Island Adventures

Whales – and whale watchers – are returning to the Salish Sea in record numbers


Skipper Bill Coltart (standing) guides a group of excited visitors in his 25-foot Zodiac, hoping to catch a glimpse of the local wildlife.  Photo by Boomer Jerritt

I was privileged to be part of a group of media representatives invited to experience a ‘Big Animal Encounter’ with Pacific Pro Dive & Marine Adventures this summer. It was a beautiful morning, and the sea was relatively calm. I was not. I was a little nervous stepping into the 25-foot Zodiac boat named ‘Fast Forward’, along with 10 other excited whale watchers and our guide, skipper, and owner of Courtenay-based Pacific Pro Dive, Bill Coltart. Another dozen media reps boarded Pacific Pro Dive’s custom-made 32-foot aluminum Coastal Cruiser, skippered by Josh Grin and aptly named ‘Ata-tude’.

I secretly wished I had opted for the boat, which boasts a heated cabin with seating for 12 and an on-board washroom. But hey, my job is a tough one and sometimes I just have to step outside my comfort zone and into what is essentially a giant rubber dingy, all in the name of research! I pulled my Pacific Pro Dive toque tightly down around my ears and hunkered down in the not-so-sexy bright orange ‘cruiser suit’, with its built-in personal floatation device, and mentally prepared to experience what I thought would be a very long and somewhat scary ride.

Within minutes of leaving the Campbell River Marina, the Zodiac’s 300 HP outboard motor had us skipping atop the waves at 50-kilometres-per-hour. It was not all frightening. In fact, it was really fun. And I was grateful that the Pacific Pro Dive staff had insisted I wear the toque. Even though it was a warm summer day, it was chilly on the water.

We had only travelled about 10 minutes and were nearing Quadra Island when Coltart slowed the Zodiac and cut the motor. My first thought was that there was something wrong with the vessel.

“Look over there!” he shouts, pointing out into the water. “There’s a pod of orcas!”

While my fellow whale watchers and I gasped with delight at the sight of the orca’s fins and backs cutting through the water, Coltart began an informative and entertaining monolog about orcas in general and these ones in particular.

I learned that orcas, which are commonly called killer whales, are not whales at all. With a possible lifespan of at least 60 years, they are the biggest of the dolphin family. Male orcas can grow almost 7.5-metres in length and weigh several tonnes.

There are three types of these spectacular black and white mammals in British Columbia waters, each with unique diet preferences. Resident orcas are inshore fish eaters with a preference for Chinook salmon. Transient orcas eat marine mammals, mainly seals but also sea lions, porpoise, dolphins, Minke whales, and the calves of grey whales and humpback whales. Offshore orcas are usually found off the coast of BC and their diet includes sharks.

“Unfortunately, because these particular orcas are transients, and they are carnivores, there will be little chance of us seeing any dolphins or seals in the water today,” explains Coltart. “The ‘prey’ seems to know which type of whales are in the area and they leave when the transient orcas come through.”

Coltart adds that orca have been studied as individuals since the early 1970s by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and individuals are identified through photographs of their dorsal fins and unique black and white ‘saddle patches’.

We are all mesmerized by the orcas moving gracefully past us for a safe distance. While they didn’t bless us with any breaching, where they leap out of the water and land with a giant splash, seeing them in the wild was still a sight to behold. I was now grateful to be on the Zodiac, which puts whale watchers at water level and gives a clear sightline to the animal action.

Before long, Coltart’s cell phone receives a text from a fellow tour operator, alerting him to the location of some humpback whales further north.

A humpback whale sounds while traveling south of Seymour Narrows. Campbell River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Photo by Boomer Jerritt

A humpback whale sounds while traveling south of Seymour Narrows. Campbell River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

Despite their massive size, finding humpbacks in the ocean can be difficult. To ensure that all whale watchers have amazing ocean adventures, the whale watching tour operators work together, communicating whale activity with each other via text messages and reporting all sightings to the Wild Ocean Whales Society (WOWS) on a daily basis.

“This camaraderie is unlike any other industry I have ever worked in,” Coltart says. “This ongoing communication and collaboration helps us all immensely. Last year alone the network shared over 21,000 text messages relating to the whales’ activities and locations. Our reporting on the whales’ activity to WOWS also helps whale researchers better understand the animals’ migration and feeding patterns.”

We are soon zipping across the waters toward Yellow Island, which is just south and east of the famous Seymour Narrows area, staying alert for whale ‘spouts’ or ‘blows’ that signal the presence of whales and the need to slow down.
Unlike fish that breathe through their gills, whales are mammals and breathe air into their lungs through their blowholes. To take a deep and quick breath when they come to the surface, they force all of the air out of their lungs through their blowholes. The resulting spray of condensed water vapor, or spout, indicates the humpbacks have risen to the surface and will usually remain there for several minutes.

It is important to note that to adhere to federal guidelines that protect all whale species, tour operators and recreational boaters alike must stay 100 metres away from any sighted whales. Occasionally, whales may dive deep and then resurface close to a vessel, but whale watchers are not allowed to chase, position themselves strategically, or otherwise restrict the animals’ natural movements.

