Victoria Whale Watching Report: Quadrupal Whale Day! Southern Residents Orcas, Bigg’s Orcas, Humpbacks & a Minke Whale
September 25, 2019
9 AM TOUR
As fall settles in, the air on the Salish Sea becomes crisp and the swells from the open Pacific roll down the strait. The fleet fanned out
across the Juan de Fuca and Haro Straits to search for whales. We travelled far west and south of Victoria where we found a humpback whale!
It appeared to be busy foraging for fat-rich food like krill or herring. In a month or two more, the humpbacks start their mighty
migration south where they mate and give birth. The Pacific Northwest is where they gather their strength for the journey by eating 1-3 tons of food each day. They fast along their migration and in the warm waters of Hawaii, Mexico or Costa Rica, living off their fat stores accumulated over spring, summer and fall.
After watching this graceful giant, we turned east and made our way to the famous Ecological Reserve and Marine Protected area called Race Rocks Lighthouse. This historic structure was built in 1860 to warn ships of the dangerous islands that lie around it. It still sounds its foghorn and casts its light when fog or darkness set in.
Making the lighthouse home are California and Steller Sea Lions and the silky Harbour Seals. It is always fun to watch and listen to the noisy sea lions, though smelling them is not as pleasant! The Harbour Seals are the quieter of the pinnipeds, curled up above the waterline, keeping warm in the chilly air of fall. With the sun shining and the waters glistening blue, we cruised back to the dock in Victoria’s Inner Harbour, happy to have spent a morning with the residents of the Salish Sea!
10 AM TOUR
This morning we headed out into the Juan De Fuca Strait heading East.
After a while of travelling, we entered into the Haro Strait among the San Juan Islands. These are American islands and are part of Washington State. Out here we encountered a pod of Southern Resident Killer Whales. This type of killer whale eats fish, primarily Chinook Salmon. Unfortunately, for quite some time now, they have been struggling as a population. Overfishing, salmon farming, and pollution are a few of the main reasons for their decline.
Their population is at an almost record low of 73 individuals. Their lowest numbers were 71 and this was right after the live capture era. In the ‘90s their numbers were back up to 98, but they have lost many members since. This past year there have been 2 successful births and 3 deaths. The four years prior, there have been no successful births in this population. We were very lucky to see these animals, as they have started to expand their range in recent times.
We then continued travelling, to see what other wildlife we could find. Shortly after, we spotted two Humpback Whales! These whales are in our area from the Spring until the Fall and spend this time feeding, attempting to gain as much weight as possible. One of these animals was identified as “Ocean”. We are able to identify individuals based on the underside of their tails. Each varies with the amount of white pigmentation and have unique markings. We stayed with these two for several breathing cycles, and even got to see one of them tail lob! They were very large animals, weighing around 40 tonnes. We then started to make our way back to Victoria.
We tied back up to the dock after a spectacular morning of wildlife viewing!
1 PM TOUR
This afternoon we headed out into the Juan De Fuca Strait heading East.
Once we entered the Haro Strait by the San Juan Islands, we stopped to scan around the area. Our captain spotted a dorsal fin, so we waited to see where this animal would surface again. It turns out we had found a Minke Whale! They are notoriously difficult to keep track of, so we were very fortunate to see it even though it was a brief encounter.
Slightly further ahead, we found a pod of Southern Resident Killer Whales. This type of killer whale eats fish, primarily Chinook Salmon. They are a critically endangered population due to several factors, including overfishing and salmon farming. Because of this, they are down to 73 individuals amongst their three pods. Their numbers were the lowest ever after the live capture era when they had 71 individuals. They managed to grow their population back up to 98 in the ‘90s, but since then have declined dramatically. This past year, there have been two births in this population, one in J pod and one in L pod. Within this same period of time, there have been 3 deaths, one member from each J, K, and L pod. The previous four years, there have been no successful births in any of these pods. We were very fortunate to be able to see these animals today. We then left these killer whales in search of more wildlife.
We passed through Whale Rock to look at some Steller’s Sea Lions! They are all males in this area and can weigh up to 2500lbs. they were hauled out on this rock and were being very vocal today.
Just ahead of here was a family of Bigg’s (Transient) Killer whales! This is the other type of killer whale we see in our area. Unlike the Southern Residents, these ones eat mammals. Their main diet is Harbour Seals, but they can also hunt sea lions, porpoises, and even other whales! They travel in matrilineal families consisting of a mother and her offspring. This particular family is referred to as the T100s and has four members. Because they have a more varied diet and their food is much more available, this population is doing much better than the Southern Residents. We watched this family for a while, before having to make our way back to the Cruise Ship.
It was a fantastic afternoon of wildlife watching!
2 PM TOUR
Every whale watching adventure is memorable but some trips are out of this world! Today we saw not one, not two, not even three types of whales…WE SAW FOUR! We first found members of J and K pods off the southern tip of San Juan Island. A young male named Sonata or K-35 is starting to have a dorsal fin more like an adult male. He’s 17 years old this year. How amazing it is to watch our local whales grow up over the years. Other Southern Residents were spread out in all directions, hopefully successfully catching Chinook salmon.
Just a short distance away we found the second eco-type of orca that lives in our waters, the Bigg’s or Transient Killer Whales! The two types do not associate with each other, nor do they share a common language. Once we got a few views of the family, we knew we were with the T100 family. The mother T100, has a small nick near the top of her dorsal fin while her 17-year-old son has a nick in the middle of the back edge of his fin. T100E is a female and was born in 2009. Her dorsal fin is very distinct with a very sharp curve towards her tail. They were amazing to watch as they scoured the area for seals and sea lions.
The third type of whale on the list was a humpback! Not far from the mammal-hunting orcas, a humpback was feasting on something very abundant, possibly krill or herring. Juvenile humpbacks are prey for Bigg’s Killer Whales, but once full size, they are not as likely to be hunted. The birds were gathering over a bait ball, but they would fly up as the humpback approached from below. Another species of whale, another form of feeding.
Finally, we got to see a rare species of whale in our area- minke!
Minke whales are the second smallest baleen whales in the world. They are still very larger though, measuring approximately 10m long and weighing around 6 tons. Just like the humpback, the minke was foraging on the bait balls of food. We got some warning before it would lunge through the surface of the water as the birds flew high into the air.
We even captured the minke’s tail as it turned sideways at the surface!
Our naturalist of ten years has never before captured a shot of a minke’s tail! You can download these pictures from the Flickr album!
It was a very special tour seeing four types of whales. Our guests were thrilled at this special experience. It will be a day that none of us aboard are soon to forget.