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Saturday, September 14, 2019

Northern Vancouver Island Part 2: A Whale Watch to Remember

On September 4th we headed out on a whale watch out of Telegraph Cove, and with lots of recent whale reports and flat-calm waters I was hopeful for a great trip. Now I have been on a lot of whale watch trips over the years, both while traveling, while working as a naturalist for 6 years, and while riding along with friends from here on San Juan Island. In terms of wildlife and whale encounters, there have been some pretty great trips, but this one definitely ranks among the top few that I have ever experienced. Over the course of just three hours we saw transients, Northern Residents, humpback whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall's porpoise, and Steller sea lions!

As we headed out of the harbor we were making our way down Johnstone Strait towards a report of Northern Residents when I spotted a small killer whales along the shoreline across the strait. (This would actually be one of three times on this trip I found killer whales with no reports or other indication that they were in the area! While I often go out looking for whales, it's usually following up on another sighting, and it has been years since I spotted whales totally unexpectedly. For it to happen three times on this single trip to Vancouver Island was crazy!)

This trio of orcas turned out to be the T69Ds, who are rare visitors to the Salish Sea but who I coincidentally met for the first time earlier this year when they were with the T90s in Haro Strait back in February. As would be the case for all the transients we encountered while up north, their behavior was quite different than we typically see today from Ts around the San Juan Islands, and more like what they used to be like 10-20 years ago: long dives with sporadic/unpredictable surfacings, making them hard to track and view. After one dive, however, they unexpectedly popped up close to the boat, giving us a nice look after a lot of patiently scanning the water.

By this time the Northern Residents were within sight to the south of us, and the T69Ds had likely heard them as well, because they did a 180 to head back in the direction they came and we continued on our way towards the Residents. We had heard the whales were spread out in ones and twos doing long foraging dives, but we got on scene, several of the small groups merged, and we were treated to an amazing sight of 15+ whales traveling in a tight group and surfacing all together.

I would later learn these were the I4s, I65s, and G27s - all new-to-me whales - and just a fraction of the whales who were "in" that day. Also around (and some of whom we got distant looks of) were at least the A42s, I16s, I27s, and I35s.

We used to the Southern Residents like this more often, though in recent years they tend to spread out a lot more. It was hard not to keep taking photos, as regardless of how much you see it, that many dorsal fins at the surface together is a breath-taking sight.

The whales split into two groups as we followed them around the eastern side of Hanson Island:

We had the light against us when viewing the whales from the left side, and my Northern Resident ID guide only shows left sides, so it was tough to piece together many individual IDs. The only adult male in the group was 22 year-old male I76, seen here with another sprouter - maybe I122?

I76 on the left
If you follow orcas in the region, you know about the iconic Orca Lab on Hanson Island - it was pretty cool to get to see Northern Residents go by there!

Northern Residents passing Orca Lab
We left the Northern Residents heading west through Blackfish Sound and went north through the narrow passage between Swanson and Crease Islands. No matter which way you turn up there, the scenery is awesome! There are so many little islands and channels to explore.

Next up we spent some time with some humpbacks, with easily half a dozen or more individuals spread out in the same area.

As we slowly started transiting back towards Telegraph Cove, it was a scene I will never forget. The Northern Residents were back in view, there were still humpbacks in every direction, and some Pacific white-sided dolphins came by as well. I felt like I was dreaming, with multiple species of cetacean surrounding us. 

It was an unforgettable whale watch, and we returned to the dock beaming, immediately making plans to go out on the water again before the end of our trip. I made a conscious effort to try and lock the scene and the emotion inside me - the joy, the excitement, the peace of being in such a place and having such an experience. You can't bottle it, but it's moments like those that rejuvenate the spirit and keep you going through things like whale politics, dreary winter days, and stressful times at work.

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