Chasing whales and ales in Victoria BC

This past weekend we made a quick trip of approximately 20 miles across the strait to Victoria BC. I like being able to see Canada from my house! Victoria is a lovely and very English city. Although it’s much larger than my home town, Victoria’s downtown area is very walkable. It’s entirely possible to walk from my house to the ferry dock, walk onto the ferry, cross the strait, walk off the ferry, have a nice lunch, and then turn around and walk all the way back home.

We went to Victoria with a couple of specific things in mind to do. The main thing was the Victoria half marathon that I (LKS) planned to run on Sunday. You can read about how that worked out for me here (I had a great day!).

Before Sunday, however, we had other plans. As it happened, it was my birthday weekend. I’d been wanting to go whale watching for a while. I usually try to go at least once a year, but with all the running, hiking, biking, and brewing, the summer had gotten away from me. So soon after I’d picked up my race packet on Saturday morning, we were out on the water in a 74-passenger whale watching boat.

I belong to a Puget Sound area whale advocacy group called Orca Network. Their email, Facebook, and Twitter updates keep me well informed as to the general whereabouts of our local orcas, gray whales, humpbacks, and the occasional minke whale. I knew that our Southern Resident orca population (the salmon-eating orcas) had gone out to sea a few days before, but that there were a couple of transient groups (the marine mammal-eating orcas) hanging around. These two groups both frequent our local waters, but never intermingle and are in the process of becoming separate species.

When we headed out of Victoria harbor and went straight east toward the San Juan Islands, I figured that the captain was aiming for an area where orcas had already been spotted earlier that morning. Once we saw a tight grouping of stationary boats on the horizon, it was obvious exactly where they were. All of the whale watch companies do a great job of working together and informing one another of any whale sightings — they all offer some sort of guarantee, so it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure that everyone sees whales. The whales we were about to see were apparently the only ones in our local waters at that moment — so everyone was there to see them.

So here we were — nearly a dozen whale watching boats all slowly following (at a barely-legal distance) a small and leisurely group of orcas. The on-board naturalist quickly identified them as transient whales… specifically, the T49s and (I believe) T36s. In transient orca nomenclature, “Txx” is the matriarch of the pod and her children (who stay with her for life) are designated as TxxA, TxxB, etc. Therefore, what we had here were a couple of moms and their children, traveling together. Positive ID is made from the individual differences in the markings near their dorsal fins, and from any nicks or scars on those fins.

These orcas had apparently eaten recently, as they were traveling slowly. The average transient orca eats one seal a day, but these guys weren’t hunting at the moment. While we watched them, they continued to slow down and tightly synchronize their dives. We were watching whales in the process of going to sleep.

How do orcas sleep? Half a brain at a time. They can never go fully to sleep because they must maintain conscious control of their breathing at all times. While one brain hemisphere sleeps, the other hemisphere is making constant decisions to dive, surface, and breathe. Later, the sleeping hemisphere will awaken and the waking hemisphere will sleep.

I felt a little sorry for these poor whales trying to grab some shut-eye while leading a parade of boats, but as the naturalist pointed out, if they were really bothered by us they would have moved quickly away from us. All of the boats maintained a respectful distance and posed no threat to the whales.

I took a bunch of photos, but it’s tough to photograph a moving and diving whale from a rocking boat. Here are a couple — both substantially cropped (we weren’t anywhere near as close as it seems). If you look closely at the first one, you’ll see a young calf spouting, very close to mom’s head (on the right side of the photo).

We probably spent the better part of an hour watching these whales (time flies when you are in their amazing presence) before heading back to Victoria.

Now that we’d seen the whales, it was time to go hunting for some ales! Victoria has several brewpubs, with half a dozen located right downtown near the waterfront. Given that it was my birthday weekend, I wanted to celebrate! But with a half marathon coming up at 7:30 AM on Sunday, I couldn’t go overboard. I limited myself to one brewpub, at which I consumed half a sampler (CFL and I shared) and a pint of the lovely pale ale that won the sampling contest for me. I was back at the motel and sound asleep before 8:00 PM! What sort of birthday is that???

(It was a great one!)

We did manage to hit another brewpub after the race on Sunday, but I think we’ll be going back to Victoria again to check out a few more. The Victorian microbrew scene is subtly but distinctly different from here in Washington — a bit less hoppy, a bit more focus on lagers versus ales. It’s amazing what a difference a few short miles across the strait can make. The pints are bigger too! What’s not to like about that?

2 responses to “Chasing whales and ales in Victoria BC

  1. I don’t like to say “I’m jealous” too often. Or at least no out loud! :-) But… What an awesome day. I would love every minute of it, I’m positive. The orcas provided quite a show and I’m delighted you experienced it and shared it with me here. Debra

  2. Debra, I do consider myself very lucky to live here. Before I was able to move here, whenever I was stressed out I used to think about the orcas just swimming around living thir lives with their highly social, peaceful extended families. I think they are more intelligent than we are in some ways. They have always inspired and delighted me.

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