Victoria Whale Watching Report: Race Rocks, Humpback Whales & Orcas
July 1, 2019
We began our trip today by going west into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, into the ice-cold wind!
We always love to spend time watching our furry marine mammals so we went straight to Race Rocks Lighthouse, an ecological reserve that is home to harbour seals, elephant seals, sea lions (seasonally), and a famous lone sea otter, Ollie!
We arrived at Race Rocks during low tide – the best time to find harbour seals! This cute Pinniped species has very poor manoeuvrability on land and therefore often relies on the tidal changes to come in and out of the water! At low tide they are often “hauled out”, and at high tide, they are often in the water, fishing! They also happen to be the number one food source of the Bigg’s (mammal-eating) killer whales…so we sometimes call them “orca-d’oeuvres”!
We were lucky enough to see Ollie the sea otter as well! He was wrapped up in the bull kelp, as he often is, to keep from floating away with the strong currents that move through Race Rocks. Ollie is actually a very important part of the kelp forest ecosystem. Sea otters control sea urchin populations that would otherwise take out the kelp over time.
We then ventured south-east into the centre of the Strait of Juan de Fuca where we found one of our most common baleen whales, the humpback. These magnificent cetaceans can reach upwards of 50 feet long and weigh in at a whopping 30-35 tonnes! Although they are some of the largest animals on the planet, they feed on tiny things like krill and small schooling fish. They have baleen plates (made of keratin) that hang down from the upper jaw that allows them to filter their prey out of large mouthfuls of water. They’re known to eat over 1 tonne of food every single day while they’re in the feeding grounds, but then they eat nothing while in the breeding grounds (Mexico, Costa Rica, Hawaii) for the other half of the year.
We are able to identify these whales as individuals from the patterns on their flukes as well as the shape and markings on their dorsal fins. Today, we spend time with two of our well-known whales, Scratchy and Pantera! Scratchy is easily identifiable by “rake marks” left on its fluke tips by a Bigg’s killer whale attack that likely happened before it was even a year old!
Pantera is a little more tricky to ID because its pattern is almost entirely black. It only has a few white circular markings. However, we also can use the peaks and troughs along the trailing edge to the fluke to confirm the more difficult IDs.
Even with the wind, waves and a few big splashes, it was beautiful and a great day with wildlife!
Eager to get out on the water this afternoon we boarded the Catalina Adventure, Orca Spirit Adventures second-largest boat! With only 40 guests today it was going to be an extremely comfortable cruise. We headed North East to where there had been a report of some Bigg’s Killer Whales!
We didn’t have to travel super far to get where we were going!
Just south of Henry Island, an island that belongs to the San Juan Islands was a matriline of Biggs Killer Whales. This family is known to be around the Victoria area quite frequently! There were 4 whales here in total, comprised of a mom, her two kids, and her nephew!
Mom, T065B (who is known as “Chunk” was born in 1993), her kiddos are T065B1 (who is known as Birdsall born in 2011) and T065B2 (who is only a few months old) and her nephew T065A2 (known as Ooxjaa who was born in 2004). Ooxjaa means windy in the Tlingit language. The Bigg’s Killer Whale population is doing very well, with a growth rate of about 4% a year. This means that there are many babies like T065B2 born throughout every year.
These whales that we got to spend the afternoon with are what we consider mammal eaters. This means that they feed on Harbour Seals, Harbour Porpoises, sea lions and the odd dolphin. Even though they eat mammals there have been no recorded attacks on humans by any Killer Whale population in the wild! These whales spend most of their time searching for food and require about 200 to 300 pounds of blubbery food a day. This would be the equivalent of about 2 or 3 seals!
The family that we watched today passed quite close to a small island, likely looking for seals who were hauled out of the water sunbathing that they could scare into the water to snack on.
By the end of the trip, we all had sunkissed cheeks and whale-kissed hearts.
It was a beautiful way to celebrate Canada’s 152nd birthday!