I’ve been on the water and around whales my entire life, both here off the coast of B.C., and off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I’ve had many incredible encounters, especially during my time as a humpback whale research intern and now as a naturalist, but this was the most mind-boggling and magical experience yet. I can’t imagine I will ever see anything that tops it either.
This morning, my fellow naturalist, Leah, our Captain Jordan and our small group of 14 guests set out on our whale watching tour, as we normally do. We spent the first half of the trip a few miles off of Sooke with Humpback Whales, and then decided to finish the tour at Race Rocks Ecological Reserve to watch seals, sea lions, and the other wildlife there. We were just about to enter the reserve when one of our guests spotted a killer whale about half a kilometre behind and to the north of us, so we stopped!
Leah and I quickly determined that it was a female Southern Resident Killer Whale, and was suspiciously alone – normally, as is commonly known, SRKWs swim with their entire pod, or at the very least, with their matriline.
Initially, this was a little alarming to us, so we stayed to watch and take photos with our telephoto lenses to figure out what exactly was happening. At this point, she had crossed under us and popped up about 500m away, south of us this time. From our photos, we were certain she was all by herself at this point, and she continued to be alone for the next few minutes as she travelled incredibly slowly, staying close to the surface and surfacing very frequently. She dove again, for much longer this time, about 5-7 minutes.
When she resurfaced, she had crossed under our boat once again, but this time, we could see something small and black near her head and it looked like she was pushing it with her rostrum.
Leah and I both did a bit of a double take at this point, momentarily questioning our identification of this whale as a SRKW; we entertained the thought that, maybe, this was actually a Bigg’s Killer Whale that was playing with its recent kill of a seal or sea lion, as they often do. But we were certain she was a SRKW, so our next thought was, “maybe she’s entangled, maybe that’s a buoy we’re seeing by her head.” Then, upon zooming into one of Leah’s photos, we noticed a little orange chin, and we knew for sure that she was pushing a calf…but was it alive?
She had pushed it to the surface now 3 or 4 times, assisting it to take its first breath. Now, our thoughts were drifting back to 2018, when J35 “Tahlequah” carried her deceased calf with her for 17 days, and were desperately hoping this was not about to happen again with this mom and calf. Finally, we saw the calf take its first breath on its own! It was immediately a huge relief, knowing that this little baby was absolutely alive!
We were completely overwhelmed with what we had just witnessed. I don’t think it had really sunk in yet at this point. Now, mom and calf swam towards us, eventually popping up about 50 feet away, and we shut off the engines and watched as they passed along side us.
The calf was energetic, with every surfacing so exaggerated and playful, springing it’s whole head out of the water and creating quite the splashing!
Noticing it’s tiny little dorsal fin flopped over to the left side of its body was the final puzzle piece that clicked in for me to truly wrap my head around what we had just witnessed.
Once they passed us and were at a safe distance, our captain began to take us home.
Leah rushed to our onboard SRKW ID catalogue, quickly identifying J41 to be the mom, confirming this with our lead naturalist and SRKW expert, having immediately sent her photos.
Just as quickly, we were in contact with the Pacific Whale Watch Association and the Center for Whale Research, sending photos, and providing as much information as we could. With that information now shared and the adrenaline subsiding the slightest bit, we both collapsed to our knees in shock and awe. We were frozen like this, speechless and with tears in our eyes, for a good few minutes.
Once we collected ourselves, we explained to our guests what we had all just unfolded in front of us, and how rare and special it was. Many of them shed a few tears as well. Not only did we see new life brought into this world, this was an animal so endangered and so sacred – a Southern Resident Killer Whale!!!