My dear friends. I have been working on quite a lot for you all in the past few months, and I’m afraid this background production has resulted in a few less blog posts than I would like!
But do I ever have a good one for you today!
I am nearing the end of a three week break from my hospital job. It’s been a wonderful – and busy – summer, and like all busy times I needed a vacation. Moreover, Sweetie and I needed a honeymoon!
We decided to take a “mini-moon” to Victoria this past week, just to spend some time away together, visit friends and play tourist. We each had some “must-do” wishes for this trip – for Sweetie, it was a day at the spa, and for me it was a day on the ocean. We each enjoyed both!
When I first proposed a whale-watching trip on our honeymoon, Sweetie rightly pointed out, “We can see whales here!” And that’s true. But I swiftly and correctly rebutted, “But in Victoria there are DIFFERENT whales!”
Specifically, if we took a boat from Victoria, we stood a good chance of seeing the Southern Resident Orcas, the pod which made headlines recently after a grieving orca mother in the J pod carried her newborn baby for 17 days after the poor baby died, in what became known worldwide as her “tour of grief”.
Many believe this mother was holding her baby up for the world to see, imploring humans to behold her dead child, demanding we bear witness to the consequences of our industrial presence in her ancestral home.
I did not want to attempt to communicate with this pod through distance, I wanted to wait until some time had passed, and until I could visit them in person, rather than work off of a photo that millions had already seen and to which they had attached their emotions and ideas.
If I was very lucky, I was hoping I would lay eyes on this particular pod, but if I could be in their territory, I knew I’d be able to get a unique connection, and maybe bring something new to the conversation still echoing around the world.
So I started my calling.
A calling, for me, is more of an ask. I have no physical need to call prey as our ancestral hunters once did. I am calling from a genuine admiration, with deep-seated respect for their autonomy. I did not want to divert them from their own necessary activities, instead, I asked if they had energy, I would love to see them in person, and speak to them.
My big question for them was this: why do they not try to eat something else?
I’ll back up.
Orcas, killer whales, as a species, are prolific. They exist and thrive in nearly all the world’s oceans as the dominant apex predator. There are many sub-species, divided into the general concept of whether the orcas stay in one place, year round, or whether they migrate, nomad-like, the whole ocean their home.
The transients, the nomads, are larger, and fierce. Their lifestyle requires them to be one of the fastest adapting predators in our world. Transient orcas can prey upon pretty much anything, but particular families, pods, have their own hunting traditions, and tend to prefer a particular type of prey – gray whales, seals, sea lions – there is even a specialized pod of orcas in Monterey Bay, California, who have learned to hunt great white sharks!
So why, when their transient brethren are so adaptable, and the Pacific Ocean so prolific with life, do the Southern Resident Orcas not reach back through their ancestry and, driven by starvation, attempt to hunt other things?
See, the Southern Residents are endangered, and their population has been declining since the 1970s, all because the humans have done a very poor job managing the salmon population.
We have three delicious species of salmon out here. In my humble opinion, the Chinook salmon make the Atlantic Sockeye look like cat food. The king salmon are massive, sweet, oily and, at one point, they were everywhere, sustaining hundreds of thousands of humans and wildlife alike.
But industrial development have caused a salmon collapse, and the orcas are starving. They struggle to even come into cycle, and when they do have babies, the Southern Residents struggle to feed them.
Starvation is a powerful motivator. The salmon has been declining for decades. Why has hunger not motivated the orcas to try to get a seal, or a sea lion? Our mammal brains are quite similar, and starvation makes almost anything look edible. Why do the Southern Residents refuse to adapt?
This was my big question. I know that marine biologists have been following these whales all their lives, and they have their own ideas about why the southern residents are not adapting, but I wanted to ask, from an animal communication perspective, meaning from the orca’s perspective, why were they starving, rather than trying any other food source?
I had my little agenda, and I know well through experience, that animals, and spirits, do not necessarily conform to our personal timeline, so I released attachment without releasing hope.
I went on two whale watching trips this month, and I REALLY hoped I would see orcas on one of these trips. I had a feeling it would likely be in Victoria, but I went on a trip out of Tofino to cover my bases.
If any of you comes up to Tofino to visit, please drop me a line. I do love to show off this beautiful corner of the world, and if possible, I like to go with people out to the Hot Springs or to Mears Island.
As I sat on the small covered boat on our way out to Hot Springs Cove, earlier this month, I let my consciousness reach out, and called to the orca again. I reached out to ALL orca, not just the southern residents, because I dearly love the orca as a species, and even if I didn’t get to see the southern residents, I would absolutely love to see any orcas at all. I haven’t seen orcas since my amazing encounter five years ago.
I reached out and heard in my mind, and felt the excitement in my body, of a happy orca family, chattering and squeaking to each other. As I reached out with the feeling “I love you! Come see me!” They responded “We love you! HAVE FUN! We are too far away to see you today! We are busy hunting!”
