Yukusam: A Rare Sperm Whale Sighting

May 3, 2018

As the first month of the 2018 Prince of Whales Whale Watching season entered into full force, excitement was abuzz around the office. Sperm Whales haven’t been spotted in B.C.’s coastal waters since 1984, but rumours had surfaced that one was cruising in the Johnstone Strait. Joe Zelwietro, zodiac skipper, educator extraordinaire, and all-around charismatic Whale Watching guide, came back into the Victoria Harbour on the last day of March filled with exciting news. The rumours had been true.

The reports had placed a Sperm Whale with a group of transient killer whales, and, Zelwietro knew this was going to be something to watch out for. Chatting with us a few weeks later, he explains that his tour’s evening began with an encounter of Southern Resident killer whales headed north in Swanson Channel, between Pender and Saltspring Islands. “It was already one of the better trips I’d had this year when I heard reports of a possible humpback sighting in Boundary Pass, just a few miles South East of us. This would have been the first humpback for me since late January.”

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”We slowly drifted away from the killer whales as I explained to my guests how rare an opportunity we were about to have”[/perfectpullquote]

Later on, he says, a vessel that was headed home to the San Juan Islands was interrupted by a whale surfacing a couple hundred yards ahead. The driver of this vessel stopped and took photos that later confirmed it was, in fact, a sperm whale. The earlier spotting of this whale, known as Yukusam, was “well off the usual range for this species” Zelwietro tells us.

“The whale made [its] way south and was later seen twice near Nanaimo. Those sightings sandwiched an unconfirmed third [sighting] off Lummi Island, Washington,” he notes. Joe knew from the earlier encounters up the coast that the whale was diving 25-35 minutes at a time, following 10-20 breaths. “The vessel on scene let us know when and where exactly the animal dove, along with its heading,” he says. At this point the large mammal was just under 3 nautical miles from Zelwietro’s location.

Sperm Whale at dawn photographed by Joe Zelweitro

He explains to us how the light was just right for him to spot the last few blows in the distance; he knew what was to come. “We slowly drifted away from the killer whales as I explained to my guests how rare an opportunity we were about to have,” Joe remembers. 

By the time we arrived at the spot of the dive, we were the only boat around for miles and light was fading–but I had a good idea of where to expect the next surface,” he discloses. “We were all appropriately excited.”

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Sure enough, just after I shut down the engines to wait, the tell-tale blow erupted from the surface”[/perfectpullquote]

Shortly, a colleague joined Joe’s team from Cowichan Bay on an empty whale watching vessel just to have the chance to encounter this animal as well, the experienced skipper tells us. “To my knowledge, that evening is the only time a sperm whale has ever been encountered in the Salish Sea,” he divulges.

“I pulled my boat alongside his and we all listened to the sperm whale sounding beneath us via hydrophone. It was a distinct rhythmic noise similar to metal banging on a pipe, [it was] very cool and certainly [different] from anything we have heard here before–and much louder!”, the marine naturalist details.

“At about 25 minutes after the dive, we split up to cover more area in the search; I went a little to the south along the deepest part of the Strait.” Joe and his boat of eco-tourists now found themselves in north Haro Strait, between Stuart Island, WA and Moresby Island, BC. “I expected the whale to surface there as its movement so far had apparently been quite steady along the deepest parts of Boundary Pass and northern Haro Strait,” he notes.

Boundary Pass was where the blows thought to be a humpback were originally seen earlier in the evening. It was around 7:00pm in the evening and, “sure enough, just after I shut down the engines to wait, the tell-tale blow erupted from the surface just a couple hundred meters off our bow.” They made their way over and were able to catch the last 10-12 breaths and its dive, just off Turn Point, Stuart Island, Joe says. “It was a beautiful animal, likely not full grown. I’d estimate the length at around 30-35′ and of healthy weight.”

Yukusam Sperm Whale Photographed by Joe Zelwietro

“It was an incredible few minutes,” Joe extols, suggesting that no photos can do experiences like this justice. “I’ve been whale-watching three to four years now and that nights like that can still happen is pretty incredible,” he says. “I likely won’t see a sperm whale in these waters again and we still don’t know exactly what brought him/her to us, but what a sight!”

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”The guests still came back claiming the sperm whale sighting was the highlight of their tour”[/perfectpullquote]

To put it in perspective, Joe tells us that earlier he had a group of 10-12 porpoise bow-riding and surfing alongside them before reaching the Residents. So when they arrived with the Residents, he was able to shut the boat down for 27 minutes. “Close to a personal best,” he notes comically, “and let them pass us by three or four at a time, with the final two breaching fully out of the water within 10 meters of the boat.” But still, even with this exciting and rare experience under their belts, “the guests still came back claiming the sperm whale sighting was the highlight of their tour.”

Just extraordinary.