Frequently Asked Questions on Board our Whale Watching Tours

I have been an onboard biologist for a decade, and over this time, I have answered tens of thousands of questions from people from all over the world, from general interest to nitty-gritty details; from existential musings to truly off-the-wall ideas! There are some questions that I get asked way more than others, which I have answered below. If you are looking for Frequently Asked Questions about our tours, you can visit our website’s FAQ page. The questions below are ones you might be wondering once you’re on the boat! The 12 most frequently asked questions, in no particular order, are:

 

1) How long do killer whales live?

Killer whales in the wild live as long as people do, naturally. Throughout the world, males have an average lifespan of 30-40 years, and females live up to 60-70 years. Our killer whales in British Columbia have similar lifespans: males live 25-30 years, and females up to 50-60 years on average. The oldest killer whale (that we know of) lived in BC and sadly passed away last year. Her name was Granny (J2), and she was at least 80 years old when she passed. According to some records, she may have been as old as 105!

2) Where do killer whales go over the winter?

Killer whales in BC don’t migrate south for the winter like humpback or gray whales do. These larger whales migrate south to have their babies and breed, whereas killer whales don’t have a particular breeding season. Instead, they follow their food. In the case of transient killer whales (also known as Bigg’s killer whales), they move around a lot within their home range, but their range is the same all year. Resident killer whales have a smaller range during the summer when food is concentrated, and that range gets wider over the winter as food gets scarce. That means that you can see killer whales off Victoria year-round, but resident killer whales are more common in the summer.

3) What is the difference between resident and transient (Bigg’s) killer whales?

Around Victoria, we have two distinct populations of killer whale: resident and Bigg’s (transient). It’s very hard to tell a resident from a Bigg’s just by looking at them, but you can tell the difference by the way they act. That’s because they have very different diets: resident killer whales only eat fish (about 95% of their diet is salmon), while Bigg’s killer whales only eat marine mammals, like porpoise, seals, sea lions and even other whale species! Bigg’s killer whales are quiet and stealthy, travelling in small groups that can sneak up on mammalian prey. Resident killer whales travel in larger family groups, called pods, and are generally quite boisterous and vocal.

4) Does anybody hunt whales around here?

There is no commercial whaling on the BC coast, since around 1967. Until then, whaling was big business on this coast. These days, the only whaling that takes place in the Salish Sea is aboriginal whaling by certain First Nations groups, most notably the Makah tribe of northwest Washington State. Whaling is crucial to the culture of our aboriginal people, and the right to harvest whales is rarely – and respectfully – exercised by these tribes. Nobody, as far as I can tell, hunted killer whales on this coast, either commercially or for food. Baleen whales like humpback, sei, blue, and fin whales were the commercial favourites.

5) Where are we going today?

Many people ask me where we will go on our whale-watching trip. The truth is, it is impossible to say until we’re out there. Within the area that our boats can get to and return within our three-hour trips, whales can pop up anywhere. Even if we leave the harbor with a vague idea of where whales are, by the time we get there they may be somewhere else entirely. A typical round trip is about 40-50 nautical miles, but we can travel further to see whales if they are far away. On the other hand, I’ve been out on a three-hour trip only to find whales had come right in next to Victoria harbour! The whales always keep us guessing, so our exact route is hard to predict.

6) Are whales afraid of the boats/are we bothering them?

The short answer is: probably not. The longer answer is that boats are nothing new to whales. The ocean today is full of boats, especially in coastal areas where many of our local whales spend the majority of their lives. Marine mammals habituate to the presence and noise of boats just like people that live in cities habituate to traffic noise and car horns. Like us, whales have a threshold. It’s one thing to have constant traffic noise outside your window, and another thing to have airplanes taking off next door. If the noise gets to be too much, whales change their behavior. Scientists have been watching the behavior of our whales in both the presence and absence of whale watching boats for years, and their conclusion is that, if we keep a certain distance, our impact on their behaviour is minimal. They keep doing what they were doing before we got there, which means we’re not scaring them, and it’s unlikely that they are really perturbed.

7) When/why do they jump?

There is no definitive answer to that. My favourite theory is that whales breach (jump clear out of the water) for a number of reasons. It’s a gesture, like a human waving their hands. We wave our hands when we’re having fun, when we’re in distress, to greet other humans, or to get attention. I think whales breach for all the same reasons, and maybe more. What I do know is that they aren’t doing it to ‘show off’ to people. It is a way of communicating with their own kind, and they do it even when we’re not there. As for when they do it, there is really no way to predict this. They don’t do it as often as the nature documentaries will lead you to believe (a humpback whale weighs 70,000 lbs. They aren’t going to use the energy to launch all that weight out of the water without a good reason). If you are lucky enough to witness a whale breaching, keep your eyes on that whale: they are more likely to do it again after they have done it once.

8) Will they bump the boat?

Never by accident, rarely on purpose, and never with malicious intent. Whales hav   e extremely acute senses: many of them see better than we do underwater and in air, and their hearing is superb. They are aware of us from miles away from the sound of our boat engines. Once or twice in my ten years of whale watching, I have seen whales come up close enough to rub against the hull of a boat. They are always very careful and deliberate when they do this, and the boat barely moves as a result.

9) What’s the difference between a seal and a sea lion?

Seals and sea lions are both marine mammals in the Family Pinnipedia, the ‘fin footed’ animals. Seals are more adapted to life in water: they have sleek, torpedo-shaped bodies, short flippers and hips that are fused in place so that they can propel themselves with their back flippers. On land, seals are awkward and are unable to walk effectively.

Sea lions are more adapted to life on land: they are still excellent swimmers, but they have longer hair and ears that stick out from their heads like a dog’s, and their hips move independently. This means they are less streamlined in the water and not as good at diving to deep depths as seals, but they are better at walking on land.

10) How deep is the water?

Without a depth-sounder right in front of me, this is a difficult question to answer. The Salish Sea is a network of deep, narrow channels and straits that were carved by glaciers during the last ice age, some 15000 years ago. Those deep, narrow channels have lots of little bumps along the bottom. If we drained all the water, it would look like the Grand Canyon: steep, precipitous drop-offs with big columns sticking up in the middle. The deepest areas are about 400 meters (1200 feet) deep, and the shallowest areas are no more than about 20 meters (60 feet) deep. Along the sides of these underwater mountains are some of the best feeding areas for baleen whales. But without looking at a chart, it’s often difficult to tell how much water is under the boat at any given time.

11) How do we keep track of the whales? Are they tagged?

No, we do not use radio or GPS tags on our whales. Attaching tags to them is often a risky and traumatic process, and the tags don’t tend to last long in salt water. We also don’t use spotter planes or land-based observers to find whales. Our best source of whale info is the whale watching fleet itself: every morning, in the busy season, over 200 boats will leave their home harbours and head out on the Salish Sea in search of whales. Before long, every meter of water has been covered, and if there are whales around, somebody has spotted them. We keep each other informed and share information, so everybody gets the sighting reports. As for tracking individual whales, we can recognize them based on their ‘fingerprints’. For humpback whales, their ‘fingerprint’ is the pattern of white spots on their fluke (tail fin); no two whales have the same spots. For killer whales, their dorsal fin (the tall fin on their back) has a unique shape and pattern of scratches and scars that we can use to tell individuals apart. The first person to discover this about killer whales was a BC scientist named Mike Bigg (for whom Bigg’s killer whales were named), and we’ve been using this system for the last fifty years.

12) What’s the coolest/craziest/most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen out here?

I’ve spent a lot of time with marine mammals in the last ten years, in many different places. Some of the most amazing things I’ve seen, have been right here at home: a killer whale mother bringing her newborn calf to check out our boat; a humpback whale rubbing its chin against our hull and floating under the boat for half an hour; a massive and very rare fin whale disguised in a group of feeding humpbacks; a diminutive minke whale breaching among a pod of killer whales. No encounter with whales is boring, and none are typical. Whales are breathtaking creatures, and I am learning something new from them every day.

But the most amazing thing about my job is not the whales: it is the people. The best part of my job is watching people from all over the world, from every walk of life, excited at seeing the whales right here in Victoria. I have seen people burst into tears at the sight of whales. I have answered the detailed and knowledgeable questions of biologists and nature filmographers from around the world, and I’ve educated people who have never seen the ocean before. I have been onboard with foreign dignitaries, celebrities, groups of small children and people whose dying wish was to see a whale. All of them gasp at their first sight of a whale, and all of them have expressed profound wonder at seeing these beautiful animals in the wild. Whales are the great equalizer, by their very nature. And to me, that’s the coolest part of what I do.

 

Kat

Onboard Biologist