We hunched shoulder-to-shoulder awkwardly trying to steady “Jell-O” legs on the cramped vessel while dutifully scanning the ocean. The nine of us, decked out from head to toe in screaming orange one-piece jumpsuits, must have had tourist written all over.
“Scan the horizon for movement,” Jason, our certified naturalist and boat operator called out. You can’t miss ‘em; their top fin will come about six feet out of the water.” The blue-green waters gently lapped alongside our rocking 25-foot boat, but yielded nothing.
In addition to the grey and humpback whales we were searching for, here resident pods (families) of orcas – killer whales – also live year-round in the straits surrounding Victoria, British Columbia.
Of the three types of orcas, with each group behaving differently, according to researchers, best known are the northern resident orcas. During the summer months, whale-watching enthusiasts routinely see this species off Vancouver Island. Whale researchers also tell us that orcas are very social creatures. Jason concurred, telling me he often could coax them to play and swim alongside the boat.
On the move again and now well past the breakwaters of Victoria, the Juan de Fuca Straits burst upon us. As we rounded the bend, straits, channels and peninsulas darted off in all directions. Breathless with adrenaline pumping into overdrive, we searched and scanned whitecaps, coastlines; anything and everything in the near distance for any hint of movement.
“What’s that off to the left?” I excitedly asked while pointing a determined finger out to sea.
“Looks like an old salmon fishing boat,” Jason chuckled.
Whale-watching off Vancouver Island near Victoria, B.C. has become one of the most popular must-do activities for visitors to the area.
The chilly water temperature (it averages 45 degrees year-round) and nutrient-rich sea is abundant with salmon. And salmon just happen to be a whale’s first choice for a dinner entrée. In addition to the magnificent and once feared orca, the waters surrounding Vancouver Island feature a variety of marine wildlife including porpoise, dolphins, harbor seals, sea lions, eagles and a variety of sea birds.
Prime time for Pacific Northwest whale watching is June through August when whales follow schools of migrating salmon through scenic straits and island channels.
Whale-watching reservations are required and trips can be booked through a variety of companies, most headquartered out of the Victoria Marine Adventure Centre on the Inner Harbour downtown. Most tours, except during the fall and winter, are three hours long.
Some companies offer an “optional whale sighting guarantee”. They alert you when sightings are 100 percent. Available May through August only, when sightings peak, this is advertised as a money-back guarantee.
Watercraft are well equipped with radar, depth sounders, radio and cellular communications, and underwater acoustic listening systems to guarantee sightings of not only whales, but also dolphins and porpoise.
Over the centuries, whales have been feared as supernatural beings, hunted as commercial products, cheered and applauded for as marine land performers, and respected as the majestic wonders that they are. Their legacy has endured, as man has understood more and developed an appreciative relationship with nature’s most magnificent creatures.
The fascination and thrill of witnessing these aquatic mammals play in their natural habitat must truly be a sight to be seen. Unfortunately on this picture-perfect day in early August, our group saw only breathtaking scenery spanning 93 miles of cold water.