Where are the whales?

September 4, 2014

A question I get probably every tour (along with “how deep is the water here?” because for some reason everyone is fascinated by depth…) is “So, do you ever come out and not see whales?”

Yes. Of course! These are wild animals we’re talking about, and an absolute reality of working with wild animals is that they’re unpredictable. Even though the ongoing research being done on killer whales is one of the longest studies conducted on a mammal ever, and we’ve been observing their movements for decades, sometimes they still elude us. Not only that, we’re operating on one of the most diverse and dynamic environments on the planet: the ocean. So even when we know where whales are, that doesn’t always mean we can see them.

First of all it’s important to understand that cetaceans* are always moving. Literally. Always. Even when they’re “sleeping,” they’re moving. Some of the animals we see can travel well over 100km in a day, so every morning we start from scratch and go looking for these guys. Between May and the end of September, we find them about 95% of the time.

That means that 5% of the time, we don’t. This can happen for a few reasons. We found them in the morning but by the time we went out later in the day they’d moved outside of our range. Or perhaps we couldn’t locate them because they were in an area shrouded in fog. Sometimes we know where they are, but we can’t get to them because of rough weather. And sometimes, they’re just not here.

The major driving force behind most animals’ movements is food, and whales are no exception. The residents follow the salmon that makes up 90% of their diet as they move between the open Pacific and the mouth of the Fraser River in Vancouver. Transient killer whales keep moving to keep seals on their toes, so we never know when we’ll spot them in the area. Humpbacks and grey whales migrate up to these waters (and even further north, towards Alaska) in search of small schooling fish like herring.

With all of these factors at play, finding whales day in and day out is no easy task. We manage in part thanks to an extensive sightings network that communicates the whales’ movements to members of the Pacific Whale Watching Association. But mostly we rely on the extensive experience of our dedicated skippers, captains, and naturalists to be in the right place at the right time.

The summer of 2014 has been a truly exceptional one. With resident killer whales back with much more consistency than last year, and transient killer whales showing up on an all-time record high (check out the Times Colonist article here), we’ve only missed out whales on less than 10 trips since June 1st! To put that success rate in perspective, remember that we can send up to 15 trips a day!

If you do miss out on whales during our peak season, worry not, you can try again! Passengers can take advantage of our no-whale standby guarantee (details here).

So rest assured, chances are, if there’s whales out there, we’ll find them for you!

By Jennifer Dickson

*What’s a cetacean? Check out next month’s blog post for the answer!