It was 08:37, on May 16th, when we heard the first orca call on the house speaker. We were in the midst of a discussion about a huge group of transients that had been observed to the south the day before. The report spoke of a group of over 30 individuals. We were not entirely sure that they would head in our direction, but we were hoping! The sea was flat calm, not even a ripple, and there wasn’t a boat to be heard anywhere within our acoustic range. The transients’ crystal clear calls began to stream through and were echoing in Robson Bight as the whales chatted away. Clicks, whistles and pulsed calls could all be heard and it seemed as though these guys were having a good time! The calls got louder and became more frequent and excited; at one point they actually sounded like birds chirping! It seemed as though there were a large number of orcas and they definitely had a lot to say to one another. Luckily, all systems were a go and Orca-Liver’s were joining in across the globe to listen to the whales sing the morning away. A boat came on the Critical Point hydrophone and the whales’ chatter faded in and out behind the boat noise as the whales and the tug with its tow, slowly headed west in Johnstone Strait. When we realized that the orcas had continued past the entrance to Blackney Pass, thus not coming by the lab, and that the local whale researchers were not in the area, we headed out to obtain photo ID’s.
The scene to come was incredible! There were blows and dorsal fins spread out, in various group sizes, across the entire width of the Strait! The older males seemed to stick to the perimeter on either side of the Strait as well as in the lead and trailing behind. The mums and their kids occupied the space in between while they rolled, rubbed, spyhopped and rested in the glassy, calm waters. The young ones were particularly boisterous; we could even hear their vocals at the surface! The adolescent males mingled in the main crowd as the entire group of orcas slowly headed west. Galiano (T019B) and Kwatsi (T020), aged 16 years and ~48 years respectively, had fresh scratches on their dorsal fins, most likely from all the socializing over the past few days. The whole lot of them were definitely not in any hurry and there was no doubt that they were enjoying themselves! It was hard to get an accurate count, with the multitude of groups spread over a vast area, but we kept coming back to a tally of over 30 orca….it appeared as though we were amidst a Transient Orca Superpod Social!!
After an hour of continuous surface-active behaviour a few of the groups began to porpoise to the West. Within just a few minutes all of the orca had gathered in two large traveling lines as they bounded down Johnstone Strait. A small group of 5-6 orca also lagged just behind the rest. There were times when ~15 orca would porpoise out of the water in perfect synchronicity. At one point, a little one broke through the surface whilst porpoising ahead of the largest group as if s/he was in the lead. You could feel the excitement! These guys were moving at a steady pace of 10-15 knots as they left a huge wake behind them. A half hour quickly passed as we tried to document their groupings. When we realized that a continued attempt would be futile we stopped the boat and sat back, smiling, as the mornings events began to sink in.
*Please note: All photos were taken with a 400mm lens, zoomed and cropped. When observing marine mammals please ‘Be Whale Wise’. See link below.
Contributed by Leah Robinson and Marie Fournier