The first step on your Zodiac Tour is into one of our distinctive red flotation suits. The minute you are decked out for your tour the excitement starts.
If you have opted to take your tour on an Ocean Magic cruiser, there’s no need to wait for your excitement as no special clothing is required. Although, on both tours, we bring along hats and gloves in case anyone gets cold.
In Victoria, you will board your vessel in the lovely Inner Harbour, just steps away from the historic Fairmont Empress Hotel.
In Vancouver, you’ll board at Coal Harbour at the Sea bus terminal which is conveniently located in the downtown Waterfront Station.
Of course, if you have been staying at one of the local hotels, you will have already met our shuttle bus driver who will bring you to exactly where you need to be.
Once on board, you will be greeted by your skipper and naturalist who will lead you on your journey. These are knowledgeable folks who are passionate about what they do, their enthusiasm for the sights you are about to see is contagious and they love to share great wildlife stories and facts with their passengers so be prepared to be entertained.
While idling out of the harbour your skipper will give you a quick vessel orientation, including safety features, basic boat etiquette and whale watching guidelines, and then you’ll hit the mouth of the harbour, the engine open up and off you go!
Within minutes you’ll reach speed of 30 knots – you are now in search of killer whales.
THE KILLER WHALES
It will take about thirty minutes, travelling at exhilarating speed, to reach the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Strait runs between Vancouver Island and Washington State and opens to the Pacific Ocean. Your skipper slows that boat and you find yourself sitting on clear, blue waters that stretch as far as you can see.
Suddenly, your skipper sights something, “just a couple miles ahead of us” he exclaims and picks us up to speed again heading in the direction of the sighting. You strain your eyes, staring straight ahead but can’t see a thing. As the skipper slows the boat again, he explains that it is important to approach with caution, but still you can’t see what he sees. Then suddenly you hear a loud whoosh and see a tall puff of vapour. Then a huge black fin rises out of the water- you’ve spotted a whale!
The Whale you have spotted is L-41, an adult male from L Pod. There are three pods, each named with a letter, J, K and L, who live in the waters near Victoria, and they are called the Southern Residents. It’s a little unusual to see L pod, as they spend most of their time on the west coast of Vancouver Island, quite a long distance away. J and K pod are more commonly seen as they spend a lot of time in the waters close to Victoria, particularly in the warm summer months. Often the residents can be found in very large groups, sometimes more than 80 at a time (this is called a superpod, seen a few times each summer).
Sometimes your skipper will let you know that you’re watching a transient whale. These are a group of whales who appear to be less social and are usually found in groups of 3 to 8. From their name it sounds as if they are just passing through, however this is not the case. The name “transient” actually dates back to the early scientific research in BC, when scientists were first starting to identify individual whales. Occasionally, they would find whales they did not recognize and assumed them to be just passing through.
Now we know this is an entirely different community of killer whales, which travel from the north end of Vancouver Island to the south depending on the time of year.
Whether you are watching a transient or resident though, you are not really watching a whale. Orcas are actually the are the world’s biggest dolphin with males sometimes growing up to 30 feet long – that’s as long as the Zodiac you may be riding in.
Each whale in J, K and L pod can be identified by their natural marking, a unique saddle patch on the back, just behind the fin. On board your vessel you will find photo-identification charts which will help you to identify pods and which individuals you see.
Some interesting background for you tour:
Whales in general have been a resource for hundreds of years and only recently have they been a protected species. The last harpoon fired at whales in B.C. waters was 1967 when the Western Whaling Company closed. Canada (and the US) did not officially ban commercial whaling until the season of 1972-73. If you departed Vancouver today, you’ll be interested to know that there was once a whaling station at Coal Harbour whaling station, we’re glad that’s closed.
Killer Whales were very rarely caught for anything other than aquaria and the area you will travel in today was among the most prolific hunting areas. Fortunately Killer Whales are now under a moratorium forbidding their capture.
Orcas aren’t the only whales you may see on your tour though. Our waters are also home to Gray Whales, Humpbacks and Minke Whales
Every one of them thrilling to spot!
Throughout your tour you will likely see a variety of birds including the distinctive Bald Eagle. Watching one of these swoop down to catch dinner or seeing his partner sitting in her incredibly large nest, high up in the trees, is an awesome sight. For a list of other birds you may see here.
You may hear them before you see them but you will likely find yourself pulling out your camera to take a few photos of our large population of seals and sea lions as they lay sunning themselves on a rock outcrop on any one of many small islands.
If someone refers to a Pinniped, don’t be fooled, it’s just the official name for carnivorous aquatic mammals including seals, walruses, and similar animals that have fin like flippers as organs of locomotion!
There are two types of Sea Lions that are quite prevalent in the southern Vancouver Island area, the California, and the Steller. The Steller is the largest of the Sea Lions, it can weigh upwards of 450kg (1000lb) and can be the size of a large black bear, with the strength and teeth to match. Stellers tend to be a tan color whereas the California Sea Lion is a more chocolate-brown. The most pronounced feature that separates them is the high forehead of the California, which just can’t be mistaken.
During the fall you may also see one of the rare Elephant Seals who come to the area to shed their skins. Large and lethargic, these mammoth pinnipeds are fascinating to watch and learn about. Learn more about pinnipeds.
Soon, it will be time to start your return journey but even that may be eventful if you catch a glimpse of a Dall’s Porpoise.
The Dall’s Porpoise is a fairly common site on our tours and it is fun to watch the playful porpoises, who often appear almost hyperactive, zigzaging and darting around a fast moving boat. Dalls are large, reaching a maximum size of 2.2m (7.2ft) and 220kg (485lb) and they are fast, travelling at speeds approaching 55km/h (35mph).
It’s the end of the journey and as your boat approaches the dock, your skipper thanks you for your company and knows that the delighted look on your face means he has completed another successful tour!
We hope you have enjoyed this virtual tour and will soon join us on a real tour, a west coast experience that you’ll never forget. We promise – it will be a Blast