Captain’s Blog

2019 Victoria Whale Watching Season Highlights

November 24, 2019

The 2019 season was full of diverse wildlife and amazing sightings on the waters of the Salish Sea! We keep track of our daily sightings and this year our success rate of sighting whales was over 95% from April until the end of October. Orcas were the species of whale that we saw the most often, but humpbacks were close behind! We had more Grey whale sightings this season than we have had for many years, and our Minke whale encounters were very memorable.

Bigg's Orcas passing Victoria       Humpback whales diving into the deep

(a) Bigg’s Orcas passing Victoria                          (b) Humpback whales diving into the deep

Minke whale in the San Juan Islands      Grey whale foraging in the shallows

(c) Minke whale in the San Juan Islands            (d) Grey whale foraging in the shallows

There are more than just whales to see in our area as we are fortunate to live in a place that is abundant with seals, sea lions, porpoises, marine birds and even rare visitors like Fin whales! With such diversity in wildlife species, paired with amazing coastal views, every tour is an exciting new adventure.

Bald Eagle - Orca Spirit Whale Watching Harbour Seals - Orca Spirit Whale Watching  Stellar Sea Lions - Orca Spirit Whale Watching

(a) Bald Eagle                                     (b) Harbour Seals                                    (c) Steller Sea Lions

Sea Otter - Orca Spirit Whale Watching Harbour Porpoise - Orca Spirit Whale Watching Pigeon Guillemot - Orca Spirit Whale Watching

(d) Sea Otter                                            (e) Harbour Porpoise                       (f) Pigeon Guillemot

We started the season off in April and our highest sightings were of Bigg’s killer whales, the mammal-hunting eco-type of orca that frequent our waters. As spring progressed we started to see the return of Grey whales and Humpbacks, the baleen giants that come north to feed during the spring, summer and fall months. This spring, we saw more Grey whales than we have in the past decade, which was an exciting surprise for everyone! Hotspots to find the feeding Grey whales included Crescent Bay, Whidbey Island, and Island View Beach. It was so rewarding to see them feed in the shallow bays, knowing they were carving the sandy bottom into underwater sand dunes. They truly are architects of the sea!

Grey whales foraging in shallow bays in the Salish Sea   

Photos: Grey whales foraging in shallow bays in the Salish Sea

Humpback Haven

The mighty Humpback whales arrived a little bit later than they did last spring, but when they started to return, it was spectacular! Humpback whales continue to increase in number every year in the Juan de Fuca and Haro Straits, and we are adding new individuals to our local Salish Sea ID catalogue every season.  We spent time with familiar favourites like Split Fin, Heather, Big Mama and Split Fluke, while others became well-known like Two Spot, Mathematician, Manta, Scratchy, and Bullet. We were excited to meet several new calves who were born last winter in the warm waters of Mexico, Hawaii or Costa Rica. Now that they have been taught about this area by their mothers, we hope they return each year for decades to come!

Bullet- female (MMX0047)  - Orca Spirit Whale Watching Tour    Two Spot- male (MMZ0013) - Orca Spirit Whale Watching Tour

(a) Bullet- female (MMX0047)                              (b) Two Spot- male (MMZ0013)

Scratchy (MMY0079)  - Orca Spirit Whale Watching Tour   Split Fin (BCZ0298) - Orca Spirit Whale Watching Tour

(c) Scratchy (MMY0079)                                   (d) Split Fin (BCZ0298)

Humpbacks are incredibly graceful and powerful creatures, and every encounter with them is memorable. Mathematician and Tulip are two humpbacks who left extra special memories in the minds of guests and crew this season because they each had a day when they breached over and over again in a single trip!  When we say over and over, we mean they breached dozens of times in a period of 30 to 45 minutes!

Tulip (MMX0012) breaching near Victoria in July           

Photos: Tulip (MMX0012) breaching near Victoria in July

Mathematician (BCY0785) breaching near Port Angeles, Washington in June            

Photos: Mathematician (BCY0785) breaching near Port Angeles, Washington in June

Nothing is quite as fantastic as seeing an animal the size of a humpback leaping out of the salty sea, spinning through the air before crashing down, casting the biggest splash of white water you will ever witness! We are still encountering humpbacks in November and they have been lunge feeding at the surface, their giant mouths gaping open as they take big gulps of food.  In past seasons, we have seen humpbacks here until the end of January, hopefully, some stick around that long again this year!

Lunge feeding humpbacks in the sunset on the Juan de Fuca Strait in July         

Photos: Lunge feeding humpbacks in the sunset on the Juan de Fuca Strait in July

Bigg’s (Transient) Killer Whales

Killer whales are a species that we see every month of the year and 2019 was especially full of epic encounters of Bigg’s orcas!  Bigg’s or Transient orcas hunt for seals, sea lions, porpoises and occasionally other whales along the North Pacific coastline year-round. With abundant sources of food, we continue to notice the rotund body condition of the whales in this growing population.

