A Whale of a Surprise

We started out from Minstrel Island heading west toward Johnstone Strait in search of marine mammals, most notably, orca.  It was another calm morning with marine clouds hanging low over the inlets.

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Clio Channel

We passed a lot of fish farms where Atlantic Salmon are raised.  The Atlantic Salmon are favored for farming because they are hardier than Pacific Salmon and grow faster.  However, they escape.  Sometimes with the help of hungry sea lions and orca who break into the nets.  The escaped salmon can out-compete the local, native salmon. Speculation points to the impact of the escapees and diseases introduced by these farms and as contributing to a faltering, local, recreational fishing industry.Vancouver Island (828 of 1018)

As we arrived at Johnstone Strait, we stopped to scan the water for dorsal fins or the spray hanging in the air after a whale blows. We listened for the sounds of the whale’s blow, which can carry for a tremendous distance.  We were at the edge of Blackfish Sound, looking across to the Robson Bight Ecological Sanctuary, a protected marine sanctuary that closed to all boat traffic.  All of the water that passes through the Georgia Strait, the waterway between Vancouver Island and mainland Canada, first comes through this relatively narrow channel changing direction every 6 hours with the tides.

We listened to radio traffic from other whale watching boats, both commercial and scientific, to know where to look for the orca.  They move around a lot and are harder to find than the humpback whales that we’ve also come to see.  Indeed, the humpback whales proved to be rather ubiquitous.  We saw some Dall’s porpoises, whose coloring is strikingly similar to that of the orcas, and a few humpback whales as we cruised north toward where the orcas had been seen.

There were marine clouds and haze from the east filtering the morning sun casting a soft, pink light across the Sound. As we passed Foster Island and entered Queen Charlotte Strait, we caught our first glimpse of the tall, dark orca dorsal fins in the distance.

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The male orca are characterized by their tall dorsal fin, which can be up to 6 feet tall.

There were at least four, probably five, distinct family groups swimming about.

They seemed to be on the move without much clear direction.  Several other large whale watching boats were out here on the periphery, dwarfing our small boat of three.

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Tail slapping is a fishing technique meant to stun the salmon.  Another whale watching boat is in the distance.

It was beautifully calm and comfortable on the water this morning.

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The whales are used to having an audience, so they didn’t pay us much attention, going about as usual. Their blows are so loud and forceful like a sneeze, the exhalation can be heard an amazing distance away.

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Family group

They move gracefully, cutting quickly through the water with hardly a wake, always staying in a tight group.  We watched them for a while as they came past our boat, occasionally relocating to get a better vantage point.  It seems these resident orcas were probably chasing salmon, hence their helter skelter paths.

According to the Telegraph Cove whale museum, there are about 740 orca in the Northern Johnstone Strait population.  The resident population, more appropriately called “fish-eaters”, has about 300 individuals.  These are the orca that people come to see.  They coordinate to hunt salmon by vocalizing, slapping the sea surface with their tales (as the series of pictures above shows), and sometimes breaching, all to disorient the fish they’re hunting.  They are also more social with each other and spend more time at the surface.   The transient population, who are not transients at all, are more appropriately called “mammal-eaters”.  They travel in small family groups of three adults.  Their prey is primarily porpoises that they sneak up on from below.  Therefore, they are usually only seen while eating or after celebrating a meal.  An impressive display to be sure.  These two distinct groups never interact and are now thought to be a separate species (it’s been more than 750,000 years since they’ve exchanged DNA).

We stopped in Telegraph Cove, a former fishing/canning town of about 20, that is now a major kick off point for kayaking, whale watching and fishing trips. Vancouver Island (425 of 1018)It is on Vancouver Island proper and hosts a large campground and the aforementioned whale museum. As we left Telegraph Cove, our guide, looking at the navigation app on his phone, said he’d like to try a short cut.  Our guide had proven himself, time and again, to be completely lacking in all guiding skills.  We’d taken to calling him, “The Dude”.  So, I smiled and said, “Sure!” with enthusiasm.  Rob shot me a look.  We’re here for adventure after all, and I think this plan is sure to provide it!

We ended up in a small cove with islets on three sides of us.  There was a small passage between two of the islands at the back of the cove.  This was the short cut. As we headed through the cove, we saw a large flock of gulls and auklets circling and diving into the water.  A bait ball!  Vancouver Island (439 of 1018)-EditOur guide slowly steered our boat into the herring ball.  We could see the birds swimming through the water beneath the surface as they dove after the fish.  They were right next to the boat.  It was amazing.  Then all at once a loud rush of water suddenly demanded our attention.  A humpback whale’s enormous, open mouth was breaking the water’s surface as he scooped up fish, TWENTY feet from the bow of the boat.  A bait ball!  As his mouth closed, he let his weight slowly pull his body back under the water and he sank away. The birds continued to dive into the water in a frenzy, grabbing herring by the mouthful. We stood in amazement waiting to see where he’d surface again.  At this point, all we could do was drift and wait.  IMG_6445-EditWe shouldn’t be in this bait ball, but moving at this point is more dangerous than staying put.  Then the rush of water as his mouth broke the surface again.  I had my 70-300 zoom lens on my camera and only part of the whale’s head fills the frame at 70mm.  Too close!

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Whale head dwarfing the auklets in the background
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Humpback whale

With a mouth full of herring, the whale sank back into the water again.  Then he began to move across the cove.  The birds were a beacon to the herring ball and whale below.  The whale brought his show to some kayakers traversing the far side of the cove.

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The whale’s eye is visible here, a rare thing to capture in a photograph!

We think this whale is bubble feeding.  It’s a common behavior seen in individuals here, and in coordinated groups up in Alaska.  The whales dive deep and then swim in a circle, releasing bubbles as they go.  They ring the fish in these bubble nets and then charge through the column of trapped fish, mouth agape to scoop them up.  Of course, the birds take advantage of this cluster of trapped fish, too.

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Rhinoceros Auklet

Even eagles will fish this way.  One of the other groups at our lodge saw an eagle grab 5 fish, 3 in one foot and 2 in the other, out of a herring ball.  It’s an amazing coordination of effort that feeds so many.

After our gray whale experiences in Baja, I thought I was ruined for whale watching forever.  I should’ve known better.  Mother Nature always has something new in store for those who stop, look and listen.

2 Replies to “A Whale of a Surprise”

  1. Sheila, it is such fun to join you in your always exciting adventures. You make me feel like I’m seeing and experiencing it myself. You’ll have to be sure to always get The Dude for your guide when you are up there….what a fun experience for everyone!

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