Killer whales – up close and personal

Killer whales – up close and personal
Parksville, Canada

Parksville, Canada


Any trip where you have to wear a survival suit just has to be fun.

It all started at breakfast this morning. Kirsty is looking a little concerned. “You remember how I said we were giving you both a luxury whale watching trip for your birthdays?” “Yep, we’re really looking forward to it.” “Well, there’s a slight problem. I must have clicked the wrong box, so you’re actually booked on the eco whale adventure tour instead.” “Woohoo!!” “Oh, and the whales are actually orcas, you know, killer whales.” “Sounds great!” “And, you’ll be in inflatable boats.”

So, here we are at Cowichan Bay, getting briefed on cold-water survival tactics. We’re in a line of excited adventurers, waiting to receive our survival suits. Our “Captain” looks each passenger up and down, then pulls a mass of material from the huge orange pile. “If worn correctly, these suits will keep you floating upright and warm if we capsize in the freezing channels we’ll be crossing today.” I sort of wonder what happens if the suit isn’t worn correctly, but keep the question to myself.

As we divide up into boats, I notice that one passenger on each boat has a red and black suit, rather than the usual orange. “Oh, that’s just a trick we do to make sure that the Orcas come in real close. They can’t see real far and they just love seals.” Nanette looks at her ill-fitting red and black suit. “He’s kidding isn’t he?”

Time to pile into our zodiac boats. One passenger mentions he is prone to seasickness. “No problem. These boats are really fast. If you sit at the back you can be sick all you want and nobody will ever know.” We get one more quick briefing to warn us that the boats really are really fast – really, and we’re off. It all seems pretty tame, then the “Captain” announces he’s about to go to light speed. Cute name, it’s probably just ….. Woohoo!! For a minute, I can’t see a thing. I realise my eyelids have blown inside out and my eyes, nose and mouth are all streaming. With some effort, we don our sunglasses and pull up the hoods of our survival suits. The pre-launch briefing didn’t quite cover securing the drawstrings while travelling at Mach 2, but we sort of manage after a few tries and a couple of near choking deaths.

After about forty minutes of high speed thrill we finally reach the orca feeding grounds. Ironically, it’s just off-shore from the ferry terminal where we left the mainland last Monday. Maybe it’s the left-over adrenalin from the boat-ride, but everyone gasps in awe when a huge triangular black fin bursts from the waves about a hundred metres away. Then another, and another. For the next hour or so, we swivel back and forth in our seats trying to look in every direction at once. We are right in the middle of the feeding ground of a pod of about sixty orcas. There are enormous solitary males, and little groups of females, sometimes with young calves in tow. As usual, my work with the little camera is pretty useless as the whales pop up and then dive again at all sorts of unexpected places. Nanette manages a few great shots on her iphone, but we agree that sitting in a twenty-foot open boat watching thirty-foot killer whales hunt all around you is one of those things you just have to experience for first-hand.

(Editor’s note: since first writing this post, our “Captain” has sent us some pics he took on the day.  I’ve added these to the mosaic below.  Thanks Captain Dave)

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