Orca spotting on Vancouver Island

Erik Blog, Canada, Travel

If you wish to see wildlife, Canada is the place to be. With an enormous amount of wilderness it is the place to go and search for the impressive grizzly or the shy moose. There is however one animal that I wished to see more than any other: the orca whale, or killer whale. De size, beautiful markings and intelligent appearance captured the imagination. It seemed great to see these animals in the wild some day.

Many years later, that time has come. In Victoria we get on the Catamaran of Eagle Wing Tours to search for orca whales. While leaving the harbor we get some explanation on what we will possibly see today. Apart from orca whales there is much more wildlife in the waters between Vancouver Island and Canada’s mainland, the area which is called the Salish Sea. Porpoise, Seals, Sealions and Eagles inhabit these waters as well. With a little bit of luck we might even see a Humpback Whale, Minke Whale or Grey Whale. So much wildlife to see, but for now there is not much more to see than the occasional seagull.

Searching for the orca whale
searching for the orca whale

Resident or Transient

With about 28 knots we seem to fly over the almost ripple-free surface of the Salish Sea, to U.S. waters, where two transient orca have been spotted. “This is the species which hunts for mammals”, explains one of the guides/biologists on board. He explains that there are several different species which all differ both genetically and behaviorally. “In the Salish Sea we mainly get to see transient and resident orca whales”.

The resident orca, he explains, live in relatively large groups of several dozen indiviuals and mainly hunt for fish. These orca can be found in the Salish Sea year round.

The transient orca live in smaller groups of just several individuals. They hunt mainly for seal, sea lion or even whales and sharks. These orca migrate along the coast from southeast Alaska all the way to southern California. At times they can also be found in the Salish Sea.

Still not safe

Despite the large scale hunt for orca being stopped, the orca (as well as many other species of whale) are not yet entirely safe. Noise pollution, chemical pollution, oil spills and a declining population of wild salmon keep posing a problem. To minimize any nuisance for the orca strict regulations have been imposed, partly (or mainly) on the initiative of the tour operators.

Aditionally, by equipping their boats with powerful, but silent engines , imposing a wildlife fee and programs like “1% for the planet” and “save the salmon”, Eagle Wing Tours tries to contribute to the protection of the whales. Finally research and education plays a large role in their corporate philosophy. Only if people understand the problems with and importance of whales the current situation can be improved.

An orca whale encounter

After nearly an hour we get close to the location of the orca. In the distance a group of boats betrays where we need to be. As can be suspected, we are not the only ones watching the whales. Getting closer we can see the enormous dorsal fins of two orca protruding above the surface. Just for a little while, then he dives again. At a distance of about one hundred meters, the captain turns off the engines. If we wish to get close to the orca, it will have to happen on their initiative. For now the only thing we can do is have some patience and wait, but mostly enjoy ourselves by watching the whales do their thing.

Time and time again they surface. With tremendous force they exhale through the blow hole on their heads, inhale an equal amount of air and then disappear again beneath the surface. We follow them some time until one of the orca gets curious. He comes closer and closer until he’s just several meters from the boat. From this distance you really get to experience the shear size of this animal: it is huge.

With each breath of air, the enormous dorsal fin protrudes above the surface. He looks at us and seems to asses us, trying to determine if we might be interesting. The white markings on his black body can now be clearly seen. The sharp contrast between the white of its belly and the black of its back, on it the characteristic white spot just behind his eye. From this distance, a less notable spot behind the dorsal fin can be seen as well. Being this close to the animal, you can even see his scars. Possibly from wounds he suffered while hunting on seal or shark. They most likely won’t be easy prey.

After a little while the orca seems to decide we’re not that interesting and goes his own way. We follow the two for a little while until it is time to head back to port. To finish, we drop by a smal colony of sea lions. They must be relieved the orca have finally left.