West Coast Wild: Whale Watching in two acts

Monday writer Natalie North hits the waters off Greater Victoria with Prince of Whales

Act 1: In which we embark on a zodiac adventure

Who wouldn’t rather spend their morning at the office aboard a zodiac adventure tour from the Inner Harbour? Prince of Whales’ boat, equipped with a steel hull and twin 200-horsepower engines, is easily able to carry the dozen eager adventurers now donning Mustang Survival Flotation Suits for their impending journey. Our guide, Mark Malleson, an 18-year vet of the whale watching business, loads our well-padded, wind and waterproof bodies onto the bench seats and slides into a Captain Morgan pose, leg hoisted squarely on the inflatable yellow siding, hands on hips, to explain the basics.

The basics: we’re going to spend the next three hours looking for massive marine mammals. And it’ll be great.

Specks of sunlight glitter across the harbour as fragments of each passenger’s backstory spill from the lemony vessel. Natives of three continents are represented on my bench seat alone, each of us united by our sporting of sunglasses and a smile – and those cozy flotation suits.

Past the harbour ferries, float homes, Coast Guard ships and toward another group of whale watchers, the engine’s thrum relieves any pressure to initiate small talk and I snug into a soothing West Coast marine trance. The patterns and shapes shift with each approaching wave and an iPhone vibrates in vain at the bottom of my bag. Enter some of the best thinking time money can buy.

We pull to the west and investigate the spaces between Secretary Island, East Sooke Park and Race Rocks and the head and hands of the once-endangered sea otter glide across the surface of the water. Within tiny hands is an urchin, now being beaten against a rock with human-like control. The guests aboard our adventure are more than into the display, which Malleson tells us is a fairly rare occurrence.

We wind along East Sooke Park. A kingfisher steps along the water’s edge. The engines slow, low enough for the call of the red-winged blackbird to rise above and soon the afternoon path of three sealions – two California, one Stellar – will cross with ours.

“Must be nice playing in the current,” Malleson says. “I envy them.”

A man on the deck of a small fishing boat shares the news that he had seen whales earlier in the day. We continue the journey, past a pair of oyster catchers, identifiable by their long, red beaks and beyond an eagle’s nest in Whirl Bay.

Sealions cry out with Chewbaccian strangeness atop Race Rocks. We sit, take photos. The iPhone is pulled from the depths of my bag and mindless videography skills sharp enough to shoot the Blair Witch prequel are engaged. The power and presence of the last creatures we are to encounter on our three-hour whale chase is too authentic to measure against the idea of another. We drift through icy blue water, darkened in places by flowing streams of kelp and turn home.

 

Act 2: In which we return to the ocean in search of magic

About three dozen people stand in a queue in front of Prince of Whales HQ. Each holds a laminated boarding pass and the hope of crossing paths with a baleen beauty in our waters. Lucky for them, P-’Dub offers one of the finest guarantees in the world of guarantees: the “Whale Sightings Guarantee.”

Should you board their boats between April and October, and not see a whale, you are cordially invited to return, free of charge, on board the Ocean Magic – a larger vessel, complete with snack bar – as many times as necessary until the day you die, or until you spot a whale, whichever comes first. Buy a hot chocolate while you’re at it, too.

The afternoon ride out to the San Juans is calm, quasi-eventful. We pass an eagle, a tall ship and the aftermath of a burning boat. And yes, almost immediately upon arrival in Haro Strait off San Juan Island, we see whales. Non-stop whales. A festival of fins. With each black dorsal that cuts through the glassy surface, our first mate Jen Dickson rattles off a name and a fact. Orcas from J-Pod are out in full force: Oreo, Double Stuf and Cookie, each has its photograph and family information logged since research began in the area in 1976.

Dickson, who studied biology and environmental studies, is as enthusiastic as they come and shows no limit to her depth of interest in the Cetaceans. The lesson winds its way from the history of resident and transient populations halting their breeding some 700,000 years ago, to our shameful past killing and capturing the mammals to now watching the annual return of the famed J-pod matriarch Granny, a 102-year-old great-great-grandmother.

While there is no lack of interest from passengers atop the Ocean Magic, clearly, the main attraction remains on the sea. As each group of killer whales rises above the waterline, the group of spectators becomes transfixed and while most of us fall silent, a small child squeals with delight. Throughout the evening, groups of two to seven whales will swim up beside us, shoot mist from their blowholes or spyhop to our enchantment.

Is this oceanic opera any more magical than our ocean adventure to a pack of sunbathing sealions, whose barks will leave you stunned and strange in the best way possible? Not for me, but for anyone questioning the Whale Sightings Guartantee, let me tell you, it’s honoured.

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