Orca mo­ment in an ocean of si­lence

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Canada & Alaska - Steve Creedy

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

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