Mark Malleson is a life-long resident of the area, has worked as a skipper and guide for Prince of Whales Whale Watching and is also a gifted photographer who volunteers his time to photograph and catalog the transient, resident and off-shore killer whales in the area.
Please take a moment to check out Mark's website, Killer Whale Photography, and see some of the incredible photos he's taken over the years.
Photo credit - Mark Malleson
Whale Watching Off Vancouver Island...
The one thing I want to do while we are in Victoria is to take a whalewatching tour, so I search the internet for the most interesting charter company and finally choose Prince of Whales.
Why this company?
I love the name...and they offer a 12 person Zodiak as one of the choices for the tours.
I have a frantic fear of deep water, so choosing to go on the ocean in a small craft that lets me hunker down, nearly at the level with the water, is a great way to challenge my fear.
I call the office late on a Sunday evening and my call is immediately answered by someone who is more than helpful. We arrange the reservations for the day after we arrive in Victoria and I confirm the booking with my credit card.
In a few minutes.
What a pleasure to work with a business that puts client service front and center!
The day of our tour turns out to be a cool, brisk, windy spring day, so we make sure to dress in the warmest clothing we have brought with us. Arriving at the Prince of Whales office, I park the car and we walk into their office, register and pay $99 each for our tour.
Sooner than we can whistle, we are in the change room, dressing in voluminous flame-red and warmly-lined snowmobile suits. Complete with mitts and toques provided by the staff, we are wrapped in warmth and bundled against the elements for our trip on the icy-cold ocean water. No matter how warm it is on shore, the temperature of the ocean determines the temperature of the air just above the chilly water.
Waddling towards our Zodiak that is tied up at the dock, we resemble fat red penguins, waggling from side to side in our puffy suits.
Here I am, from the back.
Our Zodiak is soon filled with a variety of tourists, with our captain and guide, James, at the helm. A family from Mexico is seated behind us, and I can tell by the look on the mother's face that this is about to be her least favorite activity of their trip to Canada. Her husband and both of their teenage sons are animated and talkative, while she looks like she is being led directly to the guillotine.
We leave the dock behind our sister Zodiak, with both crafts full to the brim with tourists. Slowly, making our way out of the marina and into open water, the Zodiak settles low in the water...a good test for me, given my discomfort with deep water.
I am pleasantly surprised to find that I am enjoying myself and not feeling fearful at all! I have deliberately chosen a seat next to the water, and I am truly expecting to feel some degree of uneasiness.
Nope, nada...just excitement!
As sailboats slowly make their way into the open water of Juan De Fuca Strait, our Zodiak races past them, heading for the area where a pod of 3 orca has been seen earlier in the week. Our guide explains that this pod consists of a male, a female and a 350 lb. baby. This is totally cool, knowing that we are about to see what I consider to be one of Mother Nature's most beautiful of miracles.
I have been fascinated by orca for as long as I can remember. The beauty and grace of these enormous creatures of the deep amazes me. I think they have been given a very bad rap with the nickname of killer whales, because that's not their inherent nature in their undersea world. They are very rarely involved in attacking and killing humans, and there are few records of their acting in this manner.
As we move closer to the area where the pod has been sighted, James quiets the motor of the Zodiak and we are sitting in stillness. There are several other boats in the same vicinity, all silently waiting for the orca pod to surface.
And, suddenly, they are there.
There is a collective intake of air from everyone in the Zodiak.
People gasp and then exclaim...
"Oh, my God!"
"Would you look at that!"
"Look, look...there they are!"
We are not close enough to see individual details clearly. Our guide explains that we must stay a specified distance from the pod. Still, I can determine the larger shapes of the adults and, on occasion, I can see that there is a smaller one, their new baby. I feel very privileged to be able to be present for this incredible sighting. I know that people who live in the area might occasionally become inured to seeing these glorious whales, but for me, it is a new experience and I'm completely in awe.
I have several questions. James is more than happy to answer them for me.
I want to know how many whales there are in a pod.
He tells me that one whale is considered to be a pod, and the size of the pod is determined by the amount of the present food supply. That makes total sense to me. He says that pods in this area close to Victoria usually feed on seals, and so the pods are smaller. Where there is a more plentiful food supply, like fish, the pods tend to be larger.
Then, I want to know what he remembers as the most amazing thing he's seen in his years working with the whales in this area. He tells us about standing at the back of a huge fishing boat and watching a single male orca 'surfing' on the wake left behind by the ship. He said the whale appeared to be in heaven, his head tipped back and enjoying himself completely. Finally, after several minutes of this sport, the male left, apparently having surfed his fill.
We've moved the Zodiak several times, keeping up with the pod as they meander through the water. James tells us that they are likely hunting for and then enjoying a seal dinner. That knowledge makes me a little squeamish at first, and then I realize it's no different than my roast chicken dinner last night. Every creature has to eat something, sometime.
I ask James if there is a pattern to the pod's movements, while they are looking for food. He tells me that it appears to be a random pattern and there isn't any discernable path that they follow.
Finally, the whales disappear beneath the water for the final time. James turns the Zodiak for harbour, and promises us a quick stop to check out a sea lion that has been sighted on the rocks of one of the islands nearby.
The air temperature feels like it has become noticeably colder, the longer we are on the water. I think our bodies are just beginning to feel the cold through our warm suits as we skim across the water for shore. My friend, Sophia, is freezing, even though she's bundled up to the eyebrows.
As we cruise into the marina, toques and mitts are peeled off, red insulated suits are unzipped and we get ready to step onshore. Once inside the office, we strip down, returning to our dayclothes and head for the parking lot.
I stop at the front desk to ask about accessing some photos of the whales for my piece that I'm planning to write. As luck would have it, the staff member at the desk says, "Wait a minute, please. Mark's here somewhere. I'll ask him about this for you."
A moment later, Mark Malleson comes through a doorway, we introduce ourselves and I tell him about my blog and the articles I plan to write about Prince of Whales and the orca in the area. He generously offers to e-mail some of his images to me to use in this piece, so you'll see those photos that he's shared with me are copyright-marked and included for your enjoyment.
It has been a few weeks since we went whale watching with Prince of Whales and I still count it as one of the most meaningful days of our trip. My fascination with orca, coupled with the opportunity to actually go by boat to their area of the ocean, has been quite an experience for me.
"One study involved killer whales at Marineland in Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada. An inventive male devised a brand new way to catch birds, and passed the strategy on to his tank-mates.
The 4-year-old orca lures gulls into his tank by spitting regurgitated fish onto the water's surface.
He waits below for a gull to grab the fish, then lunges at it with open jaws.
They are in a way setting a trap. They catch three or four gulls this way some days."
~ Michael Noonan