Q&A With Orca Spirit Photographer Taylor Chapdelaine & Her Orca Super Mammals
August 28, 2018
Taylor Chapdelaine rarely goes a day without orca whales on her mind. Sure, a big part of that is because she works with us as at Orca Spirit but she’s also put her passion for photography on display with the wondrous subjects we have living in the water beside us here on the coast of British Columbia.
So what makes Taylor tick? Why did she choose to chase orcas with her camera?
1. Let’s talk about the course you took to get to Orca Spirit. Do you remember the best photo you’ve taken in the wild?
I ended up in Victoria working for Orca Spirit after going to school in Calgary for media art and digital technology. I always wanted to be out here, I’ve been obsessed with orcas since I was six years old. I saw an orca while I was on a hiking trip a few years ago and I knew I had to be here permanently. One of the best photos I’ve ever taken in my life was here, I was out on a day like today, it was hazy. This orca came right out of nowhere, it was flat calm on the water and it was absolutely stunning. Orca Spirit lets me take photos on every tour so I can share them online and work on that part of my craft. I was on a cruise tour at one point as well, we were waiting for J-Pod and all of a sudden they all started breaching and I got a picture of a huge male jumping directly in front of Mount Baker.
2. Describe the buzz on board a whale watching tour as its pulling out of the harbour in Victoria.
Honestly, especially lately, it’s awesome to be able to talk to people about what’s going on and what they’re going to see. We’ve worked with these animals for so long, and it’s the conservation piece I love the most. It’s tough to see the negative effects we can have on our oceans, and we’re at a turning point where we need change now. The oceans and orca whales aren’t invincible. Pushing those changes and hearing the responses is so rewarding. Some people just don’t know what to expect, they think they might be able to lean over and pet the whales, but that’s obviously not the case. We share the ocean with them, it doesn’t belong to us. So talking about these whales, it’s like watching your favourite TV show. you learn from the characters and these characters are real life.
3. What are some traits you see that people can use to identify individual killer whales?
The biggest thing is the saddle patch, the marking behind their dorsal fin. The resident orca has more of an open saddle patch, the transient orca has a closed saddle patch. We play a fun game of recognition where people take pictures and try to match the pictures with a certain saddle patch. It’s not as hard as you might think, once you can identify one you can pick it up pretty quickly. A lot of big males are easier to spot, with their huge dorsal fin. Blackberry has a white patch with a black hook. He’s friendly, we see him a lot, he’s relentless. Salmon hide really close to the hull of our boats, so he pops up and scares away the fish. I’ve actually been close enough to inhale his exhale. It was incredible, I was shaking.
4. I’ll never forget what I felt when I saw a humpback whale break the surface of the water in front of our boat, disappear for what seemed like five seconds, and then reappear directly behind us. Do you still feel the same way as you did the first time when you see a massive marine animal?
Oh absolutely. I was on a tour this past weekend and I was in tears because I saw my favourite whale. She swam by with her mom. It’s the same excitement every single time. Humpbacks, an orca who’s going to swim by and give you a hello, it’s comforting just to know they’re around.
5. Are you ever surprised any more?
You never know what they’re going to do so it’s always surprising. A few weeks ago we saw resident orca chasing porpoise, which is rare, but they were just playing. The porpoise wasn’t really in danger, the residents eat fish, but these ones were playing. Granny could be a little violent when she was around, she would parade the porpoises around on her head. Yeah, a little extreme.
It’s really the truth when I say that no tour is the same as the one before. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’m surprised and in shock when I see new things.
6. What do you hope people take away from their experience on one of your whale watching adventures?
I hope, honestly, a little of my passion leaks into the guests on board. Just to think about in their every day life about how much human waste ends up in the ocean. Pollution isn’t going away any time soon, so if people can see these animals and understand that they can make small changes to help protect them, then it’s worthwhile. Recycling, compost, reusable bags. And balloons – the amount of time we spend doing man overboard drills on our practice runs just because there’s a balloon in the water – it happens way too often. Balloons are the worst.
7. Humans really aren’t the most important beings on earth, right?
I wish people knew that they weren’t the be-all end-all. I wish we took into consideration how intelligent orcas are. I call them the super mammal, and humpbacks have compassion like human begins do as well. All the animals around us have feelings and we should be treating everything around us as equal then the world would be a much healthier place.