A quest to see Canada’s orcas in the wild

As the debate about captive killer whales continues, the waters off Vancouver Island offer an incredible chance to see the creatures in their natural habitat.

We were riding the swells off Vancouver Island when our captain pointed out spouts rising and falling in the distance – small clouds of mist glistening in the light and vanishing on the wind. Then a series of small black points pierced the waves. A shiny black dorsal fin emerged, almost two metres high, jutting toward the blue sky. Shorter fins popped up – and the ocean appeared to have sprouted black teeth. 

I almost couldn’t believe my eyes.

This is exactly why I’d come to British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait – to find killer whales.

My first wildlife memories are of visits to Moose Jaw's Wild Animal Park, a now-closed collection of small concrete enclosures and pony rides 50km from Saskatchewan’s capital, Regina, and 2,000km from the west coast. The experiences offered a window to another world, and I was so moved, I spent my childhood role-playing as an animal trainer. But I’d since learned animals need bigger cages and tanks, or none at all.

The plight of killer whales, in particular, gained renewed attention in 2013 with the release of the documentary Blackfish. The film criticized the treatment of captive orcas at United States’ SeaWorld parks and prompted protests over the whales’ well-being and the safety of trainers. Stock prices dropped, along with attendance at the parks. SeaWorld, meanwhile, announced plans to nearly double the size of the orcas’ tank in San Diego.

I came here to the birthplace of western Canadian whale watching to see how viewing orcas in the wild might compare to an aquarium’s front-row seats. Roughly 250 Northern Resident orcas reside in the waters near northern Vancouver Island, eating salmon and growing up to 9m long. Another 250 Biggs killer whales also pass through the area, feeding on a steady diet of marine mammals. Whale sightings are common, and now, perhaps because of a boom in harbour seal and Pacific white-sided dolphin populations, sightings of orca hunts – though still rare – are occurring with greater frequency.

I joined five others aboard the MV Gikumi, a converted tugboat, on Orcella Expeditions’ five-day exploration in the teeming waters east of north Vancouver Island – an area Orcella refers to as Blackfish Archipelago that includes the 110km-long Johnstone Strait. Our captain was Jim Borrowman, who has no fewer than three decades of experience tracking orcas in these waters.

As our boat glided through the strait’s choppy waters, I heard the orcas before I saw them. The blows sounded like muffled gunshots. Then I saw a dorsal fin, and the orca’s inky-black hide broke the surface, a bubbling wake at its head. Its blowhole spray shot into the air. Adrenaline coursed through me. A fellow passenger shrieked. A Swiss photographer began muttering, his voice betraying deep awe.

Borrowman pointed out a distinctive pale-grey saddle patch behind the dorsal fin and identified the orca as one he sees frequently: a 43-year-old male known as A38. Each local whale has been photographed and classified by matriline, or a family of whales descended from a matriarch. In the case of A38, he stayed with his mother until she died, relying on her superior fishing skills for sustenance. In fact, all Northern Resident male orcas stick closely to their mothers. So strong are the family bonds that a male orca has a 14 times greater chance of dying in the year after his mother dies because of his struggle to feed himself.

As the whales got closer, we saw the 17 members of the A30 and A42 matrilines swimming in small groups, their rapid back and forth movements hinting that they might be on the hunt. A humpback whale that had been feeding nearby squealed and slapped its tail, sidling up to our boat.

Jackie Hildering of the Marine Education and Research Society, a guest naturalist on board, explained that the baleen whale was trying to intimidate the orcas to avoid being attacked, since Biggs orcas kill humpbacks. But luckily for the larger whale, the nearby orcas were Northern Residents that eat fish, not other whales.

As we kicked back on the top deck for lunch, the orcas moved languidly in a tight group near the surface. Deckhand Bruce Paterson said they were resting, or as close to sleep as whales get. Unlike humans, whales must consciously remember to breath and rest by shutting down one brain hemisphere at a time – a fact humans know from studying cetaceans in captivity, he said.

That night, we camped near the boat in Telegraph Cove. I poured a glass of wine, admired the neat, crayon-coloured houses dotting the wooden boardwalk, and chatted with other campers. I had trouble believing we could top the day’s sightings, but I was game to try.

The next morning, we returned to the boat and headed back into the strait. Four hours later, we came across the same 17 orcas we’d seen the day before. The relaxed attitude we’d observed yesterday was gone; two long dorsal fins sliced the water in quick, successive turns. Borrowman identified them as males – A38 and A66 – and said they were probably looking for lunch.

He cut the boat’s engine and we watched from outside the 100m minimum viewing zone. The hydrophone – a microphone submerged in the water – crackled with the orcas’ clicks. Borrowman recognized the A-clan’s sounds – they were lower pitched than the R-clan and missing the donkey-like call of the G-clan, he said.

Suddenly, A66, a large male, was swimming right for our boat. The orca slipped under the hull, its belly patches bright white against the inky-green waters.

Everyone on deck raced from one side to the other.

"He's coming back," someone squealed. I watched a worried Chinook salmon streak below us. The hull offered protection for the fish, but not for long.

The orca tracked his prey like a heat-seeking missile. Soon another orca joined in and two school-bus-size animals were circling the boat. In a flash, the hunt was over. Stamp-size fish scales drifted to the surface, glinting like diamonds in the sunlight. “I think that whale could have finished him off sooner if he’d wanted,” Borrowman said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

For a long time, killer whales were not just hunters – they were also the ones being hunted. Until 1967, Canada was a whaling nation. The Canadian Air Force even fired upon killer whales for target practice during a time when people viewed orcas as simply black fish. After the ban, orcas were still occasionally shot by fishermen who saw whales as competition for fish.

"When I started there were approximately 140 Northern Resident killer whales, approximately 5,000 boats fishing five days a week in Johnstone Strait, and we were finding fresh bullet holes in killer whales almost every year,”  Borrowman said. “Today, we have approximately 265 Northern Resident killer whales [and] a fraction of the fishing boats. There have been no known bullet holes in many years.”

As we motored back to harbour, I was tired – certainly much more so than I would have been after simply viewing an aquarium show. I had seen behaviours that would have never occurred in a tank. But I was also torn, knowing that research conducted on captive orcas had helped me understand what I had seen in the wild.

The days that followed did not reveal more orca hunts or Biggs killer whales, but there was plenty to see: a few dozen Pacific white-side dolphins riding our boat’s wake, a humpback using his mouth as a giant food trap. Each of us has to decide how we feel about whales in captivity. But I ended the trip knowing that if I’m going to watch orcas again, I’ll to return to the blue waters of Johnstone Strait.