Written by: Matt Burnaby, Zodiac Captain
Halfway through our fifth season here in Port Renfrew, Sarah and I often ask ourselves how it is possible that we have managed to find whales on every single voyage. While there are only a handful of exceptions where we have not been able to access the waters outside Port San Juan, the truth is, every complete voyage has returned having seen a minimum of one whale species.
This incredible success rate is not something we could have ever anticipated when first exploring the area in 2017. The “Graveyard of the Pacific” is the old name for the waters we explore, in search of wildlife. The infamy of the area coming from the challenges it presented to vessels during the 1800s into the 1900s, navigating through endless fog, unpredictable currents and powerful winter storms. Thankfully, with modern navigational technology we are not challenged by these conditions and instead it provides an element of adventure that we enjoy on our tours. Nonetheless, when searching for whales amidst the fog and open ocean swell, we must use all our experience and understanding to be successful.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no special technology to help us find these animals. There are not GPS tracking tags or sonar showing us where to find them. We are the only boat out here looking for these animals and we rely on our senses. Our guests will often look at me in disbelief when I suddenly stop our vessel, put my nose in the air and explain that we can smell whales nearby. I have gotten used to my guests believing for a second that I may be genuinely crazy. Thankfully, it is not long after we travel up wind that my guests will also smell old broccoli and shrimp, the telltale scent of a humpback’s breath. If we happen to be driving through fog we will stop and listen, knowing now that we are close. Through the mist the animals begin to reveal themselves, their breathing heard nearby and all around us. Sometimes the echoing boom of a nearby whale breaching will break the silence. The other day we had arrived offshore, after about 30 minutes driving through fog, one of our guests pointed at the water as we slowly cruised by, a large circle of water pressing through the ripples was forming nearby. A whale had recently swam there leaving behind an upwelling current created by its powerful fluke. Moments later that whale surfaced ahead of us with several others as the fog lifted into blue skies and calm seas almost instantly. On clear days we look for whales as their breath meets the cool air above, forming a cloudy spout rising from the surface. We also look for birds, sealions and porpoise; they all come to where to the food is and are an indicator that whales will be nearby.
Before heading out. Sarah and I will look carefully at the tides and other conditions. All of which contribute to where we begin our search. Tidal shifts here define where the wildlife will be, and we can anticipate weather or not we are looking for animals who will be feeding or resting depending on the tides. We have spent the last 5 seasons collecting this information and refining our understanding of where to look for these animals. This understanding is a necessity for our success in taking our guests to see as much wildlife as possible during each of our voyages. But it has also given us a deeper insight into the daily and seasonal changes that take place here – something we hope may aid future research and conservation for this significant wilderness.
Coming on tour with us involves you in the search for wildlife as we explain what to look for. We take great pride in sharing the whole experience with you and the process involved. It is part of the adventure – to not only watch the wildlife but to be a part of the entire exploration.