Male Bigg's (Transient) Killer Whales in the Juan de Fuca Strait

(a) Male Bigg’s (Transient) Killer Whales in the Juan de Fuca Strait

Over the past few years, the number of “T-Parties” we have witnessed, which is when multiple Transient families spend time together, is increasing. All of this socialization has lead to a baby boom amongst the Bigg’s killer whales! We have seen plenty of new black and orange orca babies this year and they are absolutely adorable to witness interacting with their mothers and siblings.  Calves are not shy when it comes to getting in on a hunt, but they are always under the watchful eye of family members who make sure the little ones never get into a dangerous situation.

Bigg's (Transient) Killer Whales - Orca Spirit Whale Watching Tours   

Photos: Bigg’s (Transient) Killer Whales

The most famous baby of the season has to be little Tl’uk or T46B1B, who has made headlines around the world.  He was first seen in November of 2018 alongside his mother, Tread (T46B1), and sibling T46B1A. It was immediately apparent that there was something special about Tl’uk- he is not the typical stark black and white colour of normal orcas, he looks like he has been white-washed.

Bigg's (Transient) Killer Whale family, the T46B1's. The grey calf is Tl'uk (T46B1B) who was born in November 2018.         

Photos: Bigg’s (Transient) Killer Whale family, the T46B1’s. The grey calf is Tl’uk (T46B1B) who was born in November 2018.

Tl’uk’s pale colouration could be due to one of two conditions. Leucism is a condition where there is partial pigmentation loss in cells, but not in the eyes. Leucism is not associated with other serious health problems. He could also have an autosomal recessive disorder called Chediak-Higashi Syndrome that is associated with frequent infections, neuropathy, and a short lifespan.  Scientists are still trying to figure out which condition Tl’uk has. We hope it is leucism as we really want to watch this little nugget grow up into a healthy adult. We were privileged to see Tl’uk and his huge extended family many times this season, capturing amazing pictures of our little ‘ghost’ whale!

The T46B1 Bigg's (Transient) Killer Whale family with their youngest calf, Tl'uk (T46B1B)          

Photos: The T46B1 Bigg’s (Transient) Killer Whale family with their youngest calf, Tl’uk (T46B1B). His grey colouration is due to leucism or Chediak-Higashi Syndrome.

Other special encounters with Bigg’s killer whales included a spring-time visit from one of the most famous male orcas on the Pacific Coast- Chainsaw (T-63)! Chainsaw is a lone male who was born in 1978. Scientists believe he is likely the son of Whidbey II (T065), but he does not travel with her anymore. Chainsaw is famous because he has two giant nicks out of the trailing edge of his dorsal fin.  He roams the entire Pacific Northwest coastline, so when he comes to town, everybody is talking about it!

"Chainsaw" or T63 is one of the most famous Bigg's (Transient) Killer Whales in the Pacific Northwest       

     

Photos: “Chainsaw” or T63 is one of the most famous Bigg’s (Transient) Killer Whales in the Pacific   Northwest.

Another famous male that we were fortunate to see many times this season is Galiano (T019B)! Galiano has such a huge dorsal fin that is extremely wide from base to tip, it actually leans to the left.  He also has a very noticeable nick on the back edge of his dorsal fin. Galiano travels close to his grandmother Esperanza (T018), his mother Nootka (T019), and his younger brother Spouter (T019C). Sometimes we refer to Galiano as “The Monster”, not because he is scary, but because he is just so huge!  It is always an amazing day when this beloved family cruises into the neighborhood!

Galiano (T19B) - Orca Spirit Whale Watching              Spouter (T19C) - Orca Spirit Whale Watching

(a) Galiano (T19B)                                                               (b) Spouter (T19C)

Southern Resident Killer Whales

Southern Resident killer whales have historically been the type of whale we see most often in the Salish Sea. Sadly, this unique and genetically distinct community of orcas has been declining dramatically in recent years, primarily due to a lack of Chinook salmon, which is their primary food source. Because their traditional spring, summer, and fall foraging areas within the Salish Sea are not full of Chinook, they have been spending less time in the area. Given their precarious state, we have opted to not spend as much time with the Southern Residents when they are here, because we have so many other exciting opportunities to see orcas, humpbacks and other fascinating wildlife species.

Members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale community cartwheeling and breaching in local waters.   Members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale community cartwheeling and breaching in local waters.

Photos: Members of the Southern Resident Killer Whale community cartwheeling and breaching in local waters.

We, unfortunately, lost three members of the Southern Residents in May, who all had noticeably poor body condition before their deaths. Princess Angeline (J-17), Scoter (K-25), and Nyssa (L-84) were all loved and cherished whales. We are grateful for the many moments we have spent with each of them over the years and we will deeply miss them all. It is hard to imagine seeing their families without them present as they were all unique in their own way. It is always difficult to lose a whale no matter what kind they are or what family they come from, as they become a part of our family too.

