Canada

(Killer) Whale watching on Vancouver Island, Ca.

We woke up early to make our way to Telegraph Cove, a port town on the northern part of Vancouver Island. Here, a boat was waiting for us to take us out on the ocean for a couple of hours. Ever since watching Free Willy, it had been my dream to sail the waters that killer whales call home. The tour guides, who were all marine biologists and researchers, welcomed us and told us what to expect from the upcoming trip. To create more realistic expectations, they explained that there had been no sightings of orcas for a while now, but that we were likely to spot some sea lions and dolphins. I was worried, as this would be our one and only chance to see orcas – we would soon leave Victoria Island and travel away from the coast, deeper into British Columbia. Then, just ten minutes after the boat’s departure, the captain received a signal from one of the fishing boats out on the ocean…

They had encountered a number of orcas during their expedition and tried to navigate us to their exact location. Soon we were heading to the given place. We sat on the outside deck and despite different layers of thick sweaters, we were shivering to the bone. All but one: my boyfriend sure was in his element. He has an unhealthy relationship with cold weather (in my humble opinion) and stood like a real sailer with legs astride, on the far end of the boat. The wind blowing through his hair. I had brought a blanket with me and wrapped it around my mother and myself.  Feeling somewhat warmer, we could enjoy the magnificent view of the wild ocean water and soon enough a rock full of seals appeared next to us. Just when I realised that I would probably be a seal if I had been born an animal – lazing around in the sunshine all day suits me well – our attention was caught by a spray of water shooting out of the ocean’s surface. This proved to be produced by a humpback whale. These marine mammals are so gigantic that you cannot help but scream ‘Woo-hoo!’ every time you see them leap out of the water. My boyfriend screamed so loud once, that he had everyone on the boat laughing. I don’t think he even noticed, because suddenly dozens of dolphins emerged from the water and started jumping acrobatically within the personal space of the humpback whale. Apparently, these dolphins like to bully and play with the whales, ‘just for fun’, because they can.

Shortly after we saw the black fins of the killer whales make their appearance. They belonged to a whole orca family of no less than 14 members. At some point, we did not know which side to look at anymore; we had humpbacks on our left, orcas on our right and jumping dolphins in the middle, who also happened to like to play in the waves of our boat. We approached the orcas. Three of them swam towards us and we got a close-up look of their black skin and white bellies.

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In the distance, we noticed some other black dots. We could not distinguish what these dots were but assumed them to be some type of birds. I am not a big bird-fan personally, but apparently we had already seen one extremely rare bird, as well as a bald eagle, America’s national emblem. These however, were not birds, but kayakers who were making their way over towards us. The orcas also noticed, and in turn lifted their heads out of the water, to keep a close eye on their new company. It was a spectacular sight,  seeing those white heads show up, but at the same time we were holding our breath for those people out there. The orcas swam right along the kayakers. I believe that if they had stretched out their arms, they could have literally touched the whales. If I had been inside one of those kayaks at that time, I would probably have had some sort of heart failure, but I am sure that these people were also getting the experience of a life time.

We were so glued to the activities of the orcas, that we at first failed to notice that a humpback whale was approaching our boat as well. With the sound of a splash, we all turned around and saw that the whale dove down and disappeared right underneath out boat. Immediately, the captain turned off the engine. One of the guides told us that the whale was agitated because the dolphins kept bothering him. She seemed far from anxious and was simply excited about what just happened. She told us we were extremely lucky and that’s exactly how we felt. Especially because one of the other people on the boat told us that he had been on this trip before and had not seen any orcas or whales. Someone else told us that he had previously only caught a glimpse of a fin in the far distance. For me, a dream came true that day. If I ever need to make a career switch, I might just move to Telegraph Cove and join the marine team.

On the way back, we also saw some sea-lions. Apparently the biggest in the world – larger than grizzly bears. We further received an informative presentation about all the animals we had seen in those 3 to 3.5 hours we had been out on sea. We learned that each orca family has its own language and that different families cannot communicate with one another. The role of the head of the family is always fulfilled by one of the grandmothers, even though male orcas grow much larger (imagine, their fin is on average 1.80 meters all by itself). Female orcas however become a lot older – they live up to 80 years of age, whereas most male orcas die around the age of 30. We were told that this is because of the toxins in the water. Female orcas can get rid of the toxins in their body by excreting it through the breast milk they feed to their babies. Male orcas can never dispose of these poisonous substances, which leads to their tragic premature deaths. They ended the presentation on a positive note though; because of a growing level of environmental awareness, the number of whales in these waters has increased from 10 to 70 in only a few years. Let’s hope this is just the start!

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