Bucket List Encounters

Seeing orca in the wild

For the longest time and as long as I can remember, one of the biggest items on my bucket list has been to witness Orca in their natural habitat. I've never been to Sea World, nor would I, and so my wish to see Orca was purely a dream. Only something I'd ever experienced in films and photographs. Over the last few years we've made many attempts in Iceland and California, as well as a trip in Hawaii, though we never expected to spot them there! I think in total, our Victoria whale watching trip took us up to a total of 5 very long, exciting days at sea in 24 months.

We'd caught a glimpse of some resident Orca on the ferry over to the island and this got me really excited that a 'proper' experience may be imminent.

Starting our day with some of the best pancakes I have ever eaten, this breakfast spot in Victoria is an absolute must! Willies cafe and bakery was founded in 1887 and for years they have been crafting the most amazing food. Be sure to get there early, it's incredibly popular. True to Victoria's charm, the cafe is strong in industrial decor with a cute outdoor patio. And the portions are right up my street ;)

Crispy bacon, the fluffiest pancakes, dripping in syrup, fresh bananas and some whipped butter for good measure - all served up with a mighty good cup of coffee... it is not for the faint hearted or the waist conscious. I can't tell you how delicious these were.

Full to the brim and barely able to move, we headed over to Fisherman's Wharf to jump on our vessel. We opted for Eagle Wing Tours, a family run business who focus on the well being of the sea life.

Please, please, PLEASE when going on these tours, do your research and make sure you choose a reputable company that are friendly to the environment and who follow the utmost code of respect when witnessing these creature in their natural habitat. It is their home, not ours, and there are many laws to abide by to ensure that the animals are safe and spectated responsibly.

In the past, where possible, we have opted for the conservation driven and marine biologist led tours to not only gain better understanding of the animals we witness but to ensure that we are doing so with the least impact possible!

Once checked in, Eagle Wings kit you out in the funniest padded suits. We've done this many times now. They are optional but my best piece of advice, if they offer them, wear them. No matter how sunny. At sea, the weather is so unbelievably different.

Mine was a touch on the large size, even after pancakes!

We headed out on a tiny little Scarab Monohull boat carrying about 15-20 people. The small vessels reach great speed to travel long distances in the time you have and the small space allows for fewer passengers (a lot of tourists are incredibly irritating, sorry). Each boat must stay within the legal distance if wildlife is spotted, but that doesn't stop the inquisitive creatures coming close to you if they choose. Being on such a small boat reduces the distance between you and them and makes for a magical experience.

Always choose the smallest boat available but be aware that the smaller the boat, the bumpier the ride. I always take a sea sickness pill beforehand just in case. And so far so good.

Calmer by the shore, we spotted passers by very early on.

Once free from the harbour, it was full speed ahead out of Canadian and into American waters, towards the San Juan Islands. These are prime Orca spotting waters, in fact Free Willy 2 was filmed in this area.

We bounced along at quite a pace, the wind slapping us in the face as we zoomed! It was great fun and we giggled away, grateful for our padded suits, all the while keeping our eyes peeled just in case.

Our first resting spot was over by Orca island. There had been rumour on the radio of a sighting and so we bobbed along, engine off, taking in our surroundings. The boat was silent. Something I've learned is common on such trips. Everyone concentrates on the horizon really hard, working together to spy a fin or misty spout.

Something you really have to accept when whale watching, just like the aurora borealis, is that nature is random. The fact that you are trying to view them as naturally as possible makes them incredibly unpredictable and you have to accept that just a nice day at sea is a good day out, even if you don't get to see what you're after. That being said, we have been SO incredibly lucky on all of our trips.

And just like that, in the distance, we spotted a fin. A real life killer whale! Abiding by the conservation rules and regulations, we didn't move closer, we just sat and watched. I think I held my breath!

That first time you see one rise out of the water, revealing more than its dorsal fin & getting a glimpse of those classic black and white markings, it's just indescribable.

Just off the shore, appearing to hunt, we spotted an entire pod. With each blow spout and misty revelation, I just remember squeezing Mr B's knee but not looking away.

