Hobnobbing With Orcas
Whales and whale watchers fill the waters around this remote Canadian village.
Moments after shoving off from Telegraph Cove in search oforcas, or "killer" whales, Capt. Jim Borrowman deftly turns his57-foot boat, M.V. Gikumi, 180 degrees and heads back to the dock. He knows hispriorities: "We forgot Mary's muffins," Jim announces. With hiswife's pastries and an ample lunch safely on board, we won't gohungry 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 northeasterncoast of Vancouver Island, about 400 miles north of Seattle. Awareof the natural bounty, Jim started Stubbs Island Charters, thefirst organized whale-watching company in British Columbia, in1980. Today the Telegraph Cove outfitter leads multiple half-dayexcursions all season, and in 2001 it added the more in-depthexpedition we're on. It's called M-7, short for the "magnificentseven" species we anticipate seeing: Orcinus orca killer whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins,Dall's porpoises, harbor porpoises, Minke whales, Steller sealions, and, most reliably, harbor seals.
As we near Johnstone Strait, the triangular dorsal fins andmisty breath spouts of orcas cut into the horizon, and Jim angles Gikumi starboard. Suddenly, some half-dozen mammoth bodiesbullet through the water. In the wild, even a single orcapersonifies power, speed, and determination. A pod of them defiesimagination.
Our onboard naturalist, Jackie Hildering, never tires of thewhales' miraculous display, but she pragmatically observes theirmarkings. "It's the T18s," she says. Marine biologist LanceBarrett-Lennard agrees. A regular aboard the M-7 adventure, Lanceheads up cetacean research at the Vancouver Aquarium, and he'sinternationally renowned as an authority on orcas. T18s aretransients, he explains, quite distinct in vocalization, behavior,and diet from two other groups, known as resident and offshoreorcas.
"I wonder where they're leading us," Jackie muses, as the boatmoves in the T18s' wake. The excitement sends 12-year-old DavidGrethlein to his laptop to update a school report he'll give backin 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 andnephew. "We discovered we had a distant cousin who's a killer-whaleexpert," Sara Jo says. That cousin is none other than Lance. "So weplanned this trip to Telegraph Cove," she says.
All hit the deck rails when a radio call alerts Jim to agathering of dolphins. These choice prey apparently are nowswimming in the path of the whales. There could be some feedingahead, but we'll keep an unobtrusive distance. "We don't want tointervene in what happens one way or the other," Jackie says.
During this M-7 package of five day trips (with dinner andlodging in Telegraph Cove each evening), we see many whales andhear their songs. Those underwater vocalizations come in over Jim'shydrophone, which he submerges regularly. "The G-Clan sounds likedonkeys braying, and the R-Clan sounds like pigs oinking," one ofthe boys says. The haunting A-Clan vocals have become familiar toall 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, amarine biologist, orcas can now be distinguished as unique membersof specific families. Continuing identifications by Lance and otherscientists have produced an accurate picture of Northern Pacificorca populations. Instead of thousands, there are only about 750whales accounted for. "Everything changes fundamentally when youbegin 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 theengine and we drift as he drops the hydrophone deep into theseemingly calm sea. Underwater clicks, cries, and whistles fill theair. Soon we'll return to Telegraph Cove, lovely wines, and Mary'sdelicious dinner. For now, I find a bunk in the pilot house andrelax with the boat's gentle rock and the backdrop of whalesong.
Sounds like the A-Clan to me.