Sunshine and zodiac tours watching transient Orcas - what a perfect start to this Sunday!
August 16, 2011
I couldn't have guessed by the calm sunshine over Victoria Harbour this morning that our trip would rank a top favourite for the season. We were barely past Ogden point breakwater, a large cruise ship peacefully docked behind us, when we spotted black dorsal fins. Orcas were breaking the surface all around, heading east towards Trial Island with it's red and white lighthouse. We followed the group who turned out to be some of our Southern Residents, more probably the L-pod. There were large males, one we suspected was L85 (Mystery) as well as females and calves. Over 30 Orcas were cruising together along the shore beside us and they were in high spirits. We spotted breaches, tail slaps, and even spyhops. They were leading us around Constance Bank in the middle of the Juan de Fuca strait when we heard another report. There were apparently some Transient Orcas a little further south so we broke off from the large resident group, who had picked up some speed, and made a quick jump to the mammal hunters. There were 2 females and one absolutely massive male, his dorsal fin so thick and tall it leaned over by about 30°. They were heading south/west, completely opposite from the Residents and we were given a perfect example of the different behaviours between the two types of Orca. The transients were bunched in their small group, traveling with determination and speed. They changed direction a few times, challenging passengers and crew to keep up and keep track of them.
All the while, as we cruised around after Cetaceans, a fog bank had been rolling it's way down the strait. The transients disappeared into the mist and we branched off towards Race Rocks Lighthouse, or at least that's where we were wanting to go. The fog was so thick we were forced to slow the boat and keep a sharp scan for any signs of little fishing boats or debris. It was eerie on the glassy water, completely surrounded by grey rolling banks of fog. We actually smelled and heard Trial Island before we saw it. The stink of many Sea Lions and gulls reached our nostrils at the same time the loud barks of California Sea lions reached our ears. A minute or two later the dark mass of rocks and buildings rose from the haze in front of us and we were able to see what our other senses had discovered earlier. The rocks were laden with the bulks of brown California Sea Lions, tawny Stellar Sea Lions, Gulls, Cormorants, Harbour Seals and numerous little sea birds fishing in the Bull Kelp forests. Once the smell and noise had fully sunk in we turned back into the fog. On our trip back we once again ran in to some Transient Orcas. There were the two females side by side, synchronized as they angled around the outside of Parry Bay and back in to the fog, apparently having left the male to find his own way.
We were almost back in the harbour when we found one final treat. A bait ball of small schooling fish was being heckled and fed on by gulls and sea birds. We paused to watch and noticed the flashing of salmon in the water feeding on the fish as well as some hungry Harbour Seals who poked a head up to have a look back at us. It was a morning of absolute abundance, strange weather and amazing wildlife viewing, not to mention a curious group of passengers with good questions and a genuine interest in the conservation of our marine ecosystems.
This afternoon was a beautiful day to be out on the water! The seas were calm, the sun was shining, and the fog bank that hovered this morning had burned off. With a small group aboard the Orca Spirit, we headed east to where the map says San Juan Island. We reached an area of the island called Hannah Heights, a favourite spot of locals on the island to build their houses with whales passing by their front windows. And there were the Orcas! There were several males, females and calves spread out along the western banks. The orcas were obviously milling around for food, seeking out the tasty salmon that make up over 90% of their diet. The resident orcas have a strict diet of fish, honing in on salmon using their powerful echolocation. This x-ray like vision allows the whales to detect differences in the skeletal structures of different species of fish, letting them choose who would be the best meal.
Not long into our trip we caught a spyhop off the starboard side, the whale must have been curious as to what was happening about the surface, and came up for a peek. We were able to identify K-26, more easily known as Cappuccino. He is the oldest male in K-pod at the age of 25. What was even more exciting about seeing Cappuccino today is that this is the first time I (naturalist Rachael) have seen Cappuccino since adopting him through the Whale Museum on San Juan Island! All the naturalists for the company now have a whale that they adopted from the southern resident population, which you can check out on our Staff page.
More fun was to be had as we lowered the hydrophone into the water and got a chance to listen to the whales chatter amongst each other. We heard clicks, squeaks and whistles, all entertaining to the ear even if we can't understand what is being communicated. On our way home, we stopped by Chain Islets and Trial Island to see what the local Harbour Seals were up to. We weren’t surprised to see several lounging on land, soaking up the rays and avoiding the frigid waters! And we can't blame them, the 10 degree Celsius water is not somewhere we would want to hang out all day in either! Harbour Seals have a thick layer of fat to keep them warm, but they still like to conserve precious calories by relaxing on the warmer surroundings of the rocky islands. Another amazing day on the water ended, with anticipation of another to come soon!