Blackfish

I was incredibly lucky to be able to visit the lovely country of Canada over the summer holidays. We visited both Toronto and Vancouver during our stay, but most of it was spent at Knight Inlet lodge just north of Vancouver. This lodge is excellent for Grizzly Bear viewing, especially in autumn when they are actively fishing for salmon. However, definitely one of the highlights of the trip was the day we went whale watching in Johnstone Strait with a special focus on Orcas.

It was a long boat ride to the spot where the Orcas were last seen, but it was worth it when we got there. It took a while to actually locate the Orcas though, they are surprisingly hard to spot. Every breaking wave looked like an Orca to me! Even when we did finally catch sight of them they were easy to lose track of as they can hold their breath for as long as 12 minutes! They also move quickly; the synonym ‘Killer Whale’ is a misnomer as they are actually members of the dolphin family rather than the much slower moving whales. To give you an indication of size, the largest male we saw had a dorsal fin that measured around 6 feet! That’s more than 1.8 metres!

Our guide, Paul, seemed to have predicted where the Orcas would be and had no hesitation when zooming at full speed towards the spot where they were. However, he was actually heading towards a position relayed to him from an Orca watch team, which watch an area of the strait for quite a lot of the year. You must be patient for that job! There is also a team which act as a sort of ‘Orca police’, which go around in a speedboat making sure everyone is sticking to the rule that you can’t be within 100 metres of an Orca unless it comes to you.

Once we were into the groove of Orca watching, they seemed to be everywhere. They kept on surfacing around the boat and it seemed like there were hundreds of them! There turned out to be only thirty or so, but due to their ability to hold their breath so long they kept on appearing at completely different positions from when they were last seen.

You may be wondering why the title of the post is ‘Blackfish’. Well, coincidentally the lodge had a talk on Orcas the following evening and I learnt a lot. I found out that there was a movie called Blackfish made about a particular Orca that was held captive at SeaWorld for a long time called Tilikum. He was caught near Iceland in 1983 measuring 13 feet, but he now measures 22 feet and is the largest Orca in captivity. He was taken away from his home and family at only 2 years old and was kept in a tiny holding tank where all an Orca could do is float and swim in small circles. He was eventually transferred to Sealand of the Pacific, a rundown park in British Columbia where his pool was only 100 by 50 feet and was just 35 feet deep. He relentlessly performed every hour, 8 hours a day, 7 days a week and when the park closed he was crammed into a tiny round module with 2 other female Orcas until the next morning.

The rundown park closed after Tilikum and the two other female Orcas dragged a trainer down to the bottom of the pool and tossed her around until she drowned. Tilikum was put up for sale and was bought by SeaWorld for a captive breeding programme. For 21 years Tilikum lived in SeaWorld, in a tank that contained only 0.0001 percent of the amount of water that he would travel through in only a day in the wild. This was clearly stressful for the Orca, and he started chewing on the edges of the tank, which wore down his teeth substantially. He also had a collapsed dorsal fin, which is very common in captivity but rare in the wild. He even killed 2 more people! After the last death he was put in isolation in such a small tank that he couldn’t swim. He would float aimlessly for hours at a time. In the wild, even when an Orca is sleeping it never stops moving!

We watched the Orcas for around 2 and a half hours and I never got bored. If the Orcas weren’t showing (which was rare), we still had Dall’s Porpoises, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Fin Whales, Humpback Whales, Harbour Seals and even a group of male Steller’s Sealions to entertain us! Birds were amazing too, the highlight being a lone Cassin’s Auklet among hundreds of Rhinoceros Auklets and thousands of Red-necked Phalaropes combing the water’s surface.

Orcas

Orcas

Pacific White-sided Dolphin

Pacific White-sided Dolphin

Rhinoceros Auklet

Rhinoceros Auklet

Red-necked Phalaropes

Red-necked Phalaropes

Steller's Sealions

Steller’s Sealions

 

Frozen Whales!

If there was one thing that I didn’t expect to see in great numbers on our voyage around the Svalbard Archipelago were Whales. However, we saw 4 species, 4 Humpback Whales, 1 Minke Whale, 11 Fin Whales (the second largest creature ever) and an outstanding 5 Blue Whales (THE largest creature ever)!!! This post explains the story of how we managed to see the Blue Whales:

Blue Whale 1, 24th July

We were having a party at the bar that night to celebrate Super Bear and the Fin Whales that were seen during dinnertime. Just as the party was dying down because it was nearly midnight, all of the staff and guides suddenly vanished, we thought they had turned into pumpkins! But just on the STROKE of midnight there was an announcement on the speaker, stating a Blue Whale had been spotted! We weren’t as confident as we should have been though, because during dinner there was an announcement beholding the presence of a Blue Whale, which just turned out to be another Fin Whale. When we got up to the bridge it was a real Blue Whale, and no one could hold in their amazement (and their warmth, we were still in our party clothes!). This sighting was the most southerly one of the whole trip, which turned out to be amazing because we were already out of the Blue Whale’s known distribution!

Blue Whale 2, 26th July

In contrast to the very late night sighting of the last Blue Whale, our next Whale’s announcement was our wakeup call! The Blue Whale was spotted just before 7:30, though loads of people turned up to see it. This sighting was even further north than our last one, just above 80 degrees, which made it more special. The reason we spot these whales when they spend most of their time underwater is because you can easily hear them breathing! You can differentiate a Blue Whale from all the other whales by its mottling on its side, the tiny dorsal fin and its HUGE size!

Blue Whale 3, 4 and 5, 26th July (again!)

Further north still, these Blue Whales were spotted as we were zodiac cruising the SEA ICE, way above 80 degrees and the furthest north we reached on the whole voyage! Our last Blue Whale sighting was also the only one to be seen from the zodiacs, as the first one was spotted by Will the geologist as we were loading them. Once the boats were loaded (with people), we headed off in the direction the Whale was last seen. Soon enough we counted three Blue Whales, and were able to say that we had been in a boat on a Blue Whale’s footprint, seen a Blue Whale above 80 degrees north and been in the water with three in 30 minutes!

Blue Whale, Sea Ice and a Fulmar

Blue Whale, Sea Ice and a Fulmar

Blue Whale

Blue Whale