I responded, “There are SO MANY SEALS here! Will you hunt seals here? I love you! Come show me how amazing you are!”
More chattering, more excitement. “Maybe! We will try!” Squeaking, joyful energy, and then a feeling of distance.
I know how quickly orcas can travel, and in 2013, I had seen them hunting off of Tree Island, with their NEWBORN BABY just outside of the inlet to Tofino, on our way back from Hot Spring Cove. This time though, I didn’t see them on my Hot Springs trip, so I held out hope for Victoria. I thought, perhaps, if we’re very lucky, I’ll see the Southern Residents!
You don’t want to be picky with callings. You want to be open, admiring, and genuinely excited to see whatever and whoever is able to show up for you. If I didn’t see orcas at all this year, I was really hoping to see humpbacks – a larger species than our gray whales which we commonly see here in Tofino, and a species I have never gotten a close look at… So I sent out a gentle calling for humpbacks too.
This brings us to our Victoria Mini-Moon!
We had a fabulous time, and I’ll write about our visit to the “haunted” Butchart Gardens in another post. For this entry, I’ll skip ahead to the whale watch!
We did see orcas – but NOT the southern residents!
On the way back, I reached out to the Southern Residents. The guides were surprised we didn’t get to see them (we did see some humpbacks too, I’ll do another post on them later.) I sat inside the boat and reached out to the water, and asked my question of the southern residents.
“I know you’re so hungry. I know the salmon are disappearing. I saw your cousins eat a seal. Why won’t you eat seal?”
The answer came back, immediately, from one of the younger females who was available to communicate.
We hunt as a family. Hunts are organized by the Mother (matriarch.) She tells us what and when to hunt. If we move to hunt seal, we cannot succeed alone. She tells us to stop, when we chase seal. She doesn’t know how to catch them, she doesn’t know how to help us. If we catch a sick one, or a dead one, she tells us not to eat it. We can’t eat it. It doesn’t taste good. (Taste of rancid, sickly meat. Starving is better.)
We cannot change our hunting ways until our Mother dies, and another one comes. Another one must tell us what to eat, and what to do. If that happens, our family may break up. Some may go off on their own to die alone. Some of us may die before we learn a new way to hunt. We may not understand, we may make too many mistakes. It is better to stay here. To stay together. Those (travellers, the orcas we saw hunting) are large, experienced. They will take kills from us. They will out-hunt us. They can out-swim us. We have lived here (on the inside, near land, near salmon.) We will live here until we die.
Maybe one day, a new male will arrive, and show us a new way to hunt. Maybe young females will go with him and learn to hunt seal, and forget the taste of fish. This has been the way. Out Mother will not change, and we love her. We will stay with her to the end.
And that was it from the Southern Residents. They love each other, their diet is more than what they eat, it’s who they are. It’s their entire tradition. Their food has created their culture, their unique ways which differentiate them from other orcas in the area. Their behaviour, their language, their day-to-day pattern of life has been formed around their ways of hunting fish. Their family members have been captured for aquariums and taken to far-away aquariums on land. Their salmon has been depleted. Their home is getting more crowded with industrial shipping, and with noise.
There are ongoing efforts to rehabilitate the salmon waterways, and to support the Southern Residents. It is not likely these unique orcas will cross-breed with the transients and learn how to hunt seals – the two ecotypes of orcas generally avoid each other – the transients moving in for a hunt while the residents are away. Once, a pod of transients were even seen being attacked by a pod of residents near Gabriola Island. Inter-breeding doesn’t seem likely, so we can only hope the humans get their act together to rescue the crashing salmon population before the resident orcas diminish further.
Back to our whale trip!
We quickly found a small male humpback called “Gerkin” who has been feeding near the Victoria harbour for quite some time. As we were watching him I heard the radio crackle and heard “Black and white” come through over the static.
And I knew what that meant!
Orcas! YAY! ORCAS! (In the background is a lighthouse on “Racer Rock”, so named for the powerful currents that race between the fingers of the underground mountains. This current forces nutrients up into the top layers of the water, and the rocks, combined with the fish attracted to the nutrients, make an idea hangout for seals and sea lions… and make ideal hunting grounds for the orcas!
I was overjoyed! Orcas! But wait! The orcas were up to something.
That tail up, the flurry of activity – it reminded me of the activity of the orca pod I had seen off of Tree Island years ago! Could it happen again??? Could we have been lucky enough to witness orcas HUNTING!? AGAIN!?
Seeing orcas hunt in the wild is an great privlege and a rare event for the tourist whale watcher! It’s something so special I didn’t dare to hope for it, nor did I ever expect to see something so incredible again in my lifetime!
But here it was! Quickly, the gulls started to swoop and our guides confirmed, the orcas had a kill!
