IN AWE OF ORCAS
It’s a quiet summer morning on Galiano Island and I am comfortably ensconced on a deck chair. Song birds flit back and forth between their feeder and the bird bath. A deer slowly munches its way along the hillside, passing through sunbeams filtered by Garry oaks and arbutus trees. I relish the calm as I sip my tea and scan the waters of Active Pass with binoculars. It looks empty but then I look again.
There is a long plume of mist hanging in the air. Then I spot a second one. Then another spouts up! Those “spoofs” are the mist from whales’ exhalations and can only mean one thing -- orcas are approaching. My tea is forgotten. My pulse races. I grab my camera and, with my husband in tow, scamper down our cliff side path to the water’s edge to eagerly await their arrival. This time will they, as they have done in the past, come within a meter of where we stand?
The approaching whales are most often a pod from the Southern Resident Killer Whales, a highly endangered population of fewer than eighty orcas. They are formidable and magnificent creatures at the top of the ocean’s food chain. Their main food is salmon, which differentiates them from transient killer whales which eat marine animals like seals. Both species are powerful and fast, with a complex matriarchal society. Offspring stay with their mother’s pod their entire lives except when males visit other pods to breed. They can live up to eighty or one hundred years.
Today they seem playful and exhibit a multitude of whale behaviours. They breach, spy hop, cartwheel, and tail slap. A five or six ton whale rockets almost all the way out of the water and then lands on its side with a tremendous bang and a huge splash. More quietly, a mother and calf swim in tandem, almost touching.
As the orcas come closer to the rocky point I stand on, I can hear their breathing sounds. Forceful exhales send up misty sprays and then they are underwater. It is hard to tell where they will surface but they are getting closer. Suddenly we are startled by a large male surfacing right by our feet. Its dorsal fin stands almost two meters tall and Gary gets sprayed with some of its breath
Several other whales swim by just under the surface; their distinctive black and white markings readily visible. They are looking for fish in the kelp beds. Another whale swims on its back and repeatedly slaps its tail like a drummer keeping time. The sounds from the slaps resonate across the water. When seen from here, there is no mistaking their massive size, grace, and power.
They have come so close!
I am happy that watching them from shore does not contribute to the many environmental stresses the orcas face such as reduced salmon stocks, toxic chemicals in the ocean, and underwater noise pollution. Fortunately other locations for shore based whale watching are mapped courtesy of an organization called The Whale Trail. Its mission is to “inspire appreciation and stewardship of whales and our marine environment by establishing a network of viewing sites.” Donna Sandstrom, an ex-software developer with a self-professed “orca habit” since her involvement in returning lost orca Springer to her pod in 2002, founded The Whale Trail in 2008. Distinctive signs featuring a spy hopping orca dot many a trail along the Salish Sea and down the Pacific Coast.
On Galiano, the gentle slope of Bellhouse Park offers ready access to views of Active Pass and Georgia Strait. The Whale Trails at Mary Anne Point and Matthew’s Beach wind towards the shoreline through a forest of arbutus, cedar, and fir trees. While one can never tell when the orcas will appear, the hikes are still worthwhile as there might be eagles and kingfishers, seals and sea lions, and a wide assortment of sea birds to see.
Far too soon the orcas swim out of our sight and their breathing sounds fade. Reluctantly we turn away from the quiet waters and slowly climb back up the cliff to our deck. My tea will need reheating.
ON THE WEB:
Orca Viewing in Active Pass from Galiano Island -- orca videos by Gary Cullen
1 -4 by Karoline Cullen
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