Sunshine and zodiac tours watching transient Orcas - what a perfect start to this Sunday!
August 31, 2011
On this lovely morning we cruised out onto the Juan de Fuca Straight aboard the Orca Spirit with a fantastic group of guests, all eager to see whales and learn as much as they could about them! The waters made for smooth sailing and the sun warmed our faces in the cool breeze. We set coarse east, passing by Trial Island Lighthouse and the ritzy Oak Bay area of Victoria. We stopped between Vancouver Island and Lime Kiln Park which is located on San Juan Island, WA. With binoculars and all eyes on the water we scanned the seas for puffs of air and black dorsal fins. No dice. So we roamed a short distance north before spotting something black in the distance on our ten o'clock! Orcas! We changed direction and moved closer to the whales traveling in Canadian waters. Guests were thrilled to find 5 transient (marine mammal eating) killer whales cruising through the salty waters. The group was traveling and searching for prey, which includes porpoises and harbour seals in this area.
Orcas have a powerful tool known as sonar to hunt for prey and navigate through the dark waters of the North Pacific. Their sonar, or echolocation, is so powerful that they can detect differences in skeletal structures of the animals in front of them! Humans actually designed the sonar we use on a variety of marine vessels by studying dolphins and whales. We reached an area where the seafloor becomes very contoured, evident by the turbid mixing of water at the surface. This is where we noticed the whales turning and lunging into the depths, likely chasing prey. We spotted a lone Harbour Seal and a Harbour Porpoise in the area. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time! Yikes! After a great morning spent with the whales, we stopped by Chain Islands to look at the Harbour Seals, cormorants, and of course, hundreds of seagulls! It seems like everyone was enjoying the sunshine! A big thank-you to our guests for all your awesome questions, it makes a naturalist's day when guests are excited to learn about the whales we love!
When guests boarded the Orca Spirit at the dock today, they had no idea of the great afternoon they had in store for them! We headed west when we passed Ogden Point and ten minutes later, we saw orcas!! It is very rare to find any whales just outside the harbour. They were another group of 5 transient orcas, different from the transient group we seen earlier this morning. The whales were traveling fast in an easterly direction, close to shore. We kept pace with them as they made their way along the coast, searching for potential food. Transient and resident orcas are very different from each other. Residents eat fish and travel in large family units call pods. Pods are made up of several matrilines that are all related to each other. Transient orcas hunt mammals such as seals, sea lions, porpoises, dolphins and occasionally other whales. They travel in individual matrilines, meeting up with other transient groups to socialize and mate. The transient and resident populations on our coastline have at least 100,000 years of separation according to genetic analysis! Orcas are the only known species to have genetically segregated themselves through social behaviour alone and not geographical distance.
Once we spent a good portion of time with the orcas, we headed out south to see if any other large mammals were in the area. We were not disappointed....HUMPBACKS! It is my first trip of the year where we have got to see 2 species of whales in one trip! We believe the female humpback was Heather, a humpback that has been returning to our waters every year since 2003. She was accompanied by her calf from last year. The pair likely separated in Hawaii last winter and joined up again for a visit in our waters. Humpbacks usually only spend 1 to 2 years with their calves, but will reunite for short periods throughout their lives. The pair were surfacing often, sometimes raising their tales high out of the water, before sinking below the surface. The sound of their powerful breaths was amazing. We were all so happy to be able to see 2 of the 4 types of whales that visit Victoria's waters. Calm seas and sunny skies led us back to Victoria. We hope you all enjoyed the wonderful and eventful afternoon with us!