Monday, September 12, 2011

Real Wild Whales

I'm often asked by people if I've ever had any bad experiences in the ocean when I go for my morning swim or if I'm not scared of being attacked by a shark?  My answer is always that the worst thing that's ever happened to me is getting stung by a lion's mane jellyfish, and there aren't any sharks in this part of the world, unless you want to count dogfish, a small, rather harmless member of the shark family measuring about 3 feet which is only rarely encountered by scuba divers.

Spiny dogfish shark
However this past spring I did almost have an encounter with something that would have been rather scary, but I didn't find out about it until I was out of the water and the story was in the news.  This was when a group of 8 transient killer whales made a rare appearance in Vancouver and came cruising along the Stanley Park seawall less than a mile from where I was swimming.  From the photos that were taken it looks like they were more in the mood for playing around than anything else but those aren't the kind of parties you go to uninvited.

photo by Dave Price

photo by Dave Price

It turns out there are 3 different types of killer whales out there, at least in this part of the world.  There are the northern and southern Vancouver Island resident whales who have evolved to the point where they only eat salmon.  There are the transient whales who range up and down the coast from California to Alaska, but occasionally come into the Inside waters of Georgia & Johnstone Straits, and they prey on seals, sea lions, dolphins, porpoises, and young grey and humpback whales.  Finally there are the offshore killer whales, clearly the toughest of them all because they appear to live by only eating sharks. 

Transient Whales photo by Dave Price

Now unless you are someone like the late Michael Bigg, who started the photo identification project that allows for each killer whale to be identified by their unique markings, the average person couldn't tell one killer whale from another.  And with the population of each group somewhere around 250 - 300 that makes for a lot of killer whales to recognize. I feel pretty confident I wouldn't be mistaken for either a salmon or a shark, which takes me off the menu for 2 of the 3 groups, but the 3rd group could be forgiven if they mistook me for a seal as I swim around in my wetsuit, and therein lies the problem.

Resident Whales photos by Junie Quiroga

My wife and I have had the pleasure of being surrounded by resident killer whales in Johnstone Strait as we sat safely in our boat but, even though they were on the hunt for salmon, you sure wouldn't want to get in their way when they are in a feeding frenzy.  When I look at the photos we've taken I can't tell if they are in A, G,or R clan and I certainly can`t tell that one of the transient whales swimming near me this past spring was the infamous Mr. T102.  Really these whales need to invest in some water resistant name tags for everyone`s sake.

Offshore Whales
Apparently the one sign that gives the offshore whales away (other than the different language each of these groups speaks) is they travel in large packs of between 30 - 70 whales.  Good thing they are hundreds of miles offshore or it could get really crowded if they ever showed up.  At least I wouldn`t have to worry about being attacked by a shark.