The Telegraph
Friday , September 6 , 2013

A whale of a time

A stray plastic bag flew in from somewhere as we were walking towards the catamaran that would take us out into the sea. Kayla picked it up and put it in the next trash bin on the way. It struck me as remarkable because people back home almost never did something like that.

I was in Victoria, a city in the south of Vancouver island in Canada and we were going whale-watching!

A living sculpture of orcas near the Empress hotel

Five Star Whale Watching is among the older and more popular whale-watching companies in the area and Kayla was the marine naturalist/deckhand who was accompanying us. Around twenty-five people were part of the trip and I promptly grabbed a seat on the top deck behind the captain, Trevor Neufeld. Beside him was Ron Bates, a marine mammal expert.

“We love questions. You’re welcome to ask us anything and there’s not much about whales that Ron doesn’t know,” said Kayla as she climbed up on the deck and stopped some enthusiastic kids saying they could only stay downstairs.

It was windy and the water was choppy and excited kids on the top deck were certainly not a good idea.

Kite surfers

We set off from in front of the majestic Empress hotel, crossed the Fisherman’s Wharf, a tourist attraction for its floating houses, and were out in the open sea in 10 minutes. Then Trevor stepped on the accelerator and the wind began to rattle my bones. Despite it being a hot and sunny day, I put my jacket on. The boat had spare jackets for those who did not bring theirs.

“Keep your eyes peeled,” said Kayla over the wind, as we crossed some kite surfers jumping and somersaulting on the waves.

Whale watching in these waters usually consist sightings of the orcas, or killer whales, and the occasional humpback and gray whales.

Our whale-watching catamaran

The most common sightings are of the resident orcas. But if you are lucky, you might very well catch the transient orcas and also the bigger whales.

After about 30 minutes of seeing no orcas, I decided I wouldn’t mind much even if I didn't see any of them because I was enjoying the ride so much. We were hurtling towards the San Juan island of the US through Hard Strait because the resident orcas often preferred to hang around in that area.

The whale-watching companies of the area are a close-knit group and they co-operate with each other regarding whale sightings. Whenever one boat encounters whales, it informs the others and then everyone gets a chance to see the magnificent animals.

When we were near the San Juan islands, it seemed like Ron got one of those calls after which we headed to an area where there were already a couple of whale-watching boats.

Ron Bates, the marine mammal expert on board

And there they were. At first, we saw a dorsal fin for two seconds before it went down. Then there was another one. And then a whole bunch of them!

Everyone on the boat was excited and stood by the railings trying to photograph them. I wished I had a camera with a better zoom. And then an orca jumped out of the water and splashed water all around.

All this time, Kayla was giving us inputs that added to our excitement. Were the biggest of those orcas actually the size of the 30-feet-long boat we were on? And it was crazy to think some of their dorsal fins rose as high as six feet from their back!

Orcas near San Juan Islands

The most incredible thing was that Ron could identify the orcas by just looking at their fins and the white marks behind their fins. Unlike usual orcas, which are known to be expert predators, the resident orcas only feed on fish. However, the transient ones also attack other mammals including seals and bigger whales.

After a while, another small group of orcas came and joined this first group and now, there were around a dozen whales in the same place now! A couple of young males were in a playful mood and they breached (jumped) quite a few times and every time I wished I had a better camera.

After spending around 30 minutes with the whales, it was time to head back. On our return journey, we went past some small rocky islands where a number of seals were enjoying the sun. And we waved to the kite-surfers again, who impressed us with some more stunts!

We docked in front of the Empress hotel with big smiles on our faces, and I, with an extremely red nose.

Don’t forget your sunscreen when you go whale watching!