Orca moment in an ocean of silence
THE smiles begin just after the captain guns the powerful engines on the bright red Zodiac and it slams into the first wave. By the third, those of us in the starboard rear seats are drenched and laughing wildly.
We are on our way, or so we hope, to meet killer whales. After a sedate exit from Victoria’s picturesque harbour, the adventure has begun in earnest. There will be a further 90 minutes of powering between island dots off the coast of western Canada before we reach the spot where the orcas — members of the dolphin family — were last spotted on their daily circuit for food.
Along the way, we’ll see a pair of bald eagles on an island once owned by Hollywood star John Wayne and a colony of seals basking in the warm spring sun. And all of this will be framed by a stunning backdrop of pine-covered islands and snowcapped mountains.
Victoria is on Vancouver Island, a three to four-hour ride by bus and ferry from Vancouver, and is home to a plethora of whale-watching companies. Today, the whales are at the extremity of their circuit and Seafun Safaris is one of the companies prepared to go the farthest in pursuit of a sighting. We have signed the indemnity waivers, donned red survival suits and set off in what we are assured is the fastest craft in the whale-watching fleet. Our chances of a sighting are maximised by the fact the whale watchers maintain radio contact with each other and track the progress of the giant sea mammals.
There are two ways to go: the adventurestyle Zodiacs or a smoother ride on a conventional boat.
Anyone with back problems is strongly advised to take the latter option, but the Zodiacs are the best fun you can have outside an amusement park. I quickly learn to avoid a sore coccyx by lifting myself out of the seat slightly — much like riding a horse at a canter — as we pound through the waves.
It takes us 90 minutes to find the resident orca pod and it is well worth the trip. The craft are not allowed to approach the killer whales under power but they can drift in the hope they will pass nearby, and our orcas seem happy to comply. There are two types of killer whales: one that eats only fish and one that eats pretty much anything. There is no recorded attack on a human by a killer whale but it is still vaguely reassuring that Victoria’s resident pod are fish eaters as those giant dorsal fins slice the water just metres from the Zodiac.
They are unfazed by our presence and occasionally one rolls on its side or sticks its head out of the water to cast a curious eye over the strange, excitable creatures shadowing it. Our captain accompanies the manoeuvrings with an informative and often humorous commentary about the matriarchal group and points out members such as Ruffles, so named because of the distinctive waves in its fin, and the longlived leader of the group, Grandma.
The evening sun, combined with the clouds and a gathering mist, lend an eldritch quality to the islands as we head back to Victoria. There is one last, boatpounding stretch of rough water before we cruise sedately back into the harbour to berth, four hours and a couple of hundred kilometres after the adventure began. And we are still smiling broadly.
Thrill a minute: Whale watching by Zodiac