Orca Watching in Canada

Just outside Steveston Village, south of Vancouver, I sat in a zodiac boat full of 12 people looking for Orcas. I was aprehensive that we wouldn’t see any, telling my boyfriend Alan that if we did see some, I’d cry, and if we didn’t, the result would be the same (he hoped we would so he wouldn’t have to deal with my negative waterworks). I didn’t have to worry: my first sight of the mysterious Blackfish was one leaping out of the water about 50 metres from us.

This was going to be a good day.

You may have seen from my post Riding Elephants, Cuddling Tigers & Swimming with Dolphins…? that I love animals (the legend that is David Attenborough was a very early influence). A section of that post talks about Orcas (aka Killer Whales), an animal I particularly love… although admittedly a lot of animals fall into this category.

But why do I insist on calling them Orcas, not Killer Whales?

Ok, so it’s time I warn you that this post could get pretty ‘geeky’ – but I don’t care, because everyone should embrace their geeky qualities (it makes us a bit different, after all).

The answer is three-fold:

1) The name is misleading and comes from the observation of Orcas killing whales rather than Orcas being whales that kill. Regardless, not all Orcas eat whales.

2) As most people think the latter, they then also think that Orcas are whales. They’re not: they’re actually a species of dolphin. Doesn’t that make them seem immediately cuter?

3) I just don’t like it… makes them sound vicious when actually, they’re pretty peaceful.

So when Alan and I decided to go to Vancouver, I started researching ways to see Orca. I wanted to see them in the wild – no chance you’ll ever see me at a SeaWorld, partly down to the well-known documentary, Blackfish (seriously, watch it).

Their season in this part of the world is when the salmon are around, typically April to October. I had heard that July and August were the best months, so August it was. Originally, I wanted to do a kayaking trip, but the percentage of seeing Orcas isn’t great, and we didn’t have time for a 3-5 day trip which would give you a bigger chance. I also didn’t want to be in a massive boat; I wanted to be as close to the water as possible, as close to their experience as I could be.

That’s when I came across Vancouver Whale Watch. They did zodiac boats of 12 people – a boat so small, you needed to be given onesies to keep you dry as the boat powered through the waves. Saying I could feel every wave is not an understatement: if you suffer from sea sickness, this would be hell on earth. Sometimes it was smooth, bouncing up and down in sync with the waves… but if you hit the crest of a wave on the boat’s way down (yep, it was airbourne a fair bit), it was as hard as rock and sent a jolt throughout the body.

I’m pulling this off, right? Please tell me I’m pulling it off.

It was all wort it though. After we saw that leaping Orca, we were inundated with them. They were foraging at the time – i.e. hunting – so they were really active and popping up from all directions. It was interesting to wonder what was going on under the water, especially when we could hear some of their squeals to each other with the microphone submerged beneath the surface.

I’d catch my breath every time I saw a dorsal fin heading in our direction, willing it to come closer (while also reminding myself that this isn’t a shark fin, so stop playing the Jaws theme in my head). In the span of about 30 seconds, there was a splash from the other side of the boat. We all whirled around and saw an Orca going back into the water after it slapped its pectoral fin (or, its equivalent to an arm/hand) on the surface very close to us. I could still see its outline and the water rippling.

My side of the boat had its luck next when a fin appeared first on the other side and then disappeared… the Orca was now under our boat. I darted my eyes around, hoping it would surface near to us, when I caught those prominent white markings through the algae-green tint of the sea. It was drifting effortlessly on its side, maybe even watching us. I was in a state of complete happiness and awe, grateful that there was nobody infront of me to obscure the view of an Orca only a metre or two from my own face.

As strange and fairytale-ish as it sounds, being around Orcas all day does feel sort of magical. I remember the introduction to Blackfish talking about how they’re spiritual animals to Native Americans, so I read up on it. I love ancient legends and mythologies: when I was little, my favourite part of history was the Egyptians, and when I was older, I was submersed in the stories of Australian Aborigines involving Uluru as we toured around the base of it at sunrise.

So let me tell you the Tlingit tribe’s story on the creation of the Orca…

Natsilane was a skilled wood carver and married the Chief’s daughter. He joined their tribe and was well loved… but the three eldest of his brothers-in-law were jealous of his carving and hunting skills, so decided to plot against him. The youngest brother protested but the eldest wouldn’t be deterred. They took Natsilane out for a sea lion hunt, but the waves were rough, and after Natsilane speared a sea lion, the brothers abandoned him on an island with no food or water. The sea lion escaped and Natsilane, hurt and stung by the actions of his supposed family, was stranded.

Not knowing what to do, he slept, but was woken by a sea lion who summoned him beneath the surface… he took him to the Chief sea lion’s house, who asked for Natsilane to help his injured son. It was the sea lion Natsilane had speared earlier. After some effort, Natsilane helped and healed the Chief sea lion’s son, and the Chief was so grateful he gave Natsilane special powers and safely took him back to the shore of his tribe.

Still hurt, Natsilane wanted revenge on the brothers-in-law, so started carving a  big black fish, like nothing anyone had seen before. The first two carvings failed, but the third, made from yellow cedar and flawless in its carving, came to life as Natsilane placed him in the ocean. He instructed it to go and kill the brothers, sparing the youngest… which is what the blackfish did. He capsized their canoe and killed the eldest brothers, leaving the youngest to swim to shore and tell the tale. But Natsilane felt guilty… he felt awfully about what he had done, and asked the blackfish to never harm a human again, but help them instead. The tribe would find freshly caught sea lions or halibut on the shore, gifts from the blackfish, and realised that this was Natsilane’s doing. He and the blackfish became legends, and the blackfish was adopted as the Tlingit tribe’s crest.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty lovely, and shows how Native Americans know Orcas not to hurt humans – something that is underrated today: in the wild, an Orca has never harmed a human – only in captivity (which I think tells you something).

If you ever want to see Orcas (which I couldn’t recommend more), do it in the wild on a boat or kayak trip. Seeing them go about their own thing, leaping and breaching when they want, swimming miles on end and interracting with each other is so special. They’re graceful creatures and despite how close we were, I did not for a second feel in any danger whatsoever. Even the chase to catch up with the whales was fun – from what I could tell, they didn’t mind us at all. I imagine them either rolling their eyes or bemused at our interest. Fine by me, as long as they get to do what they like.



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