Captain’s Blog

A Look Back on the 2018 Victoria Whale Watching Season

February 25, 2019

Looking back on whale and wildlife watching season past is one of the greatest joys for the staff at Orca Spirit. Every season brings new exciting adventures and moments we will never forget. There is something unique about time spent with nature that leaves an imprint so vivid in one’s mind, that you can look back on that day years later and feel like it happened yesterday.

The 2018 season was an incredible year for sightings of all different kinds of species from orcas to humpbacks, to sea lions, seals, marine birds, and of course our one and only sea otter- Ollie. With such a diversity of species living around Victoria and visiting the Salish Sea, we are spoiled by incredible experiences on the water on a daily basis.

 

Photos: Commonly seen species during the whale watching season off of Victoria, British Columbia. From left to right, top row to bottom row: Transient orcas, Harbour Seals, Humpback, Bald Eagle, Rhinoceros Auklets, “Ollie” the Sea Otter. Photo Credit: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist

It was an unforgettable season with Transient Killer Whales who live by hunting marine mammals like Harbour Seals, sea lions, porpoises, and even other species of whales.  This season we got to witness one of the largest gatherings of Transient Orcas ever recorded off the coast of British Columbia! Just off of East Sooke Park, 37 Transient Killer Whales from multiple matrilines gathered for a massive “T-Party”!  Large groupings of these mammal-hunting killer whales seem to be becoming more frequent in our area, and that is exciting!

With healthy seal and sea lion populations, the Transient Orcas are finding plenty of food, making them fat, robust whales!  With a healthy food supply, it is not surprising that we noticed a lot of new babies within the Transient families this year.  Nothing beats spotting a tiny black and orange- yes we said orange!- baby orca swimming close beside it’s Mom and being doted on by other family members.

Photo:  A young calf from the T37 Transient Orca family surfaces with its mother in Becher Bay on September 20, 2018. Photo Credit: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist

With Transient orca sightings increasing every year in the Salish Sea, we are starting to see more incidences of these top predators hunting larger prey like minke whales and juvenile humpbacks and grey whales.  This past season the T18 matriline took down a minke whale in our area! Although the death of any animal is hard to witness, predator and prey relationships are a natural part of life, and it is interesting to see this relationship unfold.

Photo: T18 Transient Killer Whale family members who killed a minke whale in the Salish Sea during the summer of 2018. Photo Credit: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist.

Southern Resident Killer Whales were seen most often during July and August this season.  They are not faring as well as the Transient population because their favourite source of food, Chinook salmon, has become scarce.  They were front and center in the news over the summer with the loss of Tahlequah’s (J-35) newborn calf and with the struggle of young Scarlet (J-50) who grew thinner and thinner over the summer months. Sadly, Scarlet did not survive.  These losses to the Southern Resident community have weighed heavily on the whale watching community as the animals we watch feel more like family after spending so much time with them over the years.

 

Photo: Big brother Mike (J-26) and ailing sister Scarlet (J-50) searching for Chinook salmon on July 12, 2018. Photo Credit: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist

To help address the food shortages that threaten the Southern Residents, Orca Spirit continues to donate $2 from every guest’s ticket to the Pacific Salmon Foundation, who conduct research on local salmon populations and complete many projects to restore wild Pacific salmon habitat, especially Chinook- the salmon species most important to the Southern Residents.  Over the past three seasons, we have been able to donate over $100,000 to the Pacific Salmon Foundation and their projects in order to help boost the Chinook population for the Southern Resident Killer Whales.

On the bright side, there has been some positive news for the Southern Residents with the birth of a new calf in L-pod!  The new baby named L-124, was first spotted in the beginning of January traveling alongside his or her mother Matia (L-77).  The Center for Whale Research reported that the calf appeared to be a few weeks old and in healthy condition. It is interesting to note that all three resident pods met in the Strait of Juan de Fuca during this time- a rare event especially during winter months. Maybe the new calf was a reason for everyone to get together and celebrate because everyone loves a new baby!  The head biologist for the Center for Whale Research, Ken Balcomb, has named the calf Lucky. We feel very lucky to have the opportunity to spend time with this family and their new baby!

One of the greatest additions to our sightings over the past three seasons have been the humpbacks who have returned to the Salish Sea in droves!  For decades, the presence of humpbacks in the Victoria area was few and far between. But in 2016 we saw the return of dozens of humpbacks lunge feeding in the Strait of Juan de Fuca!  Now we have so many humpbacks returning to the Salish that a new ID guide was created specifically for our area to help us identify individual humpbacks. Even more exciting is the fact that not all the humpbacks are migrating south for our winter.  We were thrilled to take guests to see humpbacks lunge feeding off Race Rocks late into November with continued sightings all winter season so far.

 

(a)                                                                                       (b)

Photos: (a) A humpback lifts its head as it rolls in a clump of Bull Kelp. (b) A humpback arches its back as it dives below the surface. Photo Credit: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist

The 2018 season brought us a new local favourite humpback that the whale watching industry has affectionately named Gherkin after the tiny Gherkin pickles!  This little guy was first spotted near Race Rocks Lighthouse and appeared to be alone. Because Gherkin looked to be a calf born in the winter of 2018 and due to the fact that humpback calves spend the first year of life close to their mother, we believe that his mother may have died somewhere along their migration root or even close to Victoria.  Whatever happened to his Mom, Gherkin has persevered on his own. On many trips out west, we were able to find him foraging for krill around the islands at Race Rocks Lighthouse or near Becher Bay. Gherkin is known to have a sporadic surfacing pattern, always making us laugh at how hard he can be to track some days. Over the summer, we have all become attached to this “little” trooper as he has defied the odds and seems to be figuring life out on his own.

Although orcas and humpbacks get the lion’s share of the attention, many other charismatic wildlife species fill our days with excitement on the water. In particular, everyone loves to spot “Ollie”, our one and only sea otter in the Victoria area as he naps, rolls and cracks open his food while floating among the Bull Kelp beds at Race Rocks Lighthouse. Ollie has been a bachelor at Race Rocks for several years now, apparently enjoying his time with other species like the Harbour Seals and California and Steller Sea Lions. We hope Ollie is joined by more sea otters in the near future!



Photos: “Ollie” the Sea Otter relaxing in the waters surrounding Race Rocks Lighthouse.

Giant Elephant Seals have also become a frequent sighting at Race Rocks Lighthouse and they have been pupping there over this winter too!  With males reaching over 2270 kg (5000 pounds), they look like small elephants floating in the water and are always a hit during our tours! The excitement never ceases with the loud and comical California and Steller sea lions.  In the fall, we got to watch groups of sea lions catching fish for over an hour, tossing them in the air and slapping them on the surface to remove the guts. Like humans, sea lions prefer to eat just fillet!

Photos: (a) A bull Elephant Seal in the water at Race Rocks Lighthouse. (b) A male Steller Sea Lion eats a rockfish on a rainy day in October, 2018. Photo Credit: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist

Orca Spirit is proud of the wildlife viewing opportunities we are able to provide our guests with.  The diversity of marine life around South Vancouver Island creates a different trip every time we are out on the water.  Nature provides us with a bounty of unique experiences that leave lasting impressions on our guests from near and far.  No matter what corner of the Earth you are from, what language you speak, or what your past wildlife encounters have entailed, everyone is enthralled by the life and wonder of the Salish Sea.

 

Photo: A Southern Resident Orca spyhops in the setting sun in Haro Strait. Photo Credit: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Marine Naturalist

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