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A Record Breaking 2016

6 months ago

Here at Orca Spirit, we can’t believe another whale watching season has come and gone. The flurry of activity from spring until winter makes the time fly by, but every season is unique and memorable no matter how busy we get.

The 2016 season was full of surprises, from unexpected visitors, record setting sightings of humpback whales, and the heartbreak of losing members of our cherished southern resident orca community. Sharing the beauty of the Salish Sea with guests from around the world is a passion of all our naturalists and captains. Not only do we love to educate our visitors about the amazing wildlife they see, we also strive to spread the message of conservation so that generations to come can experience what we are so fortunate to see everyday.

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In the whale watching community, the whales are our family. We are overjoyed when new babies are born and we mourn the loss of individuals. Our season started off with the sad news that we had lost a young male orca named Nigel (L-95) some time in March. Nigel was just 20 years old and is believed to have passed away due to a fungal infection after being tagged on February 24, 2016 for a research project conducted by NOAA. Nigel’s passing was difficult for all who have spent time watching him over the years. We will miss him very much.

Spring began with sightings of dozens of humpbacks and countless visits from Bigg’s (transient) killer whales. Many of the Bigg’s killer whale matrilines were seen with new, young calves, a great sign that the population continues to grow. With the harbour seal population near its maximum carrying capacity in the North Pacific, the Threatened mammal hunters have had a plentiful supply of food. Some matrilines return to our area year after year, while others are rare visitors, but no matter who they are, the Bigg’s killer whales are amazing to watch as they stalk and hunt local marine mammals, charging through kelp beds, and celebrating full tummies with breaches, cartwheels, spy hops and tail slaps.

One of the biggest stories of the year was the record setting sightings of humpbacks in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Not only were there dozens and dozens of these baleen giants, they were seen continuously lunge feeding for weeks! It is rare for us to see such prolific feeding behaviour by humpbacks, but the supply of zooplankton and/or juvenile herring must have been bountiful because the humpbacks gulped and gulped and gulped the food down! Words can’t describe the experience of watching forty foot, 25 ton whales lunge from the surface of the dark sea, their throats expanded to hold 3 tons of food and water! By the time the humpbacks are ready to migrate to Mexico and Hawaii in the late fall, their size has swollen to a healthy 40 tons. Whale watchers and scientists scrambled to snap identification photos of all the humpbacks seen in our area over the summer months. Now into December, there are still sightings of humpbacks, a trend occurring coastwide, where not all humpbacks and grey are migrating for the winter season.

The next surprise of the summer was big, REALLY BIG! One day, amongst the bushy blows of feeding humpbacks, a single, tall, skinny blow appeared. It was the tell tale sign that a new giant of the deep was here- it was a Fin Whale! This is just the second time a Fin Whale has been recorded in the area in 80 years! Fin Whale populations were decimated by the whaling industry which has caused the sightings of these graceful baleen whales to be very rare. The Fin Whale is the second largest animal on Earth, and our new friend was believed to be approximately 23m long (75 feet) and weighed up to 75 tons! Despite usually being found amongst droves of humpbacks, the Fin Whale was likely not dining on the same planktonic menu as them because they are known to dive deeper and forage on a different species of zooplankton than the humpbacks. The Fin Whale’s skin was pock marked, as if he or she suffered a bad bout of acne as a teenager. This crater marked skin is caused by bites from Cookiecutter Sharks and Pacific Lampreys. The Fin Whale’s skin was often different shades of dark grey and brown due to tiny glass-like animals that form layers on the skin of Fin Whales called diatoms. There was never more excitement on the boats from naturalists during those weeks, as they conveyed to guests the sheer rarity of seeing such an amazing cetacean close up.

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When it came to sightings of the local Southern Residents, 2016 was an interesting year indeed. The Centre for Whale Research has never before reported the return of the Southern Residents occurring so late into summer and so few sightings in the 40 years that they have been studying these fish-eating orcas. Historically, J,K, and L pods are typically seen traveling with their complete pod, and several times a year all three pods converge to form a superpod. This season, it was rare to see an entire pod together. The pods were dispersing into several groups of matrilines, traveling in smaller units to find food. Record low Chinook salmon runs are to blame for this new behaviour. As summer wore on, those of us on the water were reporting skinny whales, the critically endangered Southern Residents appear to be suffering from a lack of food.

The Southern Resident orcas are the whales that we historically see the most every season. We know them all by name and can identify individuals by their unique dorsal fins and saddlepatches. We have come to know their personalities and every whale watcher has their favourites. With this love and attachment to the whales comes joy, excitement, celebration, and sometimes heartbreak. In August, the Centre for Whale Research announced the death of Samish (J-14). At just 42 years old, Samish was a matriarch in J-pod and the second oldest female next to Granny (J-2). With the loss of a matriarch comes the loss of profound knowledge vital to the survival of the family. Samish was an amazing mother to two daughters Hy’Shqa (J-37) and Suttles (J-40), and a seven year old son named Se-Yi’-Chn (J-45). Samish and her family are particularly special to the Samish First Nation who name the family members at traditional potlatch ceremonies.

