It seemed as if our chances of encountering whales on a one-day kayak trip were not very good. And the kayak tours are kind of pricey. So we opted for a whale watching tour on a regular boat to go look for the Northern Residents.
Since we try to avoid big groups on tours, we chose a 5:30 p.m. departure with Stubbs Island Whale Watching. Apparently, that time slot never gets full. Which is surprising since it’s a beautiful time of day to go out on the water.
As our Captain, Geoff and the young naturalist, Sofia, were giving their introductory and safety talks, someone looked up and pointed to a bear that was walking by the marina just across the water from us. Right in front of our campground! A good omen.
So off we went once again to Johnstone Strait, this time powered by motor. Some of the Northern Residents had been spotted earlier and the captain went in search of them.
There are two communities of resident killer whales in the areas of British Columbia and Washington, the Northern Residents and the Southern Residents. Both are fish-eating whales with a preference for Chinook salmon and both travel to this area when the salmon are running in summer. But each has a very specific range. And they don’t overlap.
The Southern Residents, numbering over 80 whales, remain in the waters around Victoria in South Vancouver Island and the San Juan Islands in Washington, where we saw some of them a few weeks ago. The Northern Residents, numbering around 250 whales, remain within the northern end of Vancouver Island and its surrounding inlets.
Apparently, only a few of the Northern Residents had arrived in Johnstone Strait, making it even tougher to find them. Once all of the Northern Residents arrive, chances of seeing killer whales increase significantly.
As our captain searched for the orcas, we spotted a couple of humpback whale spouts in the distance. But most people wanted to see the killer whales, and so he continued on his original quest.
Along the way, we spotted Dahl’s porpoises, lots of birdlife and lots of jumping salmon.
And then we found the whales. Appropriately enough in Blackfish Sound, a body of water across Johnstone Strait in the Broughton Archipelago.
Resident killer whales have a matriarchal society; all whales remain with their mothers for their entire lives. Each family unit is a matriline. Multiple generations form pods that travel together most of the time. Members of a pod know to mate only with whales from other pods within the same resident community but return to their maternal pods afterwards. A clan is a group of pods that share a common ancestor. And members of a clan have their own dialect.
How did she know? Back in the 70s, a Canadian marine biologist named Michael Bigg discovered that each individual whale’s dorsal fin and the pigmentation patterns on its saddle patch (a gray area behind the fin) are distinctive enough to identify individuals.
He developed a technique using photographs of the left side of the whales to distinguish individuals. Using that technique, clans and pods have each been assigned a letter of identification, while individuals have the letter of their pods plus a number.
Once it was possible to identify individual whales, it also became possible to count them, track their movements, learn about their feeding habits and gain an understanding of their social structure. And to determine when new whales were born and when members of the resident communities died.
There were now whales on both sides of the boat, in fact one of the European tourists said “we need more eyes” because we didn’t know which way to turn. As we continued to observe the whales, our captain lowered a hydrophone into the water to allow us to hear their communication.
These fish eating whales use echolocation to locate their prey; by emitting sounds they can identify when their prey is near by the echoes created when those sounds reach the prey. Resident killer whales are also quite vocal in communicating with each other.
Another group of orcas that frequent this area are transient whales. Transient whales travel in smaller pods over relatively wide areas feeding on marine mammals, not fish. Because mammals such as harbor seals can hear for great distances transient whales communicate minimally and don’t use echolocation.
As we neared the end of our tour, Sofia gave another talk about the whales. The talk focused on the fact that the Northern Residents are classified as threatened. Because they are top predators, they absorb PCBs and other toxins from the water directly as well as from the salmon they feed on and from whatever the salmon have eaten. The high level of contaminants found in Northern Residents is exceeded by the Southern Residents, who travel near two large cities, Victoria and Vancouver, and are classified as endangered.
We remained on the boat to ask some questions, then Hector went to look for the bear. And, as Hector turned around a corner, there was the bear just walking casually down the boardwalk. We think this bear was the same yearling we saw in a tree through the window of the Whale Interpretive Centre a few days earlier.
The next day was another rainy day, and we stayed inside until it was time to go out on the boat. And it was raining as we boarded with about 13 others giving us lots of room once again on the 49-passenger vessel.
This time the whales had been spotted a bit far from our starting point so we had to travel for a longer way to find them. Which gave us an opportunity to hang out in the cabin a bit and wait for the rain to subside.
As they swam away we followed their path from a distance and stopped, then they started to swim towards us. Then a few more whales approached, apparently there were two different pods, and there was romance in the air. They got pretty close to the boat and swam away once again.
Then Captain Geoff spotted a ton of birds flying over one particular area of the water. There were about 15 bald eagles; some mature, and some immature. We couldn’t even count the gulls, there were so many.
There were also rhinoceros auklets on top of the water, and a bunch of them had small fish in their beaks.
Breeding adults have a hornlike extension of their beak, thus the name. These relatives of the puffins are able to dive as deep as 187 feet to find their food!
We have both become fans of the highly intelligent and social resident killer whales, and will hopefully return to visit them again.