Watching Whales On A Saturday
August 5, 2017
Spending a Saturday morning whale watch is never a bad weekend decision! Aboard the Pacific Explorer, we aimed our efforts and our hopes to the southwest of Victoria. As the fleet fanned out, orcas were discovered! We caught up with a mammal-hunting group of orcas known as the T18 & T19 family. T18 is a lone female who travels with T19 and her two adult sons- T19B and T19C. T19B is famous along the coastline because his dorsal fin is so huge, it actually leans slightly to one side. His younger brother also has a tall dorsal fin, but it is more typical in size and shape compared to his brother.
After exciting views of this mixed family, we headed over to the black and white striped lighthouse, which we call Race Rocks. It was built of granite blocks and was first operated on December 26th of 1860. Her we found our adorable sea otter “Ollie”, rolling around in the kelp beds. With the densest fur in the animal kingdom, this fur ball stays warm without having a thick layer of fat. We also spotted the monstrous Steller sea lion males, just one California sea lion enjoying the rocks all by himself, and dozes of our most abundant marine mammal- the harbour seals. It was a morning filled full of marine mammals and beautiful scenery!
Nature always has surprises in store when we take the time to appreciate all she has to show us. We were fortunate to spend an amazing afternoon on the Strait of Juan de Fuca with transient orcas, an eco-type of orca that feed solely on marine mammals such as seals, sea lions and porpoises. Today we were visiting a blended family consisting of T18, a post-reproductive female and T19 with her two sons. T19 must be proud of her boys as they are fully grown and have huge dorsal fins to show for it.
The older of T19’s sons is T19B. He is very easy to identify because the width and height of his dorsal fin is so large, his fin leans to the side when he surfaces. There are no bones in the dorsal fin, just cartilage, so when males have exceptionally large dorsals, they can lean to one side. Fully folded over fins is extremely rare in nature, with less than 1% of wild orcas displaying this condition.
The whales were traveling west very fast as we paralleled them along Vancouver Island. After disappearing for several minutes into the emerald waters, T19B surfaced closer to our boat. We shut down our vessel to ensure his safety and eliminate our noise output while he passed by. It was amazing to see how big he really is and gave us an amazing opportunity to snap some great shots of this handsome 22 year old orca.
Great photo opportunities continued as we checked out the marine life at Race Rocks Lighthouse. A male and a female elephant seal were lying atop Helicopter Rock, dwarfing the enormous Steller sea lions that were sharing the hauled out space. Elephant seals are massive with males reaching over 5,000 pounds, some grow to over 8,000 pounds! Steller sea lions, which are all male at Race Rocks, still weigh in at a hefty 2500 pounds. We also enjoyed all the different coat colours of the harbour seals, from white to black to brown and everything in between. Before we knew it, we had to head back to Victoria- time sure flies when you are having fun on the Salish Sea!
It was a warm Saturday evening in Victoria, but clear views of the Olympic Mountains were blocked by the smoke from hundreds of forest fires burning across British Columbia. Fortunately, the smoke did not stop us from seeing whales. We took our vessel full of anxious guests into the middle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca where we found a beautiful humpback whale! Humpbacks are no longer a visitor for just September and October, but they are almost daily sights every single day of the whale watching season. We are grateful to be able to watch a whale species just off the coast of our city, especially when this species was pushed to the brink of extinction by the whaling industry.
We watched as the baleen giant surfaced ever so gently in the waves, exhaling 90% of the air in it’s lungs with each breath. We were impressed by the huge tail of this humpback, as it lifted it high in the air, revealing massive white patches on the underside. These patches along with the shape of the tail allow researchers and whale watchers worldwide identify every individual humpback.
Before light gave away, we took our guests to the Race Rocks Lighthouse where the grumbling sounds of Steller sea lions stood out amongst the squawking of sea gulls and shrill calls of Oyster Catchers. Harbour seals laid silently on the islets, enjoying the last streams of sunlight before night set in. The largest of all pinnipeds on the islets was also visible- the elephant seals atop Helicopter Rock. One male and female were laying side-by-side, lifting their heads to see what all the fuss was about. We headed back to port wishing all the marine mammals a good night.