Daily sightings of whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea lions, seals, a sea otter and marine birds continued late into fall. Despite the wonderful days on the water, fall brought our whale watching community to tears with the loss of one of our most beloved females and her tiny son. Polaris (J-28) was one of the easiest whales to identify amongst the Southern Residents by a large nick in her dorsal fin that she obtained in 2002. Polaris’ first calf is a little girl named Star (J-46) who she gave birth to at the age of sixteen. She lost a calf in 2013, but then gave birth to her son in December of 2015, at the end of the 2014-2015 baby boom. He was the greatest Christmas gift anyone could ever ask for. He was named Dipper (J-54), to coincide with the names of his mom and sister. The North Star is also known as Polaris and Polaris marks the tip of the handle of the Little Dipper.

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Polaris first showed signs of depleted health in January of 2016, and was discovered to be emaciated this July. Her sister Tahlequah and her six year old daughter were seen bringing her and Dipper fish in an attempt to save them from starvation. On a sunny day in late October, our naturalists and captain reported that they were with J and L pods near Sooke. Sadly they informed us that Polaris was nowhere to be seen and little Dipper was swimming alone, barely strong enough to make it to the surface to take a breath. He had teeth rake marks all over his back and dorsal fin where his sister Star had desperately tried to pull him up to breathe. But at just 10 months old, Dipper would not survive without his mama’s milk. His sister Star and 6 year old cousin Notch were seen lifting him up together, willing him to keep fighting. It was the last day he was ever seen, and heartbreak across the whale world set in. It is difficult to think about Polaris’ orphaned daughter who turned just seven in November without her family by her side. She will stay close to her auntie, grandmother, cousin and new little uncle who is just a year old, but we presume she is lonely for her Mom and little brother. Polaris and Dipper will be missed dearly, their loss leaves a hole in all our hearts. Their deaths remind us all of the work we need to continue in Chinook salmon recovery and protection to prevent any more members of this family from suffering the same fate. We hope that their memory will live on every time we look up at the stars and see Polaris and the Little Dipper. We will always be grateful for the memories they have given us, the smiles they put on our faces, and the joy they brought to our hearts.

In light of the many conservation issues facing our local wildlife, Orca Spirit has been working hard to make changes that positively impact the environment and all the animals that depend on it. We are proud to have received 6 different awards and certifications this season recognizing our contribution and efforts to reduce our environmental impact. We received the Tourism Vancouver Island Sustainability Award, which recognizes a tourism business that has set out to minimize their environmental impact, conserve natural resources, respect local cultures and benefit local communities. We are honoured to have received the EcoStar Climate Action Award which recognizes an organization or business that is working to reduce/mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Orca Spirit works with Offsetters to calculate our carbon emissions from our vessels and shuttles each season. We then donate money to purchase acres of forest that surround the Great Bear Rainforest which would be needed to sequester the carbon we emit. The purchased land, which was not previously protected area is then added to the Great Bear Rainforest, providing habitat for hundreds of other species of wildlife.

The next great achievement for Orca Spirit was the Vancouver Island Green Business Certification, which was created to recognize the efforts of local businesses that are reducing their environmental impact. For businesses, it is a guide to greening your operations and educating your staff. For consumers, it is a symbol that lets you know which businesses have green practices. Orca Spirit Adventures has achieved the highest level, “Green”, of achievement! We also became Surfrider Certified. Surfrider Vancouver Island has partnered with the Vancouver Island Green Businesses Certification (VIGBC) program to launch a new campaign that links businesses to responsible actions that will help keep our local beaches and waterways clean. We look forward to working with the Surfrider Foundation on frequent, local beach cleanups next summer!

Orca Spirit was also honoured with the Business Examiner Hospitality/Tourism Business of the Year – 2016 award. This award sets out to recognize the best of the best in Vancouver Island business. These awards were created to celebrate the successes of companies in our economy in a wide variety of sectors. Last but not least, Orca Spirit was a finalist for Business of the Year 2015 (26-75 employees) for the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce Business Awards. The Business of the Year Award honours a business for demonstrating continual professional excellence through positive business growth, exemplifying superior customer service, and embracing an outstanding commitment to quality.

In the end, 2016 was a roller coaster of a season with amazing sightings of humpbacks, orcas, Dall’s and Harbour Porpoises, dolphins, minke whales, and of course the the fin whale! Not only are we fortunate to live in an area full of cetaceans, we are also very lucky to see Harbour seals, California and Steller sea lions, Northern Elephant seals, one furry sea otter, and dozens of species of marine birds in our local waters. Being so close to nature on a daily basis reminds us of how important it is to be conscious of our actions and aware of the impacts of our behaviours on the world around us. The losses in the Southern Resident Killer Whale population inspire us further as a company and as individuals to stand up for those who don’t have a voice, but deserve to have their home and their food sources protected. As has been famously said, “To know something is to love something”. We in the whale watching community get to know the whales better than we know our own friends and family sometimes. Some of us spend more time on the water with them than we do with people! This love affair with nature can sometimes cause heartbreak, and this year our hearts were broken too many times. But none of us would trade our experiences with whales for anything else in the world. We will honour the lives lost by sharing their stories with countless visitors to come. We will strive to educate the public and our governments about the conservation issues that plague our wildlife and push for change. We hope that future generations can experience the wild as we do, and tell stories about the amazing whales of the Salish Sea. We hope you all can join us on the water for more whale adventures to come!

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