Victoria Whale Watching Report: Humpback Whales, Orcas & More!
August 29, 2019
This morning we headed out West into the Juan De Fuca Strait.
After just a short time of travelling, we came across three Humpback Whales!
Our waters serve as their feeding grounds and they are here from Spring until Fall. They will then travel South towards their breeding grounds in areas such as Mexico and Hawaii. Here they are trying to gain as much weight as possible, because they will not eat while migrating nor in the breeding grounds! They are on average about 50 feet long and weigh 40 tonnes, making them the largest species of whale that we see on our tours. Out here they will gain anywhere from 7 to 17 tonnes of weight to last them through the winter. After watching these animals surface a few times, we headed towards another boat that was with some more of these whales!
Along the way, we were surprised by a family of Bigg’s (Transient) Killer whales! This is one of 13 ecotypes all over the world. This type eats mammals such as seals, porpoises, sea lions, and even other whales. Unlike the Humpback Whales, these animals are non-migratory. Their population ranges from California to Alaska, with a total of around 500 individuals. The ones that we see typically travel around Vancouver Island. They are typically in groups of around 2 to 6 individuals, consisting of a mother and her offspring. Male killer whales are with their mothers for life and the females will only separate when they have offspring of their own. They travel in small numbers so they can be effective hunters. Their hunting strategy is to sneak up on their prey, so they don’t tend to be very vocal and prefer to travel in smaller groups than some other ecotypes.
The group we were seeing is known as the T060s. The mother, T060, was born in 1980 and she has 4 offspring. This includes 3 sons and 1 daughter. They were born in 2001, 2004, 2008, and 2012. The way we are able to identify these families is by their dorsal fins and saddle patches. Each one is unique and they often have scratches and nicks in their fins that allow us to tell them apart. After spending quite a bit of time with these animals, we decided to see what other wildlife we could find.
Our next stop was Race Rocks Ecological Reserve. Here is where we find our Pinniped species! We were able to see both Steller’s and California Sea Lions as well as Harbour Seals hauled out on the rocks. The Steller’s Sea Lions are larger and a paler brown colour, whereas the Californias are darker and smaller.
We were also lucky enough to spot our resident male Sea Otter! He is the only one we have in Southern Vancouver Island and we call him Ollie. Sea Otters were hunted to extinction in our area, so we no longer see them around here except for Ollie. He likes to lay in the kelp because the Sea Urchins that he eats feed on this kelp. They are one of the only animals known to hunt with tools. His tool is a rock that he uses to crack open the shells of his prey!
On our way back to Victoria we came across the family of killer whales we were with earlier! We watched them surface a few more times before heading back to the dock to a beautiful sunny afternoon.
As we left the harbour it was not long until we started to see blows and tall dorsal fins. As we approached from afar we had realized that we were amongst Southern Resident Killer whales. These whales are critically endangered and only stopped from a distance to take a look. Amongst the many ecotypes of orca, even though from afar they may look similar they are deeply different. From their identifying details to their dietary systems and language. This ecotype of 73 Southern Resident orca, living on the southern end of Vancouver island down towards Seattle, there are 3 large pods (J, K, L). Where each group has different accents, they all communicate with one another using the same language. Their diet is made up of fish, mainly chum and chinook salmon.
Sometimes numerous pods will come together to eat, socialize, and mate. Today we were able to view members of Jpod, specifically Mike and the whole J17 family. We can tell the different whales apart by looking at their saddle patch pattern and dorsal fin. After a brief view of the orca, we moved more south to view some humpbacks! It is quite exciting when we get both orca and humpback on the same tour. As the icing on the cake, we stopped through Race Rocks ecological reserve to take a look at the seals, sea lions and coastal birdlife that reside around Race Rocks.
It was a very special evening tour as we made our way east of Victoria, towards San Juan Island to see Southern Resident Killer Whales. It is very rare that we get to see this family in recent years due to their increased time spent away from their local critical habitat searching for dwindling Chinook salmon stocks. Over the past few decades, we have all gotten to know this family very well, so it is so wonderful to gt to spend a little bit of time with them. With the Residents gone more often, the local Bigg’s or mammal-hunting orca population spends much more time in the Salish Sea. This has allowed us to get very familiar with this fascinating population now as well!
As we came towards the island, we could see big splashes in several different directions. The whales were breaching! Because these
fish-eaters have been so pre-occupied with finding enough food to eat, it is rare we get to see them acting excited and social. We saw over 50 breaches while we watched them and everyone was getting in on the fun!
One of the most exciting moments was spotting the littlest member of the entire population- J-56, a female born to Tsuchi or J-31. J-56 does not have a common name yet, but it will be announced in September. Her doting Uncle Blackberry or J-27 is never far away from his little niece.
We also spotted Mike or J-26 with his mother and siblings. Mike and Blackberry were both born in 1991, so they have been pod mates since birth and seem to be close friends. We saw whales swimming belly up, tail slaps, breaches and spyhops. It was an evening full of excitement from the whales and pure bliss from all of us on board.
As the sunset, we cruised back to Victoria with memories to last a lifetime!