This is how we immediately knew these girls were not our expected southern residents, but one of the far-ranging transients! Excited and celebrating their kill, I called out to them with my joy and admiration!
The matriarch rose with a large portion of their kill in her jaws. See what a powerful hunter I am! See how magnificent we are! See my family, see my joy, witness our triumph!
The matriarch of these transient groups organizes the hunt, teaches the pod members, usually her children, what hunting strategy to use, and when successful, it is the matriarch who divides the kill up and ensures each family member eats before she takes her share.
This pod used a not-uncommon strategy to charge at seals who are safe on the rocks, and cause them to panic and instinctively dive into the water for safety! Seals have a hardwired survival mechanism when their adrenaline kicks in, they immediately want to get into the water – they’re more mobile in the water, and they’re trapped and practically immobile on land! Do you remember how you feel when you’ve had a scare? Most of us at least get up and walk around for a minute, our own flight instincts are so strong.
Well seals can’t even walk around – they HAVE TO swim when they are frightened. So the orcas make it their mission to TERRIFY the seals into flight – into the ocean – and into their jaws!
The behaviour of these orcas was reminding me so much of the pod I saw off of Tofino, they were so joyful and full of themselves after their successful hunt, they started mugging for their audience on the boats! They started spy-hopping to check us out, and as I called out in my mind, “Come here, gorgeous, come show me how beautiful you are,” two females approached our boat, coming within 20 feet!
This is the closest I have seen an orca in the wild. Once as a child, I saw orcas in captivity in Marine Land, but seeing captive animals who have no choice but to show themselves is far from the same experience.
These orcas were wild. They were doing what they were born to do – hunt, travel thousands of miles, perpetuate their family, their hunting style, and their unique pod language (orca pods can be identified by their unique dialect, as well as their physical markings.)
It was a privilege, a rare and amazing thing to even SEE these animals in the wild, let alone witness them hunt! TWICE!
As the approaching large female turned to flank our drifting boat, a much smaller dorsal fin surfaced beside her.
See my baby! See how fast and strong he is!
Again, I was reminded of the orcas we saw in 2013. They were also a pod of only females, with a small male and a newborn (at the time) male. No mature male with his six foot tall dorsal fin towering over the females, just the maternal family pod, feasting, thriving.
As though in response to our gasps and thrilled exclamations, the big female took one more spyhop, getting a good look at us admiring her family.
Just like that, they were finished. The matriarch gathered her family, and they left. The whole incredible event took less than 15 minutes!
On our return to the Victoria Harbour, the guides made a positive ID of the pod we had just witnessed hunting. They were the T109’s – a family centered around the so-named matriarch, born around 1975, and documented here:
She could be positively identified by the guides by the unique pattern of scratches across her back, the notches taken out of her dorsal fin (both inflicted by prey animals fighting for their lives) and her unique white saddle patch.
A bell rang in my mind. T109. That was familiar.
I asked the guide, “Could these orcas have been up in Tofino?”
“Yes! They have been sighted up there! Did you see them?”
The bell turned into a triumphant gong! “I saw a pod right after they made a kill on the day they had their baby! Does this pod have a baby known as “Baby Tree”? He was born outside of Tree Island in Tofino, and was named for the island there! I saw him right after he was born!”
The guide checked with the more experienced guide who was driving the boat – and soon the answer came back – “Yes! Yes that’s THEM! The same male is still with them!”
“YOU’RE KIDDING ME!!!!!!!!!” I was jumping up and down in my seat, smacking my hands into the table in front of me! “YOU ARE KIDDING ME! THOSE ARE THE SAME ONES!!!????”
“Yes! You saw them a while ago, right?”
I confirmed, it was five or six years ago since I had seen the baby, and the young one they’d seen that day would be the right size – and they guessed this was Baby Tree!
The guide also informed me that the T109s while they are an active group, they are not seen very frequently – just sighting them was rare enough, and they would be reporting the sighting to the researchers who keep tabs on all the transient orcas to monitor their health. The T109s hasn’t been seen in quite a while, and it was amazing for the GUIDES to see them – they were incredibly excited to have witnessed a hunt!
“What are the chances we would see the VERY SAME FAMILY we saw years ago in Tofino!?”
The guide shrugged and said, “They’re your spirit pod! It happens! Some of us guides see some groups more frequently and don’t get to see other groups at all! They’re just your pod!”
They’re my pod.
And then I knew for sure, they were. I was certain when I saw the T109s back in 2013 that my grandmother had helped to orchestrate such a spectacular and rare sighting – to see orcas hunt with a newborn baby – even professional researchers may not get to see such a thing during their entire career!
To see the same group TWICE, years and hundreds of miles apart – hunting AGAIN! This wasn’t a random event.
This was a miracle. I’ll take my miracles in orcas, thank you.
Many thanks to Orca Spirit Adventures for an incredible trip, and these fabulous photos!