I am standing in the stern of a motorboat and a Killer Whale is coming straight at me. The dorsal fin is standing tall and slicing the water like a knife.
If I were a good cameraman, I’d take a picture. But you already know I’m not, so the great beast passes silently under the boat’s engines only a few feet from me and slips deep beneath the surface before reappearing a hundred yards away. It never comes so close again.
I started out this trip with Eagle Wing Tours an hour ago, and it has been thrilling. The boat is a tri-motor Scarab and it is ridiculously fast. It allows us to be the first ones to arrive at the whale sighting areas and, in the case of the whale under the stern, to rush forward and pre-position the vessel directly in the path of the Orcas. We’re in the only boat that’s able to do that.
We have been tracking a pod of 4 for at least 30 minutes. They are remarkable animals. We learn from the captain, Bob, a native British Columbian, that they live their entire lives as a nuclear family, so that in all likelihood the great mammals we are in contact with today are all related. We also learn from Bob that each animal has unique markings, like the fingerprints of a human being, and thus individuals can sometimes be identified even from a distance.
As we watch them, they surface and shoot great gusts of water into the air through their blowholes, then silently arc back under the water again, only to reappear a few hundred yards away, oblivious to our boat and the others that surround them. They’re rock stars and they don’t seem to care.
The waters around Victoria are some of the best places on earth to observe whales in general. We are a little early in the season for Humpbacks, though one had been spotted near us earlier that same day. I was excited to learn that, because I know from firsthand experience how magnificent these creatures are when they breach the surface of the ocean, but unfortunately we don’t see one today.
There are resident pods of killer whales that hang out near the city year round, so the local guides can guarantee sightings with such reliability that they will generally provide you with a free return trip if you fail to see any. The animals I am seeing today are transients that will move on in search of other whales to eat, but the residents are content with local fare like seals and sea lions.
Later on our trip, we’ll see a molting Bald Eagle and several other bird species, as well as a river otter, but of course the Orcas are the stars of the show. We return after a few hours, but not before hurtling through a biting rain that makes us hunker down in the boat for the trip back into the harbor.
When we arrive, Captain Bob takes the time to tell us what we’ve just seen on a large map posted on the exterior wall of their office. A nice touch.
What’s also appreciated, both on this tour and all of the others I took while in Canada, is the fact they don’t tell you 3 or 4 times that the crew relies almost exclusively on tips for income and, if you don’t pony up, their children will be starving, which is the usual story before, during, and, especially, after a US tour of any kind. I’d much rather they just pay those US workers more than a subsistence level wage and leave the begging to the street bums, but that’s another story.
Eagle Wing Tours is located right down in the touristy heart of the Inner Harbor a short walk from the Parliament building. They are ranked number one on trip Advisor for a reason. My only complaint was that it was very hard to hear him above the roar of the engines while we were underway. Still, I highly recommend them.
If you go:
Get there early-not only to make sure you have a spot on the boat, but also to watch the harbor seals and sea otters as they vie for the attention of tourists dangling fish over the side of the dock for them to eat. It will also give you a chance to snap a few photos of the floating house community.
Your camera will get wet-be prepared for that
You won’t get wet-They provide you with a rain slick, pants, and gloves. You won’t be cold, either.
Check for Groupons-Many of the tours offer them, and they can save you big bucks. I paid $100CAD pp. It could have been little more than half that, if I’d just planned ahead. Ouch! Some of the Groupon terms call for 24 hour-2 day advanced reservations.
You won’t get seasick-I’m prone so I know. If the day I went out was any indication, the seas are just a little rough, and the boat is constantly in motion. You shouldn’t have a problem.
Eat before you come- I had ice cream. It was OK-but, of course, a total rip off. There are plenty of great places to eat on the walk to the dock. Pick the worst one. It’s still better and cheaper than eating at the dock.