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2017 – A Year To Remember!

3 weeks ago

Another whale watching season has ended here at Orca Spirit, and as we look forward to the upcoming year we can’t help but fondly look back at our 2017 season. We are fortunate to see wildlife everyday but our favorite part is being able to share those experiences with the guests on our tours.

As an eco-tourism company that prides itself on caring for the natural world and providing a fun, informative tour for all ages, we are over the moon about the certifications and awards we received this year. Starting out with a huge honor from the Victoria Chamber of Commerce, we won the 2017 Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year (11-39 employees) award! We work hard every day to ensure we are doing everything we can to be an eco-friendly company, and this year we earned an increase from silver to gold standing with Green Tourism Canada. It is important to be leaders in the industry while saving water and energy and giving back to the environment the best we can. We are also Surfrider Foundation Certified, which is a partnership with Vancouver Island Green Businesses Certification program, to help keep our local beaches and waterways clean! Funds from our participation in this program go to the Rise Above Plastics program reducing impacts of plastics in the marine environment, a cause close to our hearts. We earned the Vancouver Island Green Business Certification (VIGBC) highest level which shows the passion our staff have in keeping our top-to-bottom operations green. The Trip Advisor Certificate of Excellence was also a great point of pride for us this season as we love hearing from our guests about their experiences on our tours. We participated in the annual Earth Day power hour beach cleanup and it was a huge success. We even hauled an old boat off the beach!

We remain a carbon neutral company through the Great Bear Rainforest Carbon Project, which offsets the carbon we create throughout the season by purchasing acres of intact temperate rainforest that would be sanctioned for logging. This area has deep cultural and ecological importance to the west coast of Canada and we take the responsibility of keeping it intact very seriously. Since June 1st, 2015 Orca Spirit Adventures and the Pacific Salmon Foundation have worked together to act to protect our coastal marine habitat. Orca Spirit Adventures’ guests pay a $2 conservation fee that 100% goes towards the restoration of the salmon in the Salish Sea. The Foundation funds grassroots community-led Salmon projects, as well as larger-scale restoration and research projects such as the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project. This project is intended to increase the population of wild Coho and Chinook in the Salish Sea. Chinook are a favourite food source for the Southern Resident Killer Whale Community, and these whales are having difficulty finding the salmon they need to survive. At the start of 2017 Orca Spirit presented the Pacific Salmon Foundation with a cheque for $20,000!!!

This spring was an especially exciting one at Orca Spirit as we welcomed a brand-new vessel to our fleet. The Catalina Adventure is a high-speed foil assist 80-foot catamaran specifically designed for marine wildlife viewing. The hydrofoil assist allows it to rise above the waves to provide an exceptionally smooth and stable ride. Large outside viewing decks and stadium seating on the bow offer a unique and adventurous experience. Crew and guests alike are very happy to have this boat in the water!

The buzz words “Port Renfrew” could be heard all through the company as we began the first whale watching trips out of the small coastal town on the west side of Vancouver Island. As the sole marine wildlife outfit in this up and coming tourist town, Orca Spirit partnered with Wild Renfrew to take guests on a once in a lifetime tour of the wild west coast! Sea lions and humpback whales galore, we even spotted some very exciting and unique cetaceans to BC. We are proud to have spotted a small blue whale off Swiftsure Bank in the summer, as well as sightings of orcas and dolphins!

The Transient Killer Whales were one of the many highlights of the season, with frequent sightings of these orcas in not only a single matriline but often a few matrilines hunting together. It is thought that these marine mammal hunting orcas have caused the population of Harbour Seals to plateau! Harbour Seals and Harbour Porpoises are the main food sources of the Transients when they are in the Salish Sea and we have an abundance of both. Many Transient matrilines had a calf (or two!) this year and it’s great to see that these animals are well fed and growing like weeds! We saw them zip through the bull kelp and check every nook in the cliffs for seals, amazing us with their speed and agility. Many times, on the fleet radio you’d hear a captain say, “It’s a T-party out here!”. The circle of life can be difficult to witness however these orcas are very wild and are instinctive hunters. Early in September we witnessed a group of female and juvenile transient orcas killing and feeding on an unidentified baleen whale. Although encounters like these are rare, it’s phenomenal to see the orcas working together as a team.

