July 23, 2018
On Monday morning we headed out aboard the Catalina Adventure and set our course due east towards Haro Strait and the San Juan Island archipelago. It was early in the day and there had yet to be reports of whales in the area. The whale watching industry in Victoria works as one cohesive team to locate and track our local wildlife so we knew there were lots of eyes and ears searching a large area in hopes of finding the whales. In no time at all, the captain’s radio went off – someone had spotted a pod of orca! Luckily we were already headed in the right direction, the whales had been spotted just past Discovery Island.
The orcas that we encountered were part of the Bigg’s or Transient ecotype, meaning they prey on other species of marine mammals like seals, sea lions and other species of whale. Transient orcas are where the nickname “killer whale” comes from because they can be observed killing other species of whales for food. A very distinctive set of nicks in one of the young male’s dorsal fin informed us that we were looking at the T46 group of whales. The young male that allowed us to ID the pod was T46D, born in 2000.
After spending some time with the whales we decided to take a detour into the Chain Islands on our way back to Victoria to catch a glimpse of Transient orcas’ favorite food – harbour seals. Harbour seals are very plentiful on our coast, which ensures a healthy population of Transient whales. There were lots of harbour seals hauled out on the rocks around the Chain Islands, including several females with young pups. The Chain islands are also home to many species of marine birds like cormorants and gulls that peered at us inquisitively as we cruised by before heading back towards Victoria harbour.
We departed Victoria harbor in the afternoon aboard the Pacific Explorer and headed east into Haro Strait in hopes of catching up with a group of Transient orca called the T46s. Earlier in the day we had been with the T46s, but orca are a notoriously fast moving species and will often travel very large distances over a few hours, often making them difficult to follow. Chatter on the radio told us that the whales were traveling close to Sidney spit, heading away from Victoria. We sped out towards their location in hopes of catching a glimpse of them before they traveled too far out of our range.
We caught up with the family of orca at Tseum harbour and proceeded to slowly follow them through a narrow pass out into open water. All of a sudden the whales abruptly changed direction and began swimming directly towards us. We quickly shut off our engines and the naturalists strongly encouraged all of the guests to come outside onto the deck. The whales dove underneath the water and we quietly floated, anticipating where they were going to surface next. A flash of black and white passed directly under the stationary boat and one of the curious young males, T46D, surfaced right off the stern of the boat as if popping by to say hello. The other members of the pod cruised past us on either side, close enough that we could hear the powerful whoosh of their exhales as they surfaced to breathe. We waited until the whales were several hundred meters away from us before restarting the engine and turning the boat around to follow them back out of the passage.
It is certainly not every day that we have close encounters with killer whales. Although we actively try to maintain a distance of 200 meters away from the animals, sometimes we encounter curious individuals like T46D who decide to check us out and, in doing so, take our breath away.