I watched the video on my phone and posted it to my Facebook page at least two dozen times in the day or so after recording it.
The video shows a family of three Bigg’s killer whales, also known as orcas or transients, moving in a close trio, surfacing in unison as they approach our small open boat in the Strait of Georgia. The whales glide and dive a few feet from the boat until those on board – including me – realize they are going to swim right under us. They do so and then emerge on the other side, make a turn and continue on their way.
You can hear me in the video exclaiming in a high-pitched, shaky voice. If I hadn’t been sheathed in a heavy floating safety suit, I’m sure I could have seen the hairs on my arms supporting it. It was incredible.
While I’m glad to have the video proof (by the third hour of the boat tour some of the half dozen other passengers on board had run out of battery), I don’t think I’ll ever shake this sight of my memory for the rest of my life.
And I never thought I would be so moved by a whale watching boat trip. (“As, never“, to borrow from Taylor Swift’s first pop foray.)
The four-hour tour was led by Ocean EcoVentures from Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island. The small, family-owned company offers several tours, focusing on Southern Resident orcas, transient orcas, humpback whales, gray whales and minke whales, as well as seals, birds and more.
In fact, Ocean EcoVentures claims they produce the most killer whale sightings of any tour group operating on Vancouver Island. That’s quite a promise!
Before boarding the Zodiac with my son, five other riders, Captain Gary Sutton and another staff member/whale enthusiast doing tracking on his day off, I hadn’t given much thought to whale watching. whales. Booked on the tour as part of the “fam” (short for familiarization) tour in the Cowichan area organized for me by several tourist entities, I found myself scrambling to get to the Ocean EcoVentures offices at the hour after our lunch nearby went over the scheduled time. We had driven the block so fast that I hadn’t even had a chance to stop at the car to get our bottle of sunscreen. due to COVID era safety protocols the travel company cannot share sunscreen with forgetful people like me. Pro tip courtesy of my now peeling sunburn: never forget the sunscreen!
Speaking of COVID-19 precautions, there are a number of measures in place at Ocean EcoVentures. Masks are mandatory on board the zodiac, as the rows are close together and do not allow physical distancing. The distance is imposed during check-in, as well as on the dock when you put on and take off your flotation suit. These combinations are fallow for a full 48 hours between uses. Use of hand sanitizer is required upon check-in and is available at all times.
Sutton, who led our tour, is not just a captain and guide, but a whale seeker who helps track marine mammals in the area. He photographs all sightings and can identify whales by their markings.
He is also a source of knowledge and has a lot of background knowledge and information to share about orcas and whales, not just in BC, but around the world. He even played us a recording on his cell phone of a man vocalizing his “whale song” which he recorded while diving. Sutton also knows precisely which whales we are looking at by lineage and official name (for example, it was the T100C, T100E and T100F that appeared and under our Zodiac).
Our journey began from scenic Cowichan Bay on a day when enthusiasts, like Sutton, were talking enthusiastically about the possibility of whales being close to shore and the area’s marina. It is not uncommon for Bigg’s killer whales to hug the shoreline when in search of food, although it is rare to see them so close to boats and docks. Rather than scooting out into the open water, we kicked things off by driving more leisurely close to the dock and quickly spotted the first group of orcas we were to observe.
This group was led by T065B, 27, who was patrolling the bay with her two children in search of seals.
Bigg’s killer whales will dive and stay underwater for about five minutes, then surface – with a puff from their blowhole – a handful of times in a row. We tracked T065B and her children quite a ways up the coast from Cowichan Bay, furiously snapping our cameras and cellphones at every surface.
Because tour operators keep in touch with their colleagues who are also on the water in the area at the same time, Sutton learned that there was another group of orcas closer to the mainland. Conditions were great, so we raced to where the Fraser River meets the Strait of Georgia, passing several of the southern gulf islands along our way. It’s hard to imagine that while vacationing on Vancouver Island, we suddenly found ourselves pointing to the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal, where our trip had started the day before. It was the strangest feeling to be so close to home but in another world, almost, entirely.
The water was glassy and the sun high in the sky – although the smog hanging over Metro Vancouver was a bit of a pain. I had no idea how special we were until Sutton told us how important and rich the ecosystem of the Strait of Georgia is. According to the Georgia Strait Alliance, it “is among the most biologically productive marine ecosystems in the world, providing critical habitat for a wide diversity of fish, marine mammals, invertebrates, shorebirds, and marine plants.”
We joined several other whale watching teams as we circled around where the orcas were diving. Sure enough, we spotted T100C, T100E and T100F and stared at them for a while with the engine off. That’s when they turned towards our boat and went under and around – and I was amazed. Finding out how these whales live, move around the world, hunt, mate and survive has been an eye opener for me.
Back on the water, our tour wasn’t over yet – we were also on the lookout for a few humpback whales in the area, and spotted them a few minutes later. They are massive and majestic creatures. Humpback whales are migratory and are also the largest whales you will find in the waters off Vancouver and Vancouver Island. Seriously, they’re big – they average between 50,000 and 80,000 pounds. Of course, when you spot them (you puny human, you!) aboard a whale-watching boat, what you see on the surface as they dive, ripple, and smack the water is not only flashes of their fins.
Watching these whales move through the water so close to us was unforgettable and very moving.
And then we had to move because our trip had taken us so far from Cowichan Bay that we had to make our way back, only stopping to visit some Steller sea lions sunning themselves dozing off Galiano and Valdes islands . It was a nice walk back, passing the flanks of forested islands with the summer sun streaming down on us. British Columbia is a beautiful and special place.
I returned to the dock forever changed. Not only have I instantly become the person who wants to tell you about that time I went whale watching, but also because I now have a deep appreciation for the incredible whales that roam our waters and the work that is constantly done to protect their.
Ocean EcoVentures returned to the waters this spring after pausing in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can find out more about their half-day and full-day public tours and private charters here.