I’ve been seated in the front of the boat, or as Sooke Coastal Explorations skipper Russ Nicks puts it, “the rollercoaster seat.” Apparently, the last rollercoaster I rode lacked gale force rain lashing stinging my cheeks and eyes. We are bombing up the Strait of Juan de Fuca in a twin 250-hp engined, 12-passenger Zodiac Hurricane, searching for our sightseeing prey: seals, sea lions and, of course, killer whales, more formally know as orcas.
The first two are easy — there are well known haunts for seals and sea lions at Race Rock near Sooke. Here the tidal currents “race” through the rocks, swiftly and consistently enough to power the lighthouse through tidal generators. The whales though aren’t nearly as handy, which sends us speeding up the strait searching for orcas, with all passengers asked to keep a lookout.
Not that I’m actually able to see much. I’m mainly stealing glimpses of the strait as I shield my eyes from the pelting rain with my hands and the suit’s hood. Despite this being a relatively good day I’m hunkering down into the XXL Helly Hansen whose crotch is at my knees. The look isn’t big on dignity, but it is warm.
That I’m only able to snatch glimpses of the rugged West Coast shoreline is my own fault — I needed to bring sunglasses or take half of whatever my benchmate is on.
“Feel the rain on your face, it’s so gorgeous! It’s beautiful!” gushes a woman on the other end of the bench.
“Oh, wow! The rain is stinging my eyeballs. It’s amazing!”
“Feel the way we’re smashing into the waves! I love it.”
“Look at the freighters! They’re huge! I want to give them a hug.”
My inner-voice labels her “Random Love.” Her dark hair streams in the wind as she points her face full on into the speed-driven rain, and embraces a Westcoast hippy stereotype.
Huddling down a little further into the suit, I realize that “Random Love,” and others like her, are one of the reasons I love visiting Vancouver Island.
Like Madagascar with its lemurs, the Island supports diverse and endangered sub-cultures more than any other place I’ve visited in Canada. There is a sense of people embracing who they are, or want to be, without concern for the overbearing social pressure of the mainland’s population. On an island slightly apart from the rest of the country, you don’t feel the rest of Canada frowning on you for being a hippy, ecologist, blue collar, herbalist or what-have-you quite as much.
Our search for the whales continues up the strait, past Jordan River, and then Russ gets a call on his cell phone from a fishing buddy. Whales have been spotted considerably back to the south off of Point No-Point. Excited as any of the passengers, Russ flurries out calls on the radio and cellphone, alerting nearly everyone he knows about the pod, before we U-turn and blast back down the strait.
There are three types of orca pods off the west coast of British Columbia: residents, transients and offshore. Offshore pods are mostly encountered off the west coast of Vancouver Island and near the Queen Charlotte Islands, and feed on schooling fish, mammals and even sharks, according to researchers who’ve observed various hunting scars.
Transients are migratory and largely consume seals, fish, porpoise and other smaller whales. For us though it’s the residents, who roam a relatively fixed area of the coast feeding on salmon, squid and occasionally smaller mammals, that are of interest. In this case a group of orca known as J-Pod (there is no I-Pod so Steve Jobs’ legal team can relax).
Russ is as excited to see the whales as we are, possibly more so.
“If I take people out and they see how beautiful these animals are, then maybe we’ll get the orca the protection they need. Right now these whales contain levels of toxins that would kill a human.”
So … Random Love isn’t the only member of an endangered species in the strait today.
Orcas are alpha predators in the strait, and that is a problem. Toxicity accumulates up the chain, smaller prey accumulate toxins (primarily PCBs and heavy metals like mercury) through their diet. Larger predators consume the smaller prey and their toxins, increasing the concentration with each link of the chain, until the alpha predator takes the biggest hit.
If an orca needs to survive off its fat stores, such as during migration or a scarcity of food [remember these mammals eat an average of 227kg/500lbs of food a day], then the toxins are released from the blubber affecting overall health and reproduction.
The likelihood of these animals suffering from scarcity has increased dramatically in recent years, as each of the three populations show strong dietary specialization. Salmon accounted for 96% of a resident killer whales diet, with 65% of those being the large, fatty Chinook according to the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Conservation Plan for Southern Resident Killer Whales.
Russ’s concerns are well founded. In the Pacific Northwest, salmon stocks declined by up to 80% in recent years and, in turn, the resident populations have decreased markedly from approximately 200 whales in 2005 to 83 in a 2008 count. Hopefully with 2010’s rebound in salmon stocks, the whale populations will rise in correlation.
It occurs to me though, that our act of observation may also be having a negative affect on the orca; killer whales rely on hearing for communication, navigation, and foraging, so the boats’ engines are contributing to the noise pollution from the Orca already suffer from in the sound. I ask Russ about the guidelines used among the whale watching outfits in the strait.
“There are no formal government guidelines, but we’ve agreed to try to limit contact to a maximum of 20 minutes. We’re also careful to keep a reasonable distance and come in coasting or at idle if necessary. At this point though we are largely self regulating.” It’s also important to note that one of Russ’s excited phone calls was to wildlife researchers in the area when we spotted one of the first sea otters he’s seen in 5 years.
The whales are seemingly playing it up for the cameras, breaching, spouting, spyhopping their head up and out of the water … and then we catch a glimpse of a pink protuberance about the size of a man’s thigh.
“Whoa!” shouts Russ. “That’s x-rated!”
It’s a sight that I never expected to put a tick next to or even thought to put on my list of sights to see during my lifetime: whale penis. While reproduction on the whole may have been affected by the toxins we have released into the world’s oceans, one male in J-Pod is still giving it the good old college try making him the rarest of creatures, the Killer Sperm Whale.
Then I realize it’s become quiet — Random Love is speechless.
All photos © Neil Johnston
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