Sunshine and zodiac tours watching transient Orcas - what a perfect start to this Sunday!
This morning we had cloudy skies as we left the harbour and turned east. We headed towards San Juan Island, an American island about a half hour boat ride from the harbour. We had just passed Discovery and Chatham Islands when our captain slowed the boat because he had seen something up ahead; we had found orcas! They were Transient Orcas, the ecotype of orcas that eat only mammals such as seals, sea lions, and porpoises. They were a group of three Transient orcas identified as T20, T21, and T124C. T21 is a full grown female and the sister of T20, a full grown male. T124C is not related to them, but is a juvenile male that joined their pod. T124C was born in 1992, and does not yet have a fully grown dorsal fin, indicating he hasn’t reached maturity. A mature male dorsal fin is about 6 feet tall, and has no curve. This Transient group of orcas was doing a bit of traveling and foraging as we snapped photos, with some playful behaviour of tail slaps and rolls at the surface. More interestingly, T124C and T21 were involved in some mating behaviour, always a positive sight for species that are threatened. Transients were given their name originally because they never stay in one particular place at certain times of the year. Transients are continuously traveling, the only thing dictating their travel pattern is their food source. After watching the orcas for some time, we turned around heading west back towards the harbour after an eventful morning on the water.
We welcomed our guests aboard the Orca Spirit II this afternoon, our 100 foot long catamaran vessel. We set out on the Salish Sea in search of whales and other marine wildlife. We set our course to the east in search of Transient Orcas that we seen earlier this morning. To our luck they were much closer this afternoon as they travelled west past Discovery and Chatham Islands. We were able to identify the trio of mammal-hunting killer whales as T21, a female born in 1968, her brother T20 born in 1963 and a 20 year old sprouter male from another matriline known as T124C. Orcas do not mate within their family, so they need to search for other groups to meet potential mating partners. T124C has recently reached sexual maturity and appears anxious to help increase the population! T21 is an older female who will be entering menopause soon, but she may still be able to have one last calf to T124C's delight! We watched as they traveled along the Straight of Juan de Fuca and guests were amazing by the six foot dorsal fin of the mature male. The dorsal fins of killer whales are constructed completely of cartilage and no bones, so it is an impressive feet to have such a tall and sturdy structure on their backs! After a long visit that seemed to fly by in minutes, we headed over to Chain Islands where we were able to spot the long necks and slender bodies of dozens of Brandt's Cormorants and of course lots of seagulls! As the tide was high this afternoon, it was difficult to find any seals or sea lions basking on the rocks, as they prefer to go fishing at high tide. After a great time on the water we headed back to the dock where our guests began to look at all the great pictures they captured of the whales. All on board had a great time and made some lasting memories!
Early Evening Tour:
As if the clouds had gone home for dinner, the brilliant sun shone down on Victoria, foreshadowing what would become an amazing evening. Released from the holds of the dock, our adventure began as we departed out of the scenic harbour and into the sparkling ocean. Traveling South from the mouth of the harbour, which was pleasantly calm, passengers eagerly awaited a glimpse at some of Victoria’s amazing wild life. Thankfully on this lovely evening, captain Brad had located some orcas off our shore with one of our zodiacs, and patiently awaited our arrival. Thanks again Brad (and Kaylee)!!
As we carefully approached the area, it only took moments for a large, black triangular object to suddenly protrude up into the suns setting rays. Transient Orcas! In our local waters, we have two groups of orca, or commonly known as killer whales; Transient and Resident Orcas. The main difference between the two groups is diet, in which the Resident orcas eat fish ( Salmon… yumm) and the Transient orcas prey on mammals such as harbour seals, porpoise, sea lions, and even larger baleen whales! As we viewed the transient orcas we were able to identify the individuals by examining the saddle patch, which is the white marking found right behind the dorsal fin. Several of the orcas have small nicks or markings directly on the dorsal fin and these can be used to identify them as well. It was concluded that we had found 3 transient orcas, T20, a large adult male, T21 an adult female, and T124C, a juvenile male. T20 and T21 are brother and sister, which is common as orcas generally travel with their family. T124C may have been trying to mate with T21, or perhaps had just decided to travel with them in search of food, with his family most likely near by. We followed the orcas as they traveled west along the coast, taking several short breaths, followed by a longer several minute dive. Some of the kids on board attempted to hold their breath as long as the male, and with a chocolate bar on the line, succeeded in out lasting the orca! This was due to the large male taking several short, 10 second dives before he would disappear for 3-5 anxious minutes. In reality a human could not compete with an orca holding their breath! As the sun began to decent overtop of the nearby mountains on Vancouver Island we waved goodbye to the orcas and began our journey home. On the way home, we spotted a fourth orca! We identified her to be T124, the mother of the juvenile male we had watched earlier on. This made sense as orcas are very close with their mothers and will spend most of there lives in a fairly close proximity to them!
We concluded our trip with a quick tour of Race Rocks, providing a scenic view of the lighthouse with the sunset in the background. Race Rocks light house was lit on December 26, 1860. This makes it the second oldest lighthouse on the Canadian Pacific! One stellar sea lion was lounging out on a rock, allowing passengers a glance at how big these mammals can get! An adult male stellar sea lion can reach up to 3m in length, weighing 2500 lbs or 1 tonne! Incredible!
With the sun finally setting for one last time behind us, we finished up our adventure and safely returned back to the harbour. This tour was truly a combination of amazing sunlight, low wind and a great view of our local wildlife, leaving many passengers with smiles as they exited the boat. A memorable trip to say the least!