Captain’s Blog

Southern Resident Orcas & Humpback Whales

August 13, 2016

Saturday morning was spectacular, with sunny skies and really calm waters as we made our way west on the Juan de Fuca Strait. We passed by beautiful and rugged landscapes of Vancouver Island, then something else caught our attention. Triangular black dorsal fins started popping up! We found members of both J and L pod southern resident orcas! We spotted the tall dorsal fin of Mega (L-41), the oldest and biggest male in the community, all the way down to little Notch (J-47), who is 6 years old this year. If you zoom in on the photos on Flickr, you will see just how this little guy got his name- he has a perfectly square notch in the back edge of his dorsal fin!

The whales were making their way west, likely heading out to find a more bountiful supply of salmon. Along the way, one of the whales decided to see what was happening above the big blue, spyhopping high above the waterline to check us out! After a great time with the orcas- a double dip trip was on the horizon! We cruised back east where we found 2 humpbacks! One popped up who had a dorsal hump that looks like a crown…it was Splitfin! Splitfin is a famous humpback in our area who visits every year. Sometimes he hangs out with his mom, known as Heather, or with another humpback his age who has a V-shaped notch out of his fluke.

We then headed to Race Rocks Lighthouse, where all kinds of animals were spending the morning. A huge male elephant seal basking in the sun on the boat ramp, along with dozens of California and Steller Sea Lions wrestling, barking and growling from the islets of the ecological reserve. We also spotted the common and undeniably adorable harbor seals that spend their time out of the water at the edge of the waterline. It was a fantastic and exciting morning on the Salish Sea.

The day continued to be sunny and warm as we left the docks of the Coast Harbourside Hotel marina. With word on the radio that there were still some southern resident orcas within rage, but heading west, we made our best time to get our guests to see these beautiful whales we lovely call orcas! It took some time to get to the waters off of Sooke, but when killer whales are involved, it is always worth it! The wind had picked up, so the orcas were really punching through the waves when they would surface. We recognized these whales as members of the fish-eating population, who we call southern resident orcas. This population includes 83 whales divided into 3 pods- J, K and L.

Amongst the groups we seen, we were able to spot mature males, females, and young calves. Calves are precious little members of this endangered population. When it takes 17 months of pregnancy before one of these little bundles arrives, we are sure happy to watch them thrive and grow. The bond between calves on their families is like no other bond on Earth. Resident orcas remain with their mother and pod for the rest of their lives, no matter if they are male or female. Knowledge is passed from one generation to the next, where matriarchs will lead their families to food, safety and familiar places. With new wind-swept hairdos, we made our bumpy way back to the Capital City, where the dock felt much warmer than the Pacific Ocean breeze!

On a blustery evening, we boarded the spacious Orca Spirit II, which offers an escape from the chilly westerly winds, inside its lower and upper inner cabins! Our captains headed to the southwest where the latest reports stated there were several humpback whales cruising the area. Humpbacks have been in our area this season in higher numbers than ever seen before! Once a species that we may spot a few times in the spring, then many times in the fall, have now become a whale we see almost every single day. We feel very grateful to have such beautiful and majestic visitors so close to home.

As we looked and looked for blows and splashes, we neared Race Rocks Lighthouse, where we took the opportunity to introduce our guests to the pinniped locals- the seals and sea lions. The chocolate-coloured coats of the California sea lions and the honey-brown coast of the Steller’s blended together in heaps, as the sea lions tend to lie against each other on the small islands that surround the lighthouse. The often wrestle and fight, sometimes inflicting wounds on each other, but transgressions seem to be quickly forgotten as they settle down with their heads on each other. The lighthouse itself looked stunning in the golden rays of the sun and a thick band of fog in the background.

We then received a radio call from the Orca Mist, our other vessel on the water, and they had found humpbacks! We chugged over their way and saw a humpback repeatedly breach and tail slap in the distance. As we neared, we saw the humpback make a series of dives before raising its tail flukes for a long dive. After several sequences of this, we headed towards the bright lights of the city where we ended another successful evening on the water.

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