look for the orcas instead!”.

We soon found a pod of four transient orcas. They were swimming in sync with one another, all rising their dorsal fins out the water at the same time. The crew recognised the orcas from a photo identification book with pictures of every orca in the area and detailed family trees. We were watching a grandmother with her daughter and two grandsons. These resident orcas stay with their families for LIFE, it’s the most incredible bond they have. They are extremely intelligent and know not to mate with their family, instead they meet with other pods and the women choose a man they like. There’s no fighting amongst the men and once they’ve finished with their date-night the father doesn’t play a part in the growing up of his child. Instead the father will go back to his mum, siblings etc and help to teach his nieces and nephews how to hunt and general life skills.

Just to give you an idea of how emotionally attached orcas are to their families here’s a tearjerker of a true story. A newborn calf passed away soon after birth and it seemed like the mum just couldn’t bare to say goodbye. So without the use of hands she used her head to lift up the lifeless body and slowly swim with it resting there. Occasionally the calf would slip off and family members would swim down, retrieve the baby and help place it on the mums head again. The poor mum carried her dead calf for 17 days! I’ve heard two stories like this one, and one of them went to a beach at low tide and with her family positioning themselves in a U shape around the mother and calf the mum rested the calf on a rock. The pod is still regularly spotted visiting that beach, as if paying their respects.

A research boat was approaching the orcas and apparently the biologist onboard is one of the most regarded people amongst the orca world. In fact most of the worlds orca information has come from studying the population around Vancouver island. They’ve researched their calls underwater and established that they actually have dialects which is unheard of in the animal world. The northern residents wouldn’t have a clue what the southern residents were saying and nor would the transients.

While watching this orca family I asked the skipper a question because we were told on the previous whale trip that when the eldest daughter in a pod has her own children they leave the family and start their own. I wish I’d never asked as she was so rude and patronising. I was only going by the information that our previous guide had told us and I just sat there in silence while she gave a loud speech saying “THIS ISN’T A DEBATE, THIS ISN’T QUESTIONABLE. THESE ORCAS LIVE WITH THEIR FAMILIES FOREVER, NO EXCEPTIONS”. I was merely asking because I was told different information by another guide and instead of just being polite and informative she was cocky and rude.

Anyway, we continued on and stopped to watch some humpbacks who weren’t very active but we did get a brief glimpse of one doing a half breach which was very cool. The boat slowly chugged along while a lunch of soup was served and once everyone had finished we went to see some resident orcas. Clearly the news had got out though as quite a lot of boats were in the area. The resident orcas are the fish eaters and there were 6 of them swimming around us from two different clans. The orca family trees get pretty confusing as their all named after letters and numbers, but there are three clans in the northern residents and they will socialise together. The captain put the hydrophone into the water and after some very loud boat engine noises we heard the incredible sound of them communicating to one another. It was fascinating hearing the different noises each clan made, one sounded like a cats meow while the other literally made the best ‘EEEEORRRR’ noise that donkeys make. So it was very easy to tell the two apart and in between chatting they were echo locating to find salmon so we’d hear gentle clicking that would intensify as they closed in on the fish.

We spent a long while floating in the sea while the orcas fished around us. Being a member of the dolphin family (their Killer Whale name is a bit misleading) they come up for air more regularly than whales and swim in the similar up and down motion as dolphins. It was amazing how slowly they moved, we’d just see the black tip of a dorsal fin pierce the surface and then it would rise up and up. The male was the most impressive to watch as it took so long for his full 5-6ft fin to completely rise out the water.

The captain told us about the relation between orcas and the First Nations who believe they are their ancestors. A few weeks back a Kwakwaka’wakw chief joined one of the whale watching trips and while they were drifting in the sea the chief looked out at the water and spoke for about 10 minutes in his indigenous language. Suddenly a huge male orca came out of nowhere and jumped straight up towards the boat, looking directly into the eyes of the chief. The orca did that four times before it dove back down and vanished.

On our way back a humpback whale got very close to our boat, diving close to our bow. The size was phenomenal and it was probably about 18m long but we just saw the huge width of its body. A minke whale who’s not seen round here so often briefly came up to the surface too. The minke’s are the whales which are hunted for food in Norway so this one sure found a safe place to live.

Overall we had a great time and it was much better value than at Telegraph Cove. It was almost double the length of time too so there wasn’t a rush to see the whales and we could relax and enjoy the sights. But the viewing platform on a full boat was a pretty poor design.

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