It’s funny; I grew up on an island where the waters are rich with marine life and yet I’ve always longed to go whale watching.  It’s not uncommon to see whales off Orkney; at least once a year, a buzz will go about town that orcas have been spotted, and people will flock to the shorelines with their cameras ready.  Despite this, I seem to have been perpetually unlucky over the years.  The largest thing I’ve encountered is a rogue basking shark, which was pretty cool I’ll admit, but not quite the same.  By the time we reached the Canadian border during our 2013 travels, we were pretty broke.  Despite this, one thing was certain; even if it meant we had to sustain ourselves on maple syrup alone for the next month, we had to go whale watching.

11There are lots of companies which organize excursions from Vancouver.  We decided to go with one called Seabreeze Adventures, partly because it was affordable, but also because it was a smaller family run business, and from experience, these are often the most enjoyable.  We were picked up from the city centre along with around ten others and driven an hour to the gorgeous little fishing village of Steveston, where we were met by the crew and given cups of coffee to counteract the bitterly cold morning.

“If anyone requires tablets for motion sickness, now would be the time to take them”, they smiled, though something told me they were probably not joking.

As we set off from the harbour, we were given proper introductions to the crew, and it quickly became evident how much they loved their jobs, and how greatly they respected the local marine life.  They explained that their method for tracking the whales came partly down to knowledge and experience, but mostly down to instinct.  They had never used bait or netting, and would always stay a respectful distance away from the pods, so as to disrupt their natural behaviour as little as possible.  Obviously, this meant that sightings were not guaranteed, but it was a risk that most people were happy to take.  There was an informal agreement between other local boats in the area that a radio call should be put out if any sightings were made, and there was something incredibly infectious about the excitement the crew shared, despite this being their everyday job.

Our enthusiasm grew as we passed through mouth of the Fraser River and into the Gulf of Georgia; already, we had encountered sea lions sunbathing on the rocks and bald eagles circling majestically above.  There was even mention of a humpback whale which had been sighted in the area.  The scenery too was incredible, as we sped past lush green islands and the sun – which had now decided to make an appearance – bounced off the water, casting thousands of golden gems across the horizon.  Standing out on deck was definitely a bracing experience, and took me right back to the ferry rides of my childhood days.

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Eventually, we pulled in to a sheltered bay, where we were grateful for a hot cup of tea as the crew tried to determine the next best move.  No word had come in yet of any sightings, and this, we were told, was where instinct played its part.  Unfortunately, an hour had passed and we were not having any luck.  The captain steered us through several areas where orcas were known to pass through, but all to no avail.  The crew did their very best to keep our spirits up, and yet with the weather turning and the sun retreating behind thick, dull clouds we became increasingly convinced that the experience was just not meant to be.  With apologetic looks, the crew began to turn the ship around to make the long trip back to shore.  Then, as if on cue, the radio crackled into life; whales had been spotted – the game was on.

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It didn’t take long to figure out where the whales were; by this time, several boats had heard about the sightings and had gathered at the spot where the call had come in. We stood out on deck, waiting, hoping, that we would catch at least a quick glimpse of the orcas. We had no idea just how lucky we were going to be. Circling playfully beneath the water was a large pod of orcas, their colossal dorsal fins flashing between the surface of the water and the depths below. Occasionally, a whale would rise out of the water, just long enough for us to see the arch of its back and get an impression of its size; it’s hard to fathom just how large these creatures are until you see them in the flesh. They’re also incredibly beautiful, with their sleek black frames contrasting so perfectly with their bright, white, bellies.

I was also struck by how playful the whales were; as promised, our boat – and the other companies too – had stayed a respectful distance away, and turned off its engine to avoid distressing the whales. Despite this, they seemed very interested in humans, and kept coming over to check us out. We had been told that orcas especially love to show off, and this pod were no exception, as they demonstrated their agility and flapped their impressive tail fins on the surface of the water. I have to admit, I was so transfixed just watching their display that I barely took any photographs. I did, however, manage to capture this beauty as one of the larger fellas breached right in front of the boat:

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The whales were definitely aware that they had our attention and teased us relentlessly; every so often, they would disappear under water and wait until they heard the engines starting up again before surprising us and leaping out of the water right by the boat.   Sometimes, they came so close it shook the whole hull and cast a spray over the  deck.

I can’t remember how long we stayed there watching the whales but it must have been a pretty long time as my fingers were so numb they could barely move. We had been threatened with rain all day, and now it seemed that the clouds were no longer on our side; with the gloomy weather fast moving in, it was time to head back to Steveston and reflect upon the experience we had just shared. Despite the weather, the atmosphere on board the boat was electric. Even the staff, who did this every day, were enthralled by what they had seen.

“That’s the thing about this job,” they laughed. “It’ll never fail to take your breath away!” Lucky gits.

By the time we got back to shore we were exhausted but incredibly happy. To have fulfilled one of my life ambitions was one thing, but to be treated to such a show, and to come so close to the whales themselves was beyond what I could ever have expected. The experience would not have been possible had it not been for Seabreeze Adventures, who from start to finish were friendly, professional and, most importantly, ethical. It was brilliant to see how much they cared about the whales, and we genuinely got the impression that their company was orientated more towards educating the public than making money.

As it stands, there’s a lot of debate about whether Canada’s killer whales should be considered an endangered species or not. Wild salmon are an important part of their diet, but are also an important part of British Colombia’s economy, and it doesn’t take much to work out the effect that increased levels of fishing will have on resident whales. Similarly, the whales are also exposed to increasingly high levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and oceanic traffic. It’s terrible to think of the effect that we as humans are causing, and will probably continue to cause. Just one afternoon in their presence was enough to show me just how intelligent and incredibly captivating these creatures are, and how important it is to preserve their natural habitat while we still can.

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If you’re interested in learning more about Canada’s killer whales and the threats they face, check out the Canadian Wildlife Federation website, which has great information about conservation strategies, and offers the opportunity to donate.

You can also adopt a whale through the Vancouver Aquarium Cetacean Research Program!

About The Author

A twenty-something-year-old with a penchant for travel and a never-ending supply of terrible puns.

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