The day of the Blackfish

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July 20th 2014
Published: August 6th 2014
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Loss for Words.

How do you summarise the greatest thing you've ever experienced? When discussed with my brother after we were safely back in England he knew exactly how I felt about this part of our trip without me being able to put into words that were good enough. I could only tell him that I was unable to keep the corners of my mouth from touching the lobes of my ears in some ridiculous child-on-Christmas-day grin fashion. I simply cannot put into words how awesome Sunday 20/07/2014 was, but I'll try...

Which way to Steveston

We'd arrived at our hotel in Vancouver the afternoon before having passed through the strait of Georgia aboard a massive ferry from Swartz bay to Tsawwassen. A Harbour Seal was swimming around the ferry seeing us safely out of Swartz bay, was this a good omen?

Upon checking into our hotel I asked the receptionist how to get to Steveston where our Whale Watching tour would be launching from the following day.

"will you be catching the shuttle bus provided by the tour operator?"


"Are you getting a taxi then?"

"no" - receptionist stares at me sideways obviously thinking I'm a nutter

"you'll be using public transport?!" he says, aghast at the very notion.

"that was the plan" I retorted.

"I'll find you some directions and have them posted under your door" We thanked him and headed up to our room. Well he turned out to be a no good liar because we never received directions, luckily we'd researched it that night and had a general idea.

The following day with some requests for help and some guide book bashing we found ourselves at Steveston waterfront. We checked in at The Vancouver Whale Watch and were given a pep-talk and kitted out with survival suits.

We were encouraged to layer up, the weather wasn't great and we were going aboard a 12 man open top zodiac to hunt down some Whales. So with 4 layers of clothing we headed down to the boat, passing fishing vessels selling the days catch to the restaurants along the harbour. Once on board we headed out of the harbour and into the strait of Georgia.

The United Nations go Whaling.

Turns out that on board the 12 man zodiac was English, American, Australian,
Steller's Sea LionsSteller's Sea LionsSteller's Sea Lions

Look at the one on the right... "excellent"
Italian, Finnish and German tourists. With the excitement in the group palpable we set out to sea.

Joan, our naturalist aboard the vessel, told us that we were likely to see Harbour Seals on our trip and may, if we were lucky we'd see the fins of Harbour Porpoise however they were skittish and we'd only see the flash of a fin as one breached. very quickly and disappeared back under. We were following two other boats and our Captain took great pleasure in riding over the wake of one of the other boats giving us all something to "oooh" and "aaaah" at as we sought out some wildlife. Not far into the straight of Georgia we came upon a large coal mine. The coal isn't used for fossil fuels but is exported to Asia. A massive ship was moored up that was being loaded up with the coal. The ship was so big that it was anchored using these giant plug like contraptions. Atop one of the plugs was 4 Steller's Sea Lions. They were young so we were unable to tell the gender of them but they were very boisterous displaying and barking at our boat as we drifted within feet of the plug. Sockeye Salmon would occasionally leap from the water around the giant ship the Hanjin Capetown. After a few minutes the Sea Lions were still not settling so we moved off in search of our Whales, under the watchful and suspicious gaze of a Harbour Seal.

By the time we caught up to the other boats we were in United States coastal waters somewhere around Washington State. The two boats we were following up ahead and in the distance another group of boats. Our boat slowed and Joan informed us something was happening up ahead.

Tour operators have to work to a strictly enforced code of practice with regard to Orca watching. Boats are to remain at a distance of 100 yards at all times and if the Orcas come toward the boat then the engine must be killed.

I had experienced this anxiety and anticipation before, when Dan, Gemma Dannie and I were stood at the entrance to the Chernobyl 30 mile exclusion zone. Nothing up to this point is concrete and all things can change at the drop of a hat, but there in the distance between the two boats a lone dorsal fin breached the water followed by a broad black back, and as quickly as it appeared the fin was gone. Not so much of a ripple to betray the whale's presence. The feeling in the air was electric.

On the game trail

Orcas, commonly referred to as Killer Whales come in two varieties in the area we were operating. Southern Resident whales which are present through summer and Transient. Southern Resident follow the schools of Salmon and their diet is exclusively Salmon. Transients are the big boys, they are the mammal-killers. We were in for a treat. Our whale surfaced again followed by a second fin then disappeared. Joan explained what was happening.