Imagine living here.

Being that our boat was so small and also not switched on, they really weren't bothered by our presence at all. They continued about their day like we weren't even there.

As we watched, the mist started to creep in. Like I said, the weather at sea is unbelievably unpredictable. But this didn't prevent us from seeing their contrasting black fins stroke the ocean.

Seeing one was enough for me but there is something so serene about watching a pod together. They are very group orientated creatures and knowing they were with their families was just lovely.

One of my favourite things about Eagle Wings is that they are fairly relaxed about you moving about the boat should you wish. Whilst the boat itself is tiny, if there are empty seats, it's nice to move about and watch the whales from various angles. Another very loose rule they have is that climbing on your seat or surrounding boat surface is fine, providing you are aware of other passengers and have 3 points of contact at all times. So basically like a tripod, both feet spread and at least one hand holding a rail. With a central boat arch, this really opens up the platforms you can view from and as long as you're brave enough, give it a good go. Off course I hopped straight up there! (forgetting any ridiculous fears and phobias I might have) A once in a lifetime opportunity.

Deciding to move on from the area to ensure we impact their environment as little as possible, we headed out to the big blue, deeper into the vast expanse surrounding the San Juan Islands.

When I say big blue, I should be saying big white. I have never seen fog like it! Travelling at ridiculous speeds, bumping on the waves with no vision around you at all is both terrifying and exhilarating. A couple of times I had a mini panic that we'd end up full speed into another boat but I reminded myself that they have untold electrical devices showing their pathway.

Travelling for a while, the fog didn't thin, even as we came to a halt. We bobbed along, absolute silence and an eerie swish as the distant water lapped against eatch other. Little creaks escaped our boat as we all sat anxiously in another recommended location. This time unable to scan the horizon but only seeing maybe 50 metres around us, probably less!

I have always said that the best moments arise from time spent thinking 'WTF am I doing here?!' and this was no exception.

Suddenly in the distance we heard a 'whoosh'. The most distinctive sound of a whale spout, you'd recognise it anywhere. There were a few quiet gasps as we all stared into the white, barely blinking. Out of nowhere, we watched as a silhouette approached. The closer it grew, the darker it became. And just like that, we were accompanied once more.

It honestly felt as though they were coming to admire us when really it was them that were the more interesting.

I cannot believe the distance they passed. I never expected to be so close to them. Not in my wildest dreams. Ok maybe my dreams.

We were shortly joined by 2 other boats, one of a similar size and another much larger. The vessels are very good at communicating on radio to each other to maximise sightings. We all just sat quietly, allowing the whales to do their thing.

You can see here how close they get and just how big these beautiful creatures really are!

Remember I said choose a small vessel if possible, look how happy these guys look... they have the most amazing creature swimming in front of them and you'd never guess it by their expression. You can also see how other passengers would hinder your view and taint your experience.

I have a theory that the smaller the boat the less impact we have on the environment of the whales too.

Meanwhile, I was absolutely elated!

I would always assume a clear day is best for whale watching but nothing prepared me for seeing these creatures in such an environment. The fog heightened our senses and listening out for the sound and watching as they swam each time towards us from the great unknown was just unbelievable.

It really taught me not to make assumptions.

Our captain moved from his seat and plopped something into the water. it looked like a long rope with a stone on the end. I had no idea what he was doing. As he returned to his seat our silence was suddenly filled with whooshing noises and all became apparent. It was a hydraphone, or underwater microphone!

Surely we wouldn't hear them from up here?! But sure enough, each time a whale passed by we heard it! That sound. The echo of their call, the sound of their song as they travelled together, communicating beneath the water. I knew in that moment that I would remember it forever.

It hurts my heart now just thinking of it.

We lingered for as long as we could, we'd already been on the water for a fair few hours and had quite the journey back to Victoria. The whales stayed with us until we departed.

With one last wave into the horizon and a final glimpse of a spout, we headed back. Absolute silence & wind whipping our cheeks - a boat full of strangers who in that moment, without talking, knew we'd shared something special. Something none of us could live to forget.


- MTWP xxx

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