The west coast of British Columbia is home to thousands of marine and terrestrial wildlife, and spans almost 1000 kilometers of fertile coastline and temperate rain forest from Victoria on Vancouver Island to the border of Alaska. But for many people, even those who live their entire lives in this beautiful stretch of wilderness, few things compare to witnessing whales and orca in their natural habitat.
Wild Whales, owned and operated by Roger Obayashi, and staffed by a number of knowledgeable biologists and naturalists, is the only dedicated whaling tour operating in Vancouver. Conveniently located on Granville Island, they have several different tours that leave daily, including open-air and covered jet boats. The open-air is definitely the way to go if one’s feeling adventurous – not only is it thrilling to be exposed to the elements, but it gives a much more “organic” feel to the experience as the boat skips across the waves of the Georgia Strait and navigates through the many labyrinthine archipelagos and islands that make up geography of the Gulf Islands (from Pender Island all the way down to the San Juan islands, there’s almost 400 different islands ranging in size and shape).
However, although they equip travelers with very comfortable and water-proof anti-exposure suits, it’s a good idea to bring several warm under-layers if the weather looks iffy, and if it’s sunny don’t forget the sun-screen. Also keep in mind that the closer travelers are the front of the boat, the more they’ll feel the thump of the waves, and the more likely they are to get a face full of ocean spray (although, if you’re like me, that’s half the fun).
As much as it’s advertised as “whale watching,” there’s a lot more to the experience – the naturalist who acts as the guide is also a wealth of information regarding the history and landscape of the area, other sea life in the area, and offers their own personal anecdotes about living and studying marine life. For instance, the difference between transient and resident orca pods, and the fact that whales stay with their pods for life, often times hunting other smaller prey in packs like wolves.
When the boat does finally come across one of the three resident orca pods in the region – popularly known as “killer whales” – it will be well worth the wait, and enough to elicit “ooohs” and “aaahs” from everyone on board. Because they’re mammals they require air, and will breach the surface with their slick black dorsal fins, sometimes slapping their flukes on the water or popping their heads up to take a look around. They’re graceful undulating forms belong to a species that have, like wolves, endured a fallacious reputation as ‘murderous killers’ – they are hunters, but many people are surprised by their generally docile behavior, and Wild Whales takes its role as facilitators to educate guests on all aspects of orca behavior.
This includes the fact that, unlike baleen species (like humpback and blue whales who have plates they used to strain krill), orca have actual teeth. Sightings of them differ from day to day because they can travel great distances – their maximum speed can be in excess of 50 kilometers per hour. However, Wild Whales is a devoted partner of the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) that enforces a strong philosophy and practice of respecting orcas in their natural habitat, limiting contact to an hour at a time and always staying at least 100 meters back.
It is one thing to see these creatures in an aquarium, which offers its own advantages in terms of being able to learn from and study them – however it is quite another thing to observe them in their natural habitat where they can roam freely. It is no wonder that they have inspired the First Nations people of Canada and the United States for millennia in their arts and mythology, and through the efforts of conservation organization and other programs designed to increase public awareness, hopefully they will continue to inspire future generations.