Princess Angeline (J-17) - Orca Spirit Whale Watching Tours Scoter (K-25) - Orca Spirit Whale Watching Tours Nyssa (L-84) - Orca Spirit Whale Watching Tours

(a) Princess Angeline (J-17)             (b) Scoter (K-25)                                (c) Nyssa (L-84)

The Southern Residents have had two calves in the past year, which gives us hope that they have a chance to recover. Little Whistle (L-124) was first seen in January of 2019 and is the son of Matia (L-77). He is doted on by his older sister Joy (L-119), and a huge extended family.  Tofino or Tofi (J-56) is the newest addition to the population, born in May of 2019 and first seen off the coast of Tofino on the west side of Vancouver Island. She is the only daughter of Tsuchi (J-31), and she has two loving uncles named Blackberry (J-27) and Mako (J-39) who are never seen far away from Tofi and her mother.

New mother Tsuchi (J-31) and her daughter, Tofi (J-56) - Orca Spirit Whale Watching

(a) New mother Tsuchi (J-31) and her daughter, Tofi (J-56), who was born in May 2019

In order to help bring more food to the table for the Southern Residents, Orca Spirit Adventures continues to support the Pacific Salmon Foundation with our $2 Wildlife Conservation fee. The Pacific Salmon Foundation is a local organization that works to increase wild salmon populations, conduct scientific research on salmon and the factors contributing to their decline, and complete habitat restoration projects on the rivers and streams used by wild salmon for spawning. We can make a difference for the Southern Residents if we all work together to improve their environment and ensure they have abundant food to eat.

Southern Resident Orcas in Haro Strait - Orca Spirit

Photos: Southern Resident Orcas in Haro Strait

Race Rocks Lighthouse

One of our favourite places to take guests is Race Rocks Ecological Reserve, just nine nautical miles west of Victoria. The collection of small islands is home to hundreds of sea lions, seals and other fantastic wildlife. California and Steller sea lions dominate the area from August until June, disappearing for about two months for the mating season. Orca Spirit captains and naturalists reported several sea lion entanglements this season and DFO’s disentanglement unit was able to rescue one of the injured animals! We care about all the animals we see and always report any injuries or odd behaviors to local research organizations and government departments so that we can work together to protect and conserve local wildlife.

Beautiful Race Rocks Lighthouse - Orca Spirit                

Photos: Beautiful Race Rocks Lighthouse has been guiding ships safely through the Juan de Fuca Strait since December 26, 1860

One of the most loved residents of Race Rocks Lighthouse is “Ollie”, the one and only sea otter in our area!  It is hard to resist melting over the adorable, blonde, furry face of a sea otter. Ollie is often found wrapped up in one of the giant Bull kelp beds at Race Rocks Lighthouse. Sometimes we watch as he takes a nap, while other times he is preening his thick fur, barrel-rolling, or munching on his prey. Ollie has been a local for over five years now but has not been accompanied by any other otters. We hope to see other members of his species migrate to the area and start a new colony and to keep our favourite little furball company!

"Ollie" the only sea otter - Orca Spirit

Photos: “Ollie” the only sea otter enjoying the kelp beds at Race Rocks Lighthouse.

In addition to all the blubber and fur, we also get to see many feathered creatures as well.  Bald eagles tend to be the largest of the common birds we see, but this season we also spotted a few rare Brown Pelicans!  Great Blue Herons can also be out and about, usually close to shorelines where they hunt on the floating piles of kelp. Other common species to see include the notoriously fast-flying Rhinoceros Auklets, Pigeon Guillemots, Common Murres, and cormorants. These are all diving birds who spend the majority of their life on the water. Rhinoceros Auklets are really neat to see, especially when they surface with a pile of silver fish protruding from their horned beaks!

                        

(a) A Brown Pelican lands on the water at Race Rocks        (b) A Great Blue Heron lands on the dock

                        

(c) Pigeon Guillemots                                                                 (d) Rhinoceros Auklets

Southern Vancouver Island is a remarkable place to view wildlife and be surrounded by breath-taking scenery. Thousands of marine species live here throughout the year, utilizing the land, sea, and sky to find food and raise their offspring. With such a dynamic ecosystem, every tour is unique when it comes to what we will see, where we will see things, and what the different species of wildlife will be doing. Every day provides an opportunity for new adventures!

T65A Breaching in front of Mount Baker - Orca Spirit               Fisgard Lighthouse at the mouth of Esquimalt Harbour - Orca Spirit

(a) T65A Breaching in front of Mount Baker        (b) Fisgard Lighthouse at the mouth of Esquimalt Harbour

Mount Baker from Whidbey Island - Orca Spirit           S.A.L.T.S.'schooner, the Pacific Swift - Orca Spirit

(c) Mount Baker from Whidbey Island                  (d) S.A.L.T.S.’schooner, the Pacific Swift

As the sun sets on 2019, we look back on it with excitement and great appreciation for all the experiences we have been able to share with guests from around the world, teaching them about the importance of healthy ecosystems and the important roles all types of wildlife play within our environment. We are excited about next season and the new adventures that await us on the straits of the Salish Sea!

Photo Credits: Rachael Merrett- Orca Spirit Adventures Marine Naturalist

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