The boat was moving fast – too fast – I had to shut my eyes but instead of finding peace I found a sickly feeling rise in the pit of my stomach.
I was joining Prince of Whales for my first whale watching experience. It was one of the first trips for the summer season and the first journey of the day; but so far all I’d seen was the back of my eyelids and the beginning of sea sickness, a new phenomenon I’d hoped never to experience.
As the Zodiac boat sped through the waters surrounding Victoria, British Columbia, the wind whipped at my face and I felt my body rise and fall, with a crash, onto the seat – I was thankful for the small amount of extra padding the inside layers of the coveralls, supplied by Prince of Whales, offered me.
The water was grey, the sky was grey, even the seals watching us with curiosity were… yep, grey. It was not the picture perfect day I’d hoped for.
As the first boat out, and one of the fastest, we were leading the search. As we slowed I was able to turn my head, just catching sight of the red and navy hulls steadily making their way towards us from afar.
The day finally began to clear as we passed dozens of islands – some uninhabitable, some sanctuaries for the animals and birds, and some with a smattering of tiny cottages or a lighthouse, I questioned if people still lived there.
The day before a large pod of transiant whales – whales who passed through the area each season – had been seen in the water close to the border between the US and Canada and now we were out tracking them.
We awkwardly went through a stop-start motion that we followed for the next 45-minutes as we headed North to the Strait of Georgia, towards Vancouver, after a tip came over the radio. Anything that looked like a whale fin was investigated and the whale watching boats from Victoria, Vancouver and Seattle shared tips on where they were looking or thought they’d spot whales.
My eyes were still closed, fighting off the feeling of sea sickness, when the woman in front of me let out a yell, “WHALE!!!”
The Zodiac’s motor cut off and we cruised in slowly trying to get a better look. Sure enough, about 150 feet away from the boat was a huge fun cutting a path through the water.
Cameras were pointed, waiting for him to come closer, only he didn’t. After a few more sightings of his fin he disappeared below the surface of the ocean.
Whales can hold their breath for 5 – 20minutes so we sat their waiting, hoping he’d show up but after 5 long minutes the Captain decided it’d be better to keep moving and try to find the larger pod.
We set a new course Southwards as another boat radioed to say some fisherman said there may be some whales around the islands that make up the San Juan Archipelago.
As we approached a particularly lush island with mountain goats roaming freely the boat slowed and the Captain explained that this was Spieden Island, the privately owned island of James Jannard – founder of Oakley, Inc.
Once a hunting reserve for the rich after animals were imported from Europe and Asia, the island has been converted into a wildlife research area.
As we neared the end of the island we spotted a Bald Eagle perched amongst the grasses waiting to hunt his next meal.
Rounding the tip of the island a voice came over the loud-speaker, “See those mountains? They’re the Olympic mountains and they’re part of Washington. See this island? Spieden Island is part of the US, and that little tiny island back over yonder? That’s Canada. Welcome to the USA.“
The San Juan Archipelago is made up of over 400 rocks and islands, with only 128 named. From the water you’ll be able to see dozens of species of birds and the oh-so-cute harbour seals.
Even when you’re having a bad day, or a day where searching for whales is taking longer than you anticipated, just looking at seals, with their cute faces, funny bark and awkward disposition on land, makes me let out a chuckle. Whilst awkward on land, as soon as they’re in the water they seem to dance as they glide around – with dozens of little heads bobbing in and out of the waters around the islands.
It wasn’t seals that we were searching for though, as we headed off again in hope of finally seeing a whale.
A call came over the radio and the Captain told us to sit down, before taking off at speed, back across the border into Canadian waters.
Gathered close together in the distance were two American boats with passengers leaning over the port side of the boat and gazing intently into the clear waters in front of them; as we approached a fin raised out of the water and the people on the Zodiac collectively gasped.
His name is Chainsaw, so named because of the jagged dorsal fin, and was a common sight around these waters as he was a resident whale not a transient.
Though we’d only seen a whale an hour ago this seemed more special as we could get slightly closer – Canadian law permits whale watchers to be as close to 100 metres – and Chainsaw circled under our boats, somewhat playfully showing off his dorsal fin.
As more boats began to turn up to see Chainsaw we realised that four-hours had passed, an hour longer than usual, so it was time to head back to Victoria to warm up and get over the still building feeling of nausea from the fast-paced Zodiac ride – maybe next time I wouldn’t eat a big breakfast before heading out for a fast-paced boat ride.
Charting our way back to Victoria it seemed like Chainsaw had other ideas about letting us return as he followed us part of the way back to the city…
Have you been whale watching?
Did you see any whales?
Prince of Whales
812 Wharf Street
Victoria, British Columbia
Cost: The Zodiac Adventure tour offers a number of different pricings.
Adults (18-64) – $110
Seniors (65+) – $100
Students (13-17) – $95
Children (8-12) – $85
All prices are in Canadian dollars.
Nicole’s Whale Watching Tips
- Take an afternoon tour. Both times I went whale watching – in Victoria and in Reykjavik – I took the early tour so that I had a free afternoon to take part in other adventures; but with no clue where the whales were we instead spent most of the trips searching for them.
- Bring warm clothes! Riding in the Zodiac the wind will cut right through clothing and even with the additional layers that Prince of Whales provided I was still a little chilly.
- Bring something to protect your eyes. We were told to take off our sunglasses when the boat was moving but I now wish I’d worn them because I could hardly see for the majority of the trip.
- Bring your camera! There are going to be plenty of opportunities to take photos on your trip of the animals you encounter and the scenery.
- Be patient. I thought we’d see whales straight away but it takes time. They’re animals and move really fast.
This trip aboard the zodiac was kindly arranged for me by Tourism Victoria and the Canada Tourism Commission.
As always, all thoughts and opinions (especially those about sea sickness!) are my own.
Post Image Credit: Russel Heinel/Prince of Whales