A Rare Visit from Bigg’s Killer Whales – 12/3/20

Over the past number of years, I have had the opportunity to take my grade 9 students from Calgary, Alberta on an outdoor school trip to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver Island. During this 5-day trip, students get to participate in activities that build on their learning at school, while immersing them in experiential, relevant, and engaging activities. Coming from the Calgary, where our landscape is defined by rugged mountains, rolling foothills, and flat grasslands, this trip also provides my students with an opportunity to connect with and experience a marine environment in a way that many people never get to experience.

One of the activities students get to take part in is a whale watching trip. In past years, we have seen numerous grey whales, bald eagles, sea lions, and even humpback whales, but this year’s whale watching trip was different.

As we speed away from Bamfield, making our way through the Deer Group and Broken Group Islands, I sat inside the cabin of the boat, watching a few of my students who had decided to sit out on the back deck of the boat for the ride. I watched as they smiled and laughed as they got wet from the sprays of water that came up over the sides of the boat. As we neared closer to the waters around Forbes Island, I could hear our captain as he spoke over the radio with other boats in the area. When suddenly I heard the voice come through the radio saying they had seen a “KW” in the area. My excitement rose as I thought about how amazing it would be for my students to not only see whales, but to possibly see a Killer Whale.

We finally reached the waters around Forbes Island. Our boat slowed as the captain eased up on the throttle, scanning the waters for any signs of whales. After a few minutes of the boat slowly crawling through the water with no signs of any whales, and knowing we only had a limited amount of time to be out looking, I began to worry that this could be the first time that my students didn’t get to see any whales.

As I scanned the waters, I could hear our captain on the radio and could again hear him talking about “KW”. After a moment on the radio, he told us all to sit down. With everyone seating, he pushed forward on the throttle. The boat accelerated and he started moving us away from the shore and back in the direction of the Broken Group Islands. After only a few moments, he eased up on the throttle, and announced that there was a pod of killer whales in the water. He maneuvered the boat, so the open back deck was facing the waters where the whales were and killed the engines.

As we stood out on the back deck we watched and waited. Finally, a student said, “over there by where the birds are circling!”

Narrowing our focus to the area the student described. We watched, and student after student started to call out when they saw a dorsal fin, or tail fluke breach the surface of the water. At different points we saw the large dorsal fin of a male, as well as a mom and calf breaking the surface together as they came to the surface for air.

At one point, we could see five different killer whales break the surface in the same area.

While not entirely sure, our captain thought this group of whales were Bigg’s (Transient) Killer Whales, a rare sight, which made the experience all the more unique and special.

We stood watching from the back of the boat as it drifted in the water, as the killer whales continue to break the surface, before disappearing back under the water. After what seemed like only a few minutes, but was closer to 40 minutes, our captain announced that it was time to head back. We all found our seats as the captain maneuvered us away from the area.

I took a minute to relieve the experience as I scrolled through the photos I had taken. Inside the cabin, students were excited to tell their peers when they returned, while out on the back deck of the boat, students were again enjoying the ride and the spray of water as we made our way back to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre.


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