Right at the end of our three and a half month trip we had 3 days in Vancouver before our flights home, despite it being such a short time we tried to pack in as many experiences as possible. On the first day we got out and explored Vancouver city centre then the next day we headed up to Whistler to see the mountains and do the Peak to Peak ski lift.
For our last day we booked to go out whale watching. We had really wanted to get over to Vancouver Island and visit Tofino in particular but in truth we had no idea how huge a distance this was and how long it would take- turns out it takes a full day to get there from Vancouver! Instead of trying to get to Tofino we booked a boat leaving from Steveston with Vancouver Whale Watch to look for whales among the Gulf & San Juan Islands.
The Gulf & San Juan islands are a large group of islands that are just off the coast that runs from Vancouver down to Seattle. They are renowned for being one of the best places in the world to see Orca’s as there are three pods that reside among the islands that can be seen from spring through to Autumn but there are also other transient pods who travel through the islands all year round while migranting North or South to keep up with their prey.
We booked the 12 seater open air lightship; an ex-coastguard boat used for rescue missions. As a result we got to pull on full-body survival suits for the trip, glamorous!
Having checked in, suited up and boarded our craft we departed and cruised through the harbour where we got a close view of this nesting pair of Bald Eagles who had made a home on one of the signalling towers.
Given that bald eagles diet is primarily fish this couple, who have mated for life, have picked a great spot to steal any scraps available from the incoming fishing boats and are right next to the water should they need to fish themselves. You can also easily see how much bigger the female sitting atop the signalling tower is compared to the male.
To get to the islands we had to leave the harbour and head down the open water of the Salish sea. This is where the trip got really bumpy but was so much fun!
After about 40 minutes we reached the Gulf islands and calmer waters. As we cruised between the islands we could see many more bald eagles. One flew directly overhead before landing on a perch not far from us.
Throughout the trip the captain had been scanning around for signs of whales as well constanly relaying messages with various other boats. In the midst of watching the eagles the captain got a radio message from another boat telling us to head in their direction and we were off!
It wasn’t long after we caught up with the boat that we got out first glimpse of what we had hoped to see;
We counted about five or six individuals in this pod of Orca’s and our guide Chris believed this was a transient pod after reviewing close up photo’s of the dorsal fins.
There are many differences between transient and resident pods but the biggest is their diet. The resident orca’s diet consist’s primarily of Chinook Salmon whereas the diet of transients is made up mostly of marine mammals such as seals and porpoises!
The pod was moving very fast. They would break the surface maybe three to four times before diving and then typically reappear quite a distance away. Even when we were close to them keeping up was a hard task for the captain.
A few times when the whales surfaced they came up quite close to the boat and seeing the animals so close was really amazing.
Throughout our time with the pod they never stopped moving covering a huge distance in the hour and a bit we spent as the matriach led her family on the hunt for food.
Orca’s are one of the most social animals in the world and have complex social structures similar to elephants. Each pod is effectively one family. They are led by the mother of the pod, the matriach, and all other members are her descendants; sons and daughters, her grandchildren and sometimes even her great grandchildren as wild orca’s can live up to 90 years old!
It was incredible to be able to see Orca’s and we hope to go back to B.C. and visit Vancouver Island and do more whale watching off its West Coast.
Unfortunately the population of the resident animals is rapidly decreasing having shrunk from an estimate of 200 animals down to 83 in 2008. This is largely attributed to the decrease in numbers of Chinook salmon available due to mass over fishing by humans throughout the area. Transients have also been badly affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill which has been responsible for killing off the transients prey as well the animals themselves. It’s also been noted that some pods that were affected have stopped re-producing for an unknown reason.
Groups like the whale and dolphin conservation charity are working hard to help protect Orca’s as well as all other whales and dolphins around the world and have a great Christmas gift idea where you can adopt an Orca that resides in British Columbia. So if you’re short of gift ideas this might make someone’s Christmas and help go towards protecting these amazing animals.
Our tips for a trip.
1.) This boat trip was a really good option to get out and look for whales if you are in the Vancouver area but short of time. Often there are sightings of different whale species such as Humpbacks and Grey whales depending on the time of the year. We would definitely recommend Vancouver whale watch as well- they had a well enforced policy on not crowding the whales with boats.
2.) If you do have time- plan in a trip to Vancouver Island, we were thoroughly recommended to visit Tofino and our Whale Watch guide said the island is full of Bears, Eagles, Wolves and has the highest density of Cougars per km in the world!
3.) If you do take a boat trip make sure you put on sunscreen. Unfortunately we forgot and even though it wasn’t the sunniest of days we both got badly burnt and had to fly home with bright pink faces. Another thing to note is that if you do go on the lightship as we did the full body survival suits aren’t actually waterproof so we would recommend you take a change of clothes that you can leave at the company’s shop to get changed into after your trip.
Thanks for reading,
Kirsten & Elliot.