Our final stop on Vancouver Island itself was in Victoria – out on the eastern tip.
The highlight of our stay there was the opportunity to see orcas and humpback whales on a trip out into the straights between Victoria and the mountains of the Olympic National Park beyond. We went out on a zodiac and bounced across the waves – not the ideal transport for the seasick ecologist but I soon forgot when we found a pod of orcas moving gracefully through the open seas. The waters around here play host to resident orcas who are present all year round; but this pod was passing through; these are referred to as transient. Interestingly, the two groups have different feeding habits – the resident pods are largely salmon-eaters whilst transient pods tend to eat seals and other marine mammals.
After spending 20 minutes watching the orcas, we moved on to watch a pair of humpback whales which were perhaps even more impressive. I know that ‘whales are big’ is about the most basic fact you can learn about them, but I’d never seen one up close before to be able to appreciate just how big they are! They would break the surface to spout at regular intervals of 20-30 seconds and repeat this 5-6 times before arching their backs for a deep dive which results in their tail breaking the surface and following them down to the depths where they would hunt for 5 minutes before returning to the surface for air.
On the way back, we got some great views of the sealions on a small island just off the coast – the smell caught up with you soon afterwards!
I had made some assumptions about the ethics of whale watching, in that it must be OK to be sanctioned, but after returning to dty land, I did a little research on the potential impacts upon these species. From the work I do in the UK with bats, I know that a species which relies upon echolocation for navigation and hunting will change their behaviour in response to noise – this is seen through avoidance behaviour or changes in hunting or foraging tactics. It turns out that there is evidence that whale watching can have a similar impact upon whales.
The sites I found which deal with this issue didn’t really give me a satisfactory final answer. Partly this is because these trips occur worldwide, with different regulatory regimes and some wildly different ideas of appropriate practise. And partly because the research simply isn’t there to assess the significance of an impact – the mechanism is understood and an impact demonstrated in some circumstances but the real impact of this growing industry may only become apparent in the long term.
The whale watching tours leaving from Victoria do follow a strict code of practise, and the various boats we saw watching the orcas observed these well. This would significantly reduce the impact in comparison to unregulated tours, but whether it is enough is still questionable. It was an amazing experience, but I would think twice before going out again. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society express concerns over trips from Vancouver Island to visit the resident population as, by definition, they are much more likely to suffer from the repeated visits from boats on a daily basis whereas the transient pods are likely to receive much more short-term disturbance.
One unexpected reminder of home was walking through the streets at dusk and hearing the trees alive with song. We had watched starlings descending into the city as the day drew to a close and there, in the middle of Government Street amongst the lights and cars, was an evening roost! A free concert for all those who passed by.
The other creature I was really hoping to see was a hummingbird. Victoria gets a number of species through the summer, but their reliance on the seasonal resource of nectar means that most migrate for the winter to seek food. With such a fast wingbeat, their energy expenditure means that they can’t go too long without a sugary refill! We were too late for most, but one exception is Anna’s hummingbird – these have the northernmost year-round range of any hummingbird and are regularly counted in Christmas bird lists for the city. On the last day, I read a tip which suggested listening for the male singing from the top of a tree. I had been sitting a few moments listening to what I assumed was some sort of machinery in the street outside our apartment, before realising that this series of buzzes, chips and whistles was the bird I was hoping to see! Looking for all the world like a pair of outsized bumblebees, a pair were skittering around the top of a street-tree, settling briefly before buzzing onwards and out of sight.
The final stop was a few days in Vancouver itself before heading back home – final post coming soon!