Human interference was a problem when two humpback whales entered the waters by the Comox Marina in late August—a rare and beautiful sight witnessed by dozens of onlookers. Unfortunately, several recreational jet skiers were seen pursuing the animals on their watercraft. Thankfully, members of Lifeforce, a marine wildlife protection, research and education organization, had a vessel in the water nearby and were able to stop the offenders.

In the past five years, all whale watching charter operators have reported a marked increase in humpback whales in this region. With this increased number of whales comes an equivalent increase in the number of locals and tourists who want a glimpse of these magnificent creatures. Seeing them is a real privilege and not one that we should take for granted. Especially if you are able to experience them while standing on the Comox Marina boardwalk.

After being hunted to near extinction, and whaling stopped in BC in 1966, North Pacific humpback whale populations have been making a comeback. Coltart says that in the early 1990s humpbacks were only rarely seen in local waters. The return of these majestic animals is a testament to the resilience of the species and the importance of the cool waters of the Salish Sea for their feeding. But despite the larger populations, humpback whales in BC are still listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act.

The three major threats to this population include entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes and potential prey shortage. The Marine Education and Research Society (MERS), a registered Canadian charity based on Northern Vancouver Island, is studying these threats. They are dedicated to promoting the conservation and understanding of marine ecosystems through scientific research, environmental education, and marine wildlife response. MERS is very familiar with the three humpbacks we see on our excursion, having documented two of them since they were first year calves. They are KC (BCY0291), Arial (BCY0767), and Yogi (BCY0409).

From the time of our arrival near Yellow Island, and approximately every seven minutes thereafter, three humpback whales repeatedly rise to the surface and clear their lungs with a massive snort through their blowholes, spraying water several metres into the air. Then, they seemingly waved ‘goodbye’ with flips of their massive tail flukes. Again, no whale breaching for us that day, but no one expressed any disappointment.

While we watch, skippers in both Pro Dive vessels provide a wealth of information about the animals we are observing.

Humpbacks are one of the largest whales seen in BC waters. They are easily recognizable by their long flippers—which are up to one-third the length of their entire bodies—their large black-and-white tail flukes and the series of bumps on their massive heads.

It is astounding to learn that a creature of this size feeds only on tiny crustaceans, called krill, as well as small, schooling fish, such as herring and sandlance. With a higher nutrient and oxygen content, the temperate waters of our oceans in summer support more of the food that humpbacks thrive on, so they migrate here for several months of the year. Warmer waters have little or no food for the whales but they migrate there to mate and birth their calves, as there is less risk of the newborns being attacked by the mammal-eating kind of orca found in our waters.

Our four-hour Big Animal Adventure is rounded out with a trip ashore to stretch our legs and enjoy a hotdog lunch. We were also shown a cliff-face on Quadra Island that is the nesting grounds for a colony of cormorants—a type of bird that flies clumsily in the air but can dive and ‘swim’ like a torpedo underwater. The spectacular scenery, an abundance of sea birds, and a tour across the swirling waters of Seymour Narrows were highlights of the trip.

Operating as Big Animal Encounters, Pacific Pro Dive & Marine Adventures has been running ocean adventure charters out of the Comox and Campbell River Marinas for more than two decades. Coltart started his business in his parents’ basement in 1994, with a $5,000 inheritance from his grandmother’s estate. They started small, with a six passenger diving boat and initially operated primarily in the summer. In 1997, they opened the dive shop in Courtenay and have never looked back.

In 22 years, Coltart has grown the business to have nine employees, including his wife Sharon Morgan who handles the bookkeeping and office administration. They now operate out of stores in Courtenay and Campbell River and, in addition to whale watching, Pacific Pro-Dive offers snorkelling and scuba diving charters and water taxi services. They also have two retail stores that sell a variety of water sports items such as lifestyle wear, wetsuits, and surf/diving accessories.

Coltart’s success in business and life are proof that the pristine waters of the Salish Sea are good for whales and for the local economy. Be sure to add a Big Animal Encounter to your bucket list.

For more information visit www.biganimalencounters.com
To learn more about whales go to the Marine Education & Research Society at www.mersociety.org or Wild Ocean Whales Society at www.whalesanddolphinsbc.com

People interested in learning more about local marine adventure tours may contact Pacific Pro Dive directly or go through the Vancouver Island Visitor Centre, which is located off the 29th Street connector in Courtenay. In addition to booking a wide variety of excursions, the Visitor Centre has recently expanded its infrastructure to enable online bookings with more than 20 participating operators with a web-based product called RezGo. Guests may now book whale watching tours, Ambassador Transportation’s wine and brewery tours, Island Trails Culinary Tours, discounted Harbour Air flights and more online. Bookings can be made on your home computer or cell phone, from anywhere in the world.

The advantage of RezGo is that operator partners receive instant booking notifications by email, while guests are provided with paperless receipts and vouchers for check-in. This is a huge bonus for the operator partners who do not have their own web booking technology. Pacific Pro Dive & Marine Adventures was one of the first operators to sign up on the system, and they have already seen bookings from Europe and the lower mainland. For information about tours, excursions, hotels and transportation products available at the Vancouver Island Visitor Centre, call 1-855-400-2882 or visit www.discovercomoxvalley.com