Whale Watching at Sunset in Victoria, BC, Canada
"Welcome to America, guys!" our skipper, Pete, yelled over the spray of the waves in our zodiac boat.
Surprised, I peeked at my iPhone in my dry bag. It was connected to Verizon, my home cell phone provider.
We had crossed international waters from Canada and I was looking at the stunning, forest-like coastline of Washington state. We were cruising the San Juan Islands, an archipelago of islands off the coast of WA.
And we were looking for whales.
Soon enough, Pete pulled behind several other boats and pointed off the coast. I saw them the second time they surfaced - their sleek, black bodies, the tall dorsal fin, the white spot that marks their eyes. I could see the spray of water from their blowholes dissipate in the cold air.
The last time I had seen orcas - like many people - was five years ago at SeaWorld in San Diego. That was long before I had gotten scuba dive certified, developed a passion for marine life and conservation, and watched the documentary "Blackfish."
Seeing orcas in the wild, swimming and hunting and playing when and where they want, is so much better than watching them do flips in front of an audience. There is no comparison.
They surfaced for air for several minutes before disappearing back below the surface anywhere from 2-6 minutes. We would wait anxiously in the boat, our hands tucked deep in our coat packers for warmth, wondering where they might come up next.
There were eleven other boats tracking the whales, though and because the whales were tightly hugging the coastline, they were difficult to see at times. Pete suggested that we go off on our own to see if we could find seals, then come back in 30 minutes when some of the boats had left.
After a quick boat ride, we pulled alongside a small island, back in Canadian waters.
"See the seals there?" Pete pointed.
I didn't see anything. I saw a bunch of logs floating in the water from a distance.
"Those shiny bumps in the water… those are their heads!"
And suddenly I could see five seals in the water, their heads bobbing up and down in the water before disapearing as they dived down for fish. On the rock, a massive harper seal was - quite literally - chillin on its side. It had a big belly, its small fins seeming even smaller in comparison to its big belly.
And then, right before our eyes, we saw a very, very small seal pup heave itself out of the water. Pete said it could only be four days old. It was the size of a kitten. It pulled itself up along its mother, eventually cuddling up close beside her.
Content with the seals, Pete turned the boat back towards the whales. The boat skippers share information between all the boat companies so that everyone knows where to find the whales, and each boat is required to stay 100 meters away. If the whales come closer on their own, the boats cut their engines.
At this point, there were only six boats tracking the whales. The orcas were out in the open now and they were very clearly on a hunt. They had hugged the coastline earlier to stay stealthy, and now they were pursuing their prey out in open water. These orcas hunt seals, the same ones we had seen only minutes before chillin on a big rock four miles away.
Once the orcas spot a seal on a hunt, some members of the orca family track the animal beneath the waters while other members come up for air. Orcas consistently switch off during the hunt, running their prey out of air, although seals can stay underwater for up to 20 minutes. At one point, the whales were heading back in the direction of Victoria. We kept waiting for them to surface, when we suddenly realized that they had completely changed direction! The seal they were hunting was taking them on a chase, and the whales were now hunting in front of the setting sun. Now there were only three boats, and I felt like I had this entire scene to myself.
My last day abroad, on this crazy, much loved, adventurous journey of mine, was spent watching a family of orcas disappear into the sunset off the coast of Canada.
It was perfect. I put away my GoPro and iPhone; the camera couldn't really capture what I was seeing, how the colors were bleeding into the coastline and the ocean, the magnificent dorsal fins of these animals as they went on their way. I buried my neck deeper into my coat, and I just watched without the camera lens, without distraction, as I tried to burn the memory into my mind.
It was everything I loved all at once. There was absolutely no better way I could have ended this trip and I went through a flurry of emotions in a short span of time on that boat. Immense gratitude, joy, happiness, and even a sense of disbelief.
My trip was over.
Back at the pier, we shed the thick pants, jackets, gloves, and hats that the company had given us to stay warm. It was 9:30pm but light still peeked through the night sky. I grabbed a cup of hot chocolate, happy but weary from the day.
Besides, I had a flight to catch the next morning. And I was ready for it.
- Who to go with: Eagle Wing Tour Company. They are the most expensive, but they are the most ethical, sustainable company out there. I paid $128CAD / $100USD for the 3.5 hour sunset tour in an open boat.
- They set the standard for the whale watching industry in BC years ago and they donate 1% of their profits to conservation efforts.
- They have morning, afternoon, and sunset tours on different kinds of boats. I did the open boat because I loved the waves and the speed, but they also have a much larger, closed boat.
- If I'm being honest: It was difficult for me to get any good photos / footage of the whales and seals because of the distance, but with the naked eye, you could see the animals just fine. If you're a photographer, definitely bring your professional camera! I wish I had some HQ shots of the experience.