2017 started off on a sad note for our Southern Resident Orcas, as the Center for Whale Research announced the disappearance and assumed death of J-2 (Granny), the oldest known killer whale in the world and the matriarch of J pod. Granny had been missing since October however researchers were hoping to see her again over the late fall months and finally made an official announcement in January. A disappearance of an orca in this population is an assumed death, as these whales spend their entire lives in tight knit families and are rarely apart from one another. It continued to be a tough year as we lost one of the oldest females in K pod, 45-year-old female K-13 (Skagit) and later this season J-52 (Sonic). J-52 was an especially tough loss for everyone, as he was one of youngest members of the Southern Residents and one of the surviving youngsters from the “baby boom” of 2015/2016. At just 2 and a half years old, this little whale had won the hearts of everyone who had the privilege of seeing him. Part of the J16 matriline, he is outlived by his Grandmother J-16 (Slick), Mother J-36 (Alki), Uncle J-26 (Mike), Aunt J-42 (Echo) and Aunt J-50 (Scarlett). The last 18 months have been very difficult for the Southern Residents with the population dropping to only 76 whales from 83 in 2016 and evidence points back to human activity as the primary cause of the lack of nutritionally rich Chinook salmon. Therefore, Orca Spirit feels strongly about education, conservation and giving back to the community, especially the Pacific Salmon foundation and their important restoration efforts. Not all was sad for the orcas this year, as we had many magical encounters with breaching, splashing, foraging and socializing whales, and had numerous opportunities to drop a hydrophone and listen to the whales chatting with each other!

Another record humpback whale year in the waters off Victoria! These behemoth animals gobble as much food as they can in the cold waters of the north Pacific before leaving on migrations to Mexico or Hawaii. The 2016 season had record numbers of humpbacks returning to the Salish Sea, which haven’t been seen since the whaling era, and the 2017 season didn’t disappoint either! These large baleen whales are once again making their home in the waters around Victoria and we couldn’t be happier to have them back. Humpbacks are known for big behaviors like lunge feeding, pectoral and tail slaps and the occasional full body breach. You really need to see these animals in the wild to understand how large a 40-foot whale is! With all these new humpbacks showing up, the naturalists can snap photos of the whales and identify the individuals, as well as add new whales into the database. It’s an exciting time to work on the Salish Sea!

Race Rocks Ecological Reserve was once again full of pinnipeds, especially in the spring and fall, and is always a fun bonus to our wildlife tours whenever we have the chance to go that direction. Early in the season we saw numerous sub-adult male Elephant Seals in the water at the base of the boat launch practicing their fighting skills for later in life when competition for females at the breeding grounds becomes a real necessity. The California and Steller Sea Lions joined each other in a growling, barking choir and the Harbour Seals watched our boats cautiously from the rocks. Often these sea lions would pop up next to Humpback whales in bait balls. Bait balls are large congregations of small bait fish that are frightened into a ball formation by animals like diving birds, predatory fish and sometimes larger marine mammals. Olli, our resident Sea Otter, continued to thrill guests with his charismatic presence in the kelp beds surrounding Race Rocks.

You never know what you’ll see when you’re out on a tour, and that’s what keeps every trip interesting. We had a few encounters with Grey Whales this season as well as very rare lunge feeding and breaching Minke Whales. We frequently spotted playful Dall’s and shy Harbour Porpoises from the boat.

Victoria is our home and we are delighted to be able to share our wildlife with people from around the world. 2017 was a great season and we can’t wait to see what 2018 has in store!

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