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Searching For Killers: Whale Watching on Vancouver Island

“Alright, we’re going to leave J Pod for now and head over to another bay where a group of Biggs Killer Whales are hunting a seal,” our captain, Simon, announced.

I didn’t want to leave the beautiful orcas we were watching, I was so excited to finally see these stunning creatures in the wild. But Simon promised we’re meet up with J Pod again as they fished their way through the gulf islands off the coast of Vancouver Island.

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I was beyond thrilled to be living out a life long dream to see killer whales in the wild. Ever since I watched the movie Free Willy when I was 12 yrs old I’d been fascinated by these ocean giants.

I had arrived in Vancouver a few days before and after a day of biking through Stanley Park and visiting Vancouver’s iconic Kitsilano Beach, I’d jumped on a ferry in Horseshoe Bay, bound for Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. I only had a precious few days to explore both Vancouver and the island so I carefully selected my activities, with whale watching being at the top of the list.

I’d found Ocean Ecoventures online from a google search and they had excellent reviews. Located in Cowichan Bay, just 45 min south of Nanaimo, I knew I could make it there. I’d booked my tour in advance given that it was on a Saturday in the middle of August, which also happened to be prime killer whale watching season.

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Marina in Cowichan bay

After arriving at their office on the main street of cute little Cowichan Bay, and signing the requisite paper work, I had some time to wander the streets (or street). Cowichan Bay is the perfect little town to wander in and out of the gift shops and galleries, and grab some breakfast at the local bakery/ coffee shop.

Soon it was time to regroup back at Ocean Ecoventures headquarters and dawn a survival suit that would keep me warm while the boat was traveling at high speeds. It would also act a life-jacket should the unthinkable happen and I end up in the cold ocean water.

One of the things that attracted me to this company was their small group sizes. We had enough people to fill 2 of their boats but only 11 guests were in each boat. With rows of padded bench seats, everyone was assigned a seat with only 3 people per bench, and just 2 in the front row (as this bench was slightly smaller). I noticed that they could have easily fit a 4th person on each bench but was glad for the extra space.

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Ocean Ecoventures also has a reputation for being environmentally friendly and practice responsible wildlife viewing. They are a member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association and have worked with marine biologists and researchers to develop guidelines for ethical whale watching practices.

The sun was shining bright and hot as we pulled away from the bay, the two boats staying close together with my boat in the lead. As we made our way out into the gulf islands, I enjoyed the beautiful views of the ocean, occasionally seeing a seal pop its head up here and there.

Our captain knew exactly where to go to find the whales and was in constant contact with the captains of other vessels as they shared information. After a good 20-30 min boat ride we slowed down and came to a stop near our first group of whales, J Pod, as they hunted for fish.

J, K and L Pods make up 3 large families of killer whales who live in the waters around Vancouver Island for part of the year. Each pod consists of 20-35 individuals, all related, with “Granny” – a member of J Pod – being the oldest known killer whale at the ripe old age of 104 years old. I saw Granny while on this whale watching tour!

It was such a thrill to see them breaking the surface with their large dorsal fins and poking the tops of their heads out if the water as they took a breath. Simon knew each whale by name, easily identifying them by the white making located on their backs behind their dorsal fin.

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Simon was a wealth of information as he works for a whale research group in the area. After watching J Pod hunt for fish, we made our way through the islands and located a pod of transient Biggs Killer Whales who were hunting a seal. Simon informed us that only recently, Biggs Killer Whales had been classified as a separate species from the more common Killer Whale. Biggs Killer Whales had genetically branched off from killer whales long ago and are now considered a separate species.

Though you can’t tell the difference between the 2 species simply by looking at them, they each have their own distinct characteristics. For one, Killer Whales hunt only fish while Biggs Killer Whales only hunt mammals such as seals, porpoises, sea lions, dolphins and even other whales. They don’t appear to use ecolocation nearly as much as the traditional killer whales either. This is due to the fact that they hunt other mammals who use ecolocation so they must be silent and stealthy in order to locate and capture their prey. Since they are more transient, they also travel in much smaller groups than resident killer whales.

Biggs Killer Whales

Biggs Killer Whales

Biggs Killer Whales are also called transient whales as they never stay in one location for very long, like J, K and L Pod do. It was pure luck that the Biggs Killer Whales happened to be around the same area as J Pod the day I went whale watching. Simon also explained that neither groups of whales seem to care or bother with each other, so there’s no territorial disputes when the Biggs Killer Whales show up.

We observed the Biggs Killer Whales for about 30 min before moving on to see what J Pod and K Pod were up to. The 4 hours we spent out on the ocean flew by as we watched a total of 70-80 killer whales hunt. We also saw harbor seals hanging out on rock islands beside sea birds and simply enjoyed the incredible landscape.

I had been looking forward to seeing killer whales in the wild and I was not disappointed on returning to Cowichan Bay in the late afternoon. This was my third time whale watching but the first time I saw killer whales (I guess third times a charm!). I returned to the city of Vancouver elated, knowing that putting in the extra effort to get to Vancouver Island was definitely worth it.

Have you ever been whale watching?  

Where and what type of whales did you see?

 

 

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