The Whales will take 5 or 6 deep breaths then disappear underwater for 5 minutes or so

One of the boats must have been tracking the whales under water as us and the other boat were following him and five minutes later the whales resurfaced not far away. Joan had told us that if nothing was doing over here we'd mosey on over to the larger group of boats in the distance as something was evidently happening over there. Suddenly we were alerted to the fact that all of the other boats were heading toward our 3 at speed. At the head of the group of boats were 4 Orcas speed swimming or porpoising through the water. Their grace and speed belying their massive size. Our boats all fanned out into a large circle in which the Whales were happy to swim around. It became apparent that the two Whales we had been tracking had made a kill. A Harbour Porpoise had been taken and the Whales were coming in to share in the spoils of the hunt.

The Orcas swam around in their group pushing each other around and breaching blowing vast billowing clouds of spray into the air and slapping their tail-flukes on the surface as they slipped back under the calm water. For 40 minutes or so the Orcas pushed the poor Porpoise's body around while being sociable and playing with each other. It's a strange feeling knowing that an animal has died in your presence but you are witnessing something that you may only experience once in this lifetime, personally I didn't feel particularly sad for the Porpoise, it's number had been pulled in the lottery of life and we were having a personal display of how the Orcas earned their nickname.

At one point all 6 of the Whales turned toward our boat. My heart stopped here. I knew that we were safe, in the wild there is only one documented account of Orca on human 'aggression' where an Orca latched onto a swimmer's leg releasing when it realised the swimmer wasn't a seal. Orca's are only dangerous to humans at SeaWorld. Nevertheless the size, the sound of the breach and the raw power of these creatures combined to make for an absolutely heart-stopping moment as all 6 swam in unison toward the boat. Two swam right up to the boat and moments before impact slipped under water and glided past, turning to look up at the boat as they went past. What an absolutely incredible moment.

In my right hand was my camera and in my left was my iPhone filming the encounter.

As you can hear in the video you become virtually unintelligible as the majesty of the moment overrides brain function. It'll be a moment that never leaves me, but thanks to having my phone recording I can go back to repeatedly.

After pushing the Porpoise around for about 40 minutes the Whales decided it was time to eat. They take an equal share in the kill which affords the best possible chance of survival for the calves but means the Whales are pretty much always on the hunt if the pickings for dinner are as small as Harbour Porpoise.

A lesson in Orca

Joan was constantly feeding us information about the wildlife we were seeing. Sadly the hydrophone was not working so we were unable to hear the Orcas communicate however we learned that not only do Southern Resident and Transient Orcas have a difference in diet they also make completely different vocalisations to one another and never interact. In some tours there have been pods of S.R. in the area and Transient yet they have remained at a respectful distance from each other. For the feminists out there you'll be glad to know that Pods of Orcas are matriarchal. The eldest female leads the pod the males stay with the pod for their entire lives. They may briefly join other pods for breeding reasons but will stay with mum once breeding has finished. When multiple pods come together it is called a super-pod, this can occur for breeding or feeding reasons. When born the calves are black and pink which turns to white as they grow giving them their distinctive psychotic-clown look. Scientists are reluctant to claim that any species of animal bar humans is capable of complex language however studies on Orcas has shown that Whales from different pods vocalise differently and if divided by enough of a geographical location would be unlikely to communicate with each other. This is evident in the Orcas kept at SeaWorld which come from different backgrounds and are known to display physical aggression toward one another due to the apparent lack of understanding. If you ask me, Orcas have languages and use them to co-ordinate their hunts and social time, they also use their vocalisations to locate each other when out of visual range.

Orcas, similar to Great White Sharks (#1 on my bucket-list is to swim with these, if I'm ever told I'm terminal and I have the strength I'm on the first flight to South Africa) like to do something called spy-hopping. This is where they pop their head or their head and Pectoral Fins out of the water and have a good look around to size
I don't know what it is about this pictureI don't know what it is about this pictureI don't know what it is about this picture

but I find it quite powerful
up their environment.

Orcas are also very tactile and enjoy different sensations on their skin. They are regularly seen swimming into beds of kelp or 'kicking' kelp. They do this by slapping their tail-flukes into it and launching it from the water. We were lucky enough to see a spy-hop and some kelp kicking. At one point two Orcas breached the water side by side and were both most of the way out of the water. That was our SeaWorld moment right there. All the brilliance of the displays you get at SeaWorld with none of the captivity and cruelty.

The cherry on the cake

The Orcas began moving at speed again porpoising through the water away from the boats. Joan noted that she had forgotten to check the time when we caught up with the Orcas but we had at this point got over an hour with these fantastic animals with an insight into their lives and feeding habits. Something which I hadn't for a moment anticipated. Then as we found them two Whales peeled off from the group in completely the opposite direction and the other 4 slipped below the surface. We used this as our queue to move out of their AO and started making our way back to the harbour.

In an earlier blog I mentioned that I was desperate to see a Bald Eagle while in Canada. Up to this point I had one suspected sighting as our flight from Toronto touched down at Vancouver - after some research I learned that YVR airport keep various birds of prey that work to ensure the safety of flights taking off. They have a Bald Eagle that is used to scare Geese from the ditches around the airport and out of the way of jets taking off. This was probably what I had seen but I couldn't be sure so I didn't count it. The second sighting came briefly as we made our way on a bus from Tsawwassen ferry terminal up to Richmond-Brighouse on our way into Vancouver. Tiffany, the naturalist aboard our ferry had pointed out a likely location and at some considerable distance and fleetingly I glimpsed a bonafide Bald Eagle sat on a fence in a field. The third sighting came as we had left the harbour lane that day in search of Whales. Again at considerable distance an Eagle was perched on a part rotten wooden platform out in the shipping lane. I hadn't got any credible photos of an Eagle though. I asked Joan if on our way back in we could look for an Eagle as I was desperate to see one. She was more than accommodating and we detoured our boat by about 20 minutes, holding up the shuttle service which was waiting back at VWW headquarters for some on our charter to return to port. There atop a beacon in the harbour lane was an Eagle's eyrie or nest. We chugged up slowely but the nest was empty. I got some photos and was content that I had seen an Eagle earlier in the day and nothing could sour the taste in my mouth from what we had seen that day. Then as we were pulling away Joan called out that a Peregrine Falcon had landed on the nest. We wheeled around and drifted back to the nest. There atop a solar panel next to the nest perched the fastest animal on Earth. Forget Cheetah - in a dive these can hit over 200 Miles Per Hour!!! We all looked on snapping photos of the beautiful falcon sat looking down on us. Further down the shipping lane, and I'm a little smug about this, I, yes your humble narrator spotted an Eagle sat atop another beacon.

If the Eagle has eaten it may be quite tolerant of our presence. If it is hungry it may fly off

Joan informed us. We drifted closer and closer. The Eagle barely moved. Completely unperturbed by our presence. We drifted to within 20 metres of the Eagle. "Look, along the rock wall!" Joan exclaimed. Flying low over the wall just above the heads of the gulls was a second Eagle. It's going to dislodge the other one I thought to myself, but no, the Eagle swooped up and gracefully dropped onto the beacon with the other bird. They briefly bowed toward each other in a display of acknowledgement. I was in awe. I couldn't speak for anyone else on the boat because I was just completely lost in the moment, snapping away furiously with my camera. This was it. Everything I had dreamed this trip would be was falling into place in one day. It was just incredible. I'm sorry to sound like a gushing idiot but until you've done it you just can't know how amazing it is. AND IT GOT BETTER!!!

We left the Eagles as we kept getting radio'd, I think the shuttle driver was getting tetchy. We made for port at a good clip and coming into the harbour lane we could see another Eagle sat on the rock wall opposite the catwalks. It was a Juvenile. We were barely 5 metres from it. It raised it's wings as we drew near, an obvious sign it was not comfortable with our presence. Sticking out his neck the juv shuffled around on the spot with his wings raised. As we drifted away he settled again and carried on watching the world go by. I couldn't believe our good fortune. For $140 (about £80) we'd seen 4 Steller's Sea Lions, a bunch of Harbour Porpoise 2 or 3 Sockeye Salmon, 3 Harbour Seals, a pod of 6 Transient Orcas, a Peregrine Falcon and what I believe to be a Bald Eagle breeding pair and their offspring. It's just too perfect to be a coincidence. Nest, Eagles and Juvenile all within 5 minutes of each other!

I'd say 140 bucks is not a bad price for all that in one day, and the experience of riding over waves in a zodiac boat.

We ended our day at the Sockeye Grill and had a seafood dinner, knowing the fish had been caught that morning we couldn't have had fresher, it was also the first time I had proper Root Beer and that topped the greatest, happiest day of my life to date.


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