The Ocean around Victoria and Vancouver Island teems with wildlife! Watch for friendly migrating Humpback Whales slapping their flippers and showing off their flashy flukes. You might see a majestic Minke Whale silently surfacing, or spot a family of Orca on the horizon. Aboard the Marauder IV? Eyes forward: you might just catch a glimpse of Dall’s Porpoise riding our bow wave!
Members of the Dolphin family, Orcas (also known as Killer Whales) can measure nearly ten meters in length and weigh up to six tons. These apex predators can consume up to 500 lbs of food every day. They use echolocation to hunt, emitting a series of clicks and whistles to determine the size, shape, speed, distance and direction of their prey.
Females can live to see their hundredth birthdays. The reason they can live this long comes as a shock, though: it’s because they have the chance to “offload” accumulated toxins into their babies, thereby restoring their own health. It’s an incredible statement about the condition of our Oceans.
The implications of this toxin offloading are even more sobering: Orca calves are born already carrying a huge amount of human-generated toxins. These toxins (such as paints, adhesives, fire retardants and preservatives) build up in the whales’ bodies over the years. After birth females continue to feed their calves “toxic milk” giving their young a 50/50 chance of life in the first year but extending their own life considerably. As the males of the species have no such opportunity to dump toxins, most of them die by the age of 40.
Our Pacific waters surrounding Victoria and Vancouver Island make for spectacular Whale sightings. On a SpringTide tour, you’ll likely see one of two kind of Orca: Residents or Transients. Resident Orca travel in groups called pods, feeding mainly on Salmon and other fish. Three pods of Residents call our waters home: J Pod, with 23 members; K Pod, with 18 members; and L Pod, with 35 members*. If you hear a group of Orcas making noise, chances are they’re members of J, K or L pods, as Resident Orcas are very vocal. Transient Orcas tend to be a bit lower-key and quiet, preferring to travel alone or in small groups as they go about their business of hunting Seals, Sea Lions and other Marine Mammals. Resident Orcas are matrilineal, meaning offspring will stay with their mothers throughout most of their lives, even when they have young of their own. When their mother dies, the brothers and sisters still stick together.
Orcas are very acrobatic and can sometimes be seen leaping right out of the water. (They are Dolphins, after all!) This is called breaching. Watch for spyhopping, too: that’s when the Orcas get curious enough about what’s happening around them to “tread water” for a little while so they can check things out.
Want to know more about Orcas? Ask our experienced Naturalists. They’ve got answers for all of your questions!
* Figures according to the December 2017 count from the Center for Whale Research
You thought Orcas were big? Humpback Whales can grow up to 16 meters long! Even just their blows can measure as high as three meters. Over the past 40 years since commercial whaling was banned in the North Pacific, Humpbacks have been making a comeback in the waters surrounding Vancouver Island. These long-distance migrators show great fidelity to their favourite feeding spots along the BC coast, typically appearing during the months of August to October. Around the waters of Vancouver Island and off the Washington coast, we share our fragile marine ecosystem with about 200-400 Humpbacks. We can identify individuals by the markings on the underside of their tail flukes – this is similar to how fingerprints are used to identify humans.
Humpback males sing long, complex songs as part of their mating strategy, and possibly as a way to organize their social hierarchy. Humpback calves will live with their mothers for only about a year before they hive off and go their own way. Humpbacks aren’t as social as Orcas, and don’t live in any sort of long-term social grouping.
So named because of the distinctive hump that rises on their backs when they dive, Humpbacks are filter feeders. Like other baleen Whales, they gather up their diet of krill, herring and pilchard in a huge mouthful and then push the excess water out through these sieve-like filaments of keratin. One of the coolest hunting strategies in the Ocean belongs to the Humpback: “Bubble netting” occurs when one or more animals swim in a circle, releasing a thin stream of bubbles. The bubbles form a wall, confusing and confining the whales’ prey into condensed groups. When the bubble net is complete, the whale swims through with its mouth open. Lunch!
Of course, Humpback Whales have to be careful when Orcas are near; Humpback snacks are a fave of the Killer Whale! Other, human-induced threats to the Humpback Whale are habitat degradation, entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes.
When you’re on board Marauder IV, be sure to come down and listen to our Naturalists’ talk. We’ll pass around a sample of whale baleen so you can see (and feel) for yourself the unique mechanism these Whales use for gathering their prey.
Visible in our waters all year long, the Minke Whale is the smallest cetacean in the North Pacific, similar in size to Orcas. These generally solitary whales avoid boats but can be seen from a distance. Although they’re sometimes mistaken for Fin Whales in certain parts of the world, Minke Whales are much smaller and a lot slower. Everything about them – including their small, rarely-seen blow – is a little bit mysterious and elusive. (But hang onto your hats: that blow? Whew! You’d better hope you’re not downwind of it. They’re not called “stinky Minkes” for nothing!)
How do you spot a Minke Whale? Look for the wheeling flocks of seabirds! These gentle giants are no dummies: they let the birds do the hard work of schooling the fish together, and then they come along and coast right through the school of fish, mouth wide open.
Although Minke Whales become sexually mature around age seven or eight, no one has ever seen them actually…making “mini-Minkes”. (We suspect it’s rather similar to other whales. But that’s just a guess.)
In our waters and around the world, these Whales need to be on guard for mammal eating Orcas, who aren’t at all opposed to taking a mouthful of Minke. If an Orca sneaks up on a Minke Whale in open waters, chances are the Minke can out-swim the Orca over a long enough distance – they’re amazing endurance athletes. But if an Orca corners a Minke in a bay or harbour like this one did in 2002, it’s game over.