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A quest to see Canada’s orcas in the wild

A quest to see Canada’s orcas in the wild

Posted by Juan Gavasa on December 23, 2014

I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. This is exactly why I’d come to British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait – to find killer whales.

My first wildlife memories are of visits to Moose Jaw's Wild Animal Park, a now-closed collection of small concrete enclosures and pony rides 50km from Saskatchewan’s capital, Regina, and 2,000km from the west coast. The experiences offered a window to another world, and I was so moved, I spent my childhood role-playing as an animal trainer. But I’d since learned animals need bigger cages and tanks, or none at all.

The plight of killer whales, in particular, gained renewed attention in 2013 with the release of the documentary Blackfish. The film criticized the treatment of captive orcas at United States’ SeaWorld parks and prompted protests over the whales’ well-being and the safety of trainers. Stock prices dropped, along with attendance at the parks. SeaWorld, meanwhile, announced plans to nearly double the size of the orcas’ tank in San Diego.

Orca in Johnstone Strait. (John E Marriott/Getty)

I came here to the birthplace of western Canadian whale watching to see how viewing orcas in the wild might compare to an aquarium’s front-row seats. Roughly 250 Northern Resident orcas reside in the waters near northern Vancouver Island, eating salmon and growing up to 9m long. Another 250 Biggs killer whales also pass through the area, feeding on a steady diet of marine mammals. Whale sightings are common, and now, perhaps because of a boom in harbour seal and Pacific white-sided dolphin populations, sightings of orca hunts – though still rare – are occurring with greater frequency.

I joined five others aboard the MV Gikumi, a converted tugboat, on Orcella Expeditions’ five-day exploration in the teeming waters east of north Vancouver Island – an area Orcella refers to as Blackfish Archipelago that includes the 110km-long Johnstone Strait. Our captain was Jim Borrowman, who has no fewer than three decades of experience tracking orcas in these waters.

Biggs orca off Malcolm Island. (Jim Borrowman)

As our boat glided through the strait’s choppy waters, I heard the orcas before I saw them. The blows sounded like muffled gunshots. Then I saw a dorsal fin, and the orca’s inky-black hide broke the surface, a bubbling wake at its head. Its blowhole spray shot into the air. Adrenaline coursed through me. A fellow passenger shrieked. A Swiss photographer began muttering, his voice betraying deep awe.

Borrowman pointed out a distinctive pale-grey saddle patch behind the dorsal fin and identified the orca as one he sees frequently: a 43-year-old male known as A38. Each local whale has been photographed and classified by matriline, or a family of whales descended from a matriarch. In the case of A38, he stayed with his mother until she died, relying on her superior fishing skills for sustenance. In fact, all Northern Resident male orcas stick closely to their mothers. So strong are the family bonds that a male orca has a 14 times greater chance of dying in the year after his mother dies because of his struggle to feed himself.

As the whales got closer, we saw the 17 members of the A30 and A42 matrilines swimming in small groups, their rapid back and forth movements hinting that they might be on the hunt. A humpback whale that had been feeding nearby squealed and slapped its tail, sidling up to our boat.

A breaching humpback off Vancouver Island. (Carol Patterson)

Jackie Hildering of the Marine Education and Research Society, a guest naturalist on board, explained that the baleen whale was trying to intimidate the orcas to avoid being attacked, since Biggs orcas kill humpbacks. But luckily for the larger whale, the nearby orcas were Northern Residents that eat fish, not other whales.

As we kicked back on the top deck for lunch, the orcas moved languidly in a tight group near the surface. Deckhand Bruce Paterson said they were resting, or as close to sleep as whales get. Unlike humans, whales must consciously remember to breath and rest by shutting down one brain hemisphere at a time – a fact humans know from studying cetaceans in captivity, he said.

The scene at Telegraph Cove. (Carol Patterson).

That night, we camped near the boat in Telegraph Cove. I poured a glass of wine, admired the neat, crayon-coloured houses dotting the wooden boardwalk, and chatted with other campers. I had trouble believing we could top the day’s sightings, but I was game to try.

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