Hobnobbing With Orcas

Whales and whale watchers fill the waters around this remote Canadian village.

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Moments after shoving off from Telegraph Cove in search of orcas, or "killer" whales, Capt. Jim Borrowman deftly turns his 57-foot boat, M.V. Gikumi, 180 degrees and heads back to the dock. He knows his priorities: "We forgot Mary's muffins," Jim announces. With his wife's pastries and an ample lunch safely on board, we won't go hungry while scouting the whales, known as "wolves of the sea."

We find them, over and over again, and they are not alone. Myriad wild creatures populate the waters off this northeastern coast of Vancouver Island, about 400 miles north of Seattle. Aware of the natural bounty, Jim started Stubbs Island Charters, the first organized whale-watching company in British Columbia, in 1980. Today the Telegraph Cove outfitter leads multiple half-day excursions all season, and in 2001 it added the more in-depth expedition we're on. It's called M-7, short for the "magnificent seven" species we anticipate seeing: Orcinus orca killer whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall's porpoises, harbor porpoises, Minke whales, Steller sea lions, and, most reliably, harbor seals.

As we near Johnstone Strait, the triangular dorsal fins and misty breath spouts of orcas cut into the horizon, and Jim angles Gikumi starboard. Suddenly, some half-dozen mammoth bodies bullet through the water. In the wild, even a single orca personifies power, speed, and determination. A pod of them defies imagination.

Our onboard naturalist, Jackie Hildering, never tires of the whales' miraculous display, but she pragmatically observes their markings. "It's the T18s," she says. Marine biologist Lance Barrett-Lennard agrees. A regular aboard the M-7 adventure, Lance heads up cetacean research at the Vancouver Aquarium, and he's internationally renowned as an authority on orcas. T18s are transients, he explains, quite distinct in vocalization, behavior, and diet from two other groups, known as resident and offshore orcas.

"I wonder where they're leading us," Jackie muses, as the boat moves in the T18s' wake. The excitement sends 12-year-old David Grethlein to his laptop to update a school report he'll give back in Syracuse, New York.

"My son is in love with marine life," says David's mom, Sara Jo. She's come here on a family adventure that includes her father and nephew. "We discovered we had a distant cousin who's a killer-whale expert," Sara Jo says. That cousin is none other than Lance. "So we planned this trip to Telegraph Cove," she says.

All hit the deck rails when a radio call alerts Jim to a gathering of dolphins. These choice prey apparently are now swimming in the path of the whales. There could be some feeding ahead, but we'll keep an unobtrusive distance. "We don't want to intervene in what happens one way or the other," Jackie says.

During this M-7 package of five day trips (with dinner and lodging in Telegraph Cove each evening), we see many whales and hear their songs. Those underwater vocalizations come in over Jim's hydrophone, which he submerges regularly. "The G-Clan sounds like donkeys braying, and the R-Clan sounds like pigs oinking," one of the boys says. The haunting A-Clan vocals have become familiar to all of us by now.

"As recently as the '70s, you couldn't tell these orcas apart," Lance says. "People thought there were thousands of them here." Thanks to the pioneering work of the late Dr. Michael Bigg, a marine biologist, orcas can now be distinguished as unique members of specific families. Continuing identifications by Lance and other scientists have produced an accurate picture of Northern Pacific orca populations. Instead of thousands, there are only about 750 whales accounted for. "Everything changes fundamentally when you begin to recognize animals as individuals," Lance says.

It certainly gives us more reason to want to know these whales. But by late afternoon, no orcas remain in sight. Jim shuts off the engine and we drift as he drops the hydrophone deep into the seemingly calm sea. Underwater clicks, cries, and whistles fill the air. Soon we'll return to Telegraph Cove, lovely wines, and Mary's delicious dinner. For now, I find a bunk in the pilot house and relax with the boat's gentle rock and the backdrop of whale song.

Sounds like the A-Clan to me.

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