Victoria Whale Watching Report: Killer Whales, Seals & More
June 10, 2019
It was a beautiful, calm morning to set out on the water. We began our search by heading east out of Victoria Harbour, to the Chain Islands. As we arrived, the first things we saw were the birds – many species of gull, pigeon guillemots, rhinoceros auklets, and cormorants.
Many of the cormorants were perched on the rocks, some with their wings spread. Cormorants must do this to dry off their feathers, as they are not waterproof. You might think this is strange, given that these birds hunt underwater, but this adaptation actually allows them to have less buoyancy, making them better divers than many other sea birds!
Thanks to the low tide, we saw over 100 harbour seals “hauled out” on the rocks. These seals do not have much mobility on land, therefore, they will sometimes use the help of the tide to bring them in and out of the water.
We were also in the midst of pupping season, so we were lucky enough to see some very little pups! Their moms would already have begun mating at this time, however, they would not yet be pregnant! This is because of a phenomenon called delayed implantation, where the fertilized embryo does not implant after mating for about 2 months, giving the female time to regain strength after giving birth to her previous pup.
We also came across a male California sea lion, which is unusual because we don’t typically see this species in the Chain Islands. In addition, many have already left to mate down in California. Fun fact: a full grown male sea lion can weigh as much as 800 pounds!
While putting around outside of the islands, we were lucky enough to get a good look at some famously elusive harbour porpoises! At only 2 meters long and very shy, they can sometimes be hard to just spot!
We learned of a group of transient killer whales far west of us and decided to go have a look. After travelling 24 nautical miles west, we spotted the group!
There were 6 individuals in this group, which is quite a normal size for the transient killer whales. This ecotype strictly eats mammals, including harbour seals, sea lions, and porpoises (all of which we had seen just within the hour!), so they need to be stealthy to avoid detection by their smart prey. For this reason, transient killer whales also do not vocalize or display surface-active behaviour very often, especially when on the search for food.
Unfortunately, our trip had to come to an end, and so we made our way back to Victoria. Although we had to extend our trip to have this time with the whales, it was well worth it! It’s always an amazing day when you get to spend time with these beautiful animals!
It was a warm and sunny afternoon, and clear as can be – a perfect day for whale watching! We left Victoria Harbour and began our trip by heading west into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Our first stop was Race Rocks Lighthouse, an ecological reserve where we are lucky enough to find so many cool species! Our first sighting was a bald eagle. We watched it swoop in and land gracefully on a rock, and we were able to get quite a close look. These amazing birds of prey can have a wingspan of 6 to 7.5 feet, yet their bones only weigh half a pound! In a dive, they can reach speeds of up to 160 km/hr!
We then spent time watching dozens of harbour seals laying on the rocks and awkwardly “galumphing” around (the technical term for their movement on land). Given their limited movement capabilities on land, these seals often use the help of the tides to come in and out of the water.
We then saw Ollie, the one and only sea otter in our region. Sea otters, although they can live in cold water, don’t have any blubber! Instead, they have to preen their fur frequently. This involves blowing bubbles into their fur, and the trapped air acts as insulation! Ollie has been here for about 5 years, and during this time he has done a great job at keeping the local kelp forests alive – Ollie will eat sea urchins which eat the kelp!
We left Race Rocks and headed south to join a group of 6 transient killer whales. This is the mammal-eating ecotype of killer whale, meaning they’re eating seals, sea lions, porpoises, dolphins, and even small whales! In fact, Race Rocks is home to many of the mammals on their menu! Given that their prey are intelligent and have good hearing, these killer whales have learned to be stealthy travellers and hunters. For this reason, they usually travel in groups of only 2 to 5 animals, are not often very surface-active, and not vocalize as much as their fish-eating counterparts, the southern resident killer whales.
No matter the ecotype, killer whale have a matriarchal society, meaning that the ladies are boss!
For the transients, we see the groups composed of a mom and her offspring, which she keeps close throughout her life until her daughters have offspring of their own. The males are even more clingy, and will usually stay with their mom until she passes away.
The southern resident killer whales, however, will travel in large pods – these whales will live their lives alongside their mothers, grandmothers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, and cousins! They are very empathetic, intelligent, and social animals, as all of their behaviours suggest.
We had to say goodbye to our killer whales and the beautiful backdrop of Hurricane Ridge, and made our way back to Victoria, ecstatic! What an awesome day to be out on the water!