Orcas of the Salish Sea

Today I’ve booked to find the orcas of the Salish Sea with Wild Whales Vancouver, which departs from Granville Island. The boat departs at 2 pm, so there’s plenty of time this morning for a wander around the historic Gastown quarter, and an expedition to Earnest Ice Cream on the other side of False Creek.

Gastown

Gastown is the historic centre of Vancouver with a very touristy main street called Water Street. It’s worth a quick wander to see the iconic Gastown Steam Clock. It looks like a relic from the Victorian era, but was only installed as a monument in 1977, partly to dissuade the homeless from sleeping on the steam vent that is now beneath the clock.

The more interesting and grittier area is a block or two away from Water Street, with some interesting Art Noveau architecture at the 1910 Dominion Building with its distinctive Mansard roof.

Danny’s Inn looks like a place I won’t be checking in to any time soon…even if the sign says the rooms are ‘clean’.

Another block away and Gastown appears to be an area that is rapidly gentrifying.

Yaletown

The search for good gelato or ice cream in Vancouver is taking me across False Creek, via Yaletown. Yaletown is a booming area of Vancouver, with lots of residential apartment towers interspersed with historic architecture, such as that of the old railway Roundhouse, now a mixed-use area with eateries, creative arts centre and apartments at Roundhouse Mews.

The Roundhouse area is near the False Creek waterfront, a developing area with new apartment towers, some reasonably sized parks such as David Lam Park and the gritty eyesore area of the waterfront near Rogers Arena.

At the end of False Creek is the Telus World of Science, its golf ball meets Lego architectural shape not adding a great deal to the area. Creekside Park has a large playground area that seems to be popular with the local residents as I’m wandering past to follow Quebec Street up into Mount Pleasant, where Earnest Ice Cream is located.

Earnest Ice Cream takes its environmental credentials seriously, with the spoon and container that my salted caramel and choc chip scoops are served in being compostable. Good ice cream – not par with Gelato Messina or Pidapipo in Melbourne, but good nevertheless.

There is the option of taking the Aquabus to Granville Island