Killers on the high seas

August 30 – September 2, 2014

The ferry dropped us off at 2:00 AM in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada. Rolling into town in the middle of the night is one of my least favorite things to do. I have absolutely no room to complain considering that with the XP, all we have to do is park the truck and push a button (literally) to raise the camper. Voila and we’re ready for bed after a few minutes of minor set-up. This is easy compared to our fellow campers Brent & Janis who traveled Alaska by motorcycle and tent camp everywhere. We meet many motorcyclists along the way and spend hours talking to them about their experiences. It’s a mode of travel that we have considered but will have to wait for another trip once we have some experience. We’re not up for learning how to ride in a foreign country like the 3UpCollective group that we met in Baja earlier in our trip.

We had the whole day to explore Prince Rupert so decided to walk to the town and see what there was to see. Sadly, it is a very depressed looking town with most of the stores boarded up and the few that were open looked like they rarely saw any business. The grey weather added to the dreariness of the area. We asked some residents where we could get lunch and were pointed to a section of town called Cow Bay. It appears that this is where the city has spent all of its economic development money creating a quaint neighborhood along the bay next to the marina. We arrived when most of the restaurants were closed, just after lunch and before dinner, so we settled on a dark tavern whose menu has probably not been updated since it opened sometime in the late 70’s based on its decor. We just had bad timing considering that the other restaurants looked inviting with interesting menu selections.

Later we dropped by the community art center and wandered along the marina before returning to our campsite where we spent the rest of the evening talking with Brent & Janis, or motorcycle traveling neighbors. They both live on Quadra Island which sounds like paradise! Brent recommended that we go to this tiny town, Telegraph Cove, and take the Stubbs Island Whale Watching tour. He was a tour guide for the company years ago and said that it is the best in the area. This turned out to be the best recommendation ever! Thanks Brent!!!

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I said it was a sleepy little town!

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The next morning we were treated to a major upgrade in ferry service when we boarded the BC Ferry. This felt like a luxury liner after the Alaska Marine Highway’s 30 year old ferries with food service that rivaled hospital meals in blandness. The ferries were new with a cafeteria style restaurant and another smaller cafe both serving freshly prepared meals along with a substantial selection of healthy, tasty vegetarian options. There was a small theatre room where we watched Tina Fey’s “Admissions”. The only downside was that the observation deck was reserved seating only. On the Alaska Ferry we spent many hours on the free observation deck watching the spectacular views provided by the Inside Passage so the restricted access to the BC Ferry observation deck was our only very small disappointment.

We reached Port Hardy on Vancouver Island in the very early morning hours and caught a few zzzzz’s before making the short drive down to Telegraph Cove. Once we rolled into Telegraph Cove later in the afternoon we immediately booked our tour with Stubbs Island Whale Watching. I was excited to see that their calendar showed orca and humpback whale sightings on every day over the past few weeks. I left feeling confident that the next day would be the highlight of our trip!

We had dinner at the Killer Whale Cafe where I fully expected to be underwhelmed. I was so wrong! If you ever make it to Telegraphy Cove be sure to stop in for a meal. Everything we tried at this family run restaurant was exceptional and the service was outstanding.

In camp later that evening we met Dave and Jenny, an English couple whose vacation on Vancouver Island was drawing to a close. They provided the entertainment for the rest of the evening with their banter about their lives in England. They figured out how to set boundaries between work and personal life, not allowing work to get its greedy claws on their personal time. This was a lesson that took me years to understand yet I never internalized enough to change. I quickly accepted the paid cell phone which also gave my employers free access to my personal time. I bought into the Silicon Valley myth that longer working hours were badges of honor rather than warning signs that I had an unhealthy emotional life; all work and no play. Thankfully my husband is a very wise man and steered us to an early pre-retirement to travel the Americas!

The stories that Dave & Jenny told us about the small town of Tofino on the other side of the island convinced us that maybe there was more to Vancouver Island than we first imagined. We originally gave ourselves three to four days to travel the length of the island. After our evening with Dave & Jenny we will definitely need to revise our estimates!

The next morning I was practically giddy with excitement about seeing my first orca. I expected that the tour would be the usual: pack a bunch of tourists onto a boat and take them out to the usual local places while the captain shares a mostly scripted commentary about the area in an unengaged manner. This tour was nothing like that! I can’t begin to praise Stubb’s Whale Watching enough for their genuine passion for their work creating an unforgettable experience for us.

Captain Wayne had more energy and excitement at 7 am than most of us can pull together after mid-morning and more than a few cups of coffee. This man loves his work and he was not putting on a show. He introduced us to Jackie (The Marine Detective), our on board naturalist who would share with us her knowledge of the orcas and whales that we would hopefully see. Jackie is truly passionate about her work. She became a naturalist on Vancouver Island after coming to the island for a vacation. She took the whale watching tour and was hooked. After her trip she returned to Europe where she was teaching, quit her job, packed up and moved to Vancouver Island to pursue a career studying marine mammals. When you watch Jackie and Captain Wayne at work you see true joy.

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A couple of bald eagles watching us pass by.
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Darryl caught the wider view. Can you find the same two bald eagles in this photo?

We were underway for less than 5 minutes when we saw the first family of orcas! Jackie identified them as the A30’s matriline, or family group, of Northern Resident orcas which are an inshore fishing group. Family groups are tracked by the matriarch and referred to as matrilines. Individual orcas and families are identified by distinctive markings on their dorsal fins and saddle patches. Swimming amongst the orcas were Dall’s porposes and Pacific White-Sided dolphins. The interesting thing about the Pacific White-Sided dolphins is that they were once extremely rare in the BC waters during the 19th & 20th centuries and some thought them to be extinct until 1956 when a fisherman spotted one north of Vancouver Island. Only since the 1990’s have there been regular sightings of them in the area. We stayed for almost an hour watching the orcas and dolphins. At one point an orca came swimming right alongside the boat! Eventually Captain Wayne received news of humpback sightings not far from where we were so we bid the orcas farewell.

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We easily spotted the blow, which can reach up to 9’, from a humpback hundreds of yards away. Once sighted, we started in the direction of the whale and soon we saw another whale, and then another whale! Captain Wayne had a very good problem, we couldn’t be at three places at once so he had to make a choice. The whales stayed in the general area and we were able to see their tails as they made their dives. Jackie is able to identify the various whales by the unique markings on the underside of the tails. Regular sightings of humpbacks in the area started again just in 2002. Whale hunting decimated their populations and they are just now starting to return.

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We were lucky to witness a whale lunge feeding. Jackie and Captain Wayne identified the place where it was likely to happen. They could see that the birds were gathering and diving into centralized area. This behaviour will frighten the fish causing them to come together in a large group. The whale then comes up from the bottom of the school with its massive jaws opened taking in the fish, water and sometimes an unfortunate bird. The water is squeezed out of its mouth through the baleen then swallowing the fish that remain.

Our whale watching tour came to an end and we had to return to the dock. During the return Jackie gathered the group together inside the boat to talk about the current state of the orcas and whales. The orcas are dying too young due to the high concentrations of PCB’s in their systems. The concentrations of these toxins increases as you go up the food chain. Orcas and whales are high in the food chain and carry these lethal dosages. Because the chemicals are concentrated in the fat and the fat content of the female’s milk is extremely high, the females are able to release much of the poisons in their systems when they nurse their young, feeding the young this concoction of poisons.

The other threat this wildlife faces is the possible opening of the no-go-zone for boats / shipping in their hunting and migration route. Because of pressure from the business and shipping industries the Canadian government is considering opening the boating no-go-zone to commercial traffic. Just when these animals are getting a second chance and starting to come back they are facing yet another threat. Talk about hitting an orca when its down!

The whales are also fighting against declining food sources. They feed on krill but also schooling fish like herring, sand lance and pilchard pitting them in direct competition with our increasing aquaculture industry. Who do you think will win? Increases in aquaculture (fish farming) result in the capture of feed stock, like herring, for these farms. Between 50%-80% of all prey fish captured are fed to farmed fish and the majority of the remaining is fed to industrially farmed pigs and chickens. If you’re interested in learning more read the 2009 Oceana report “Hungry Oceans: What Happens When the Prey is Gone?”.

Want your omega-3’s without the risk of PCB’s & Mercury? Eat flax, hemp, soy and walnuts. The orcas and whales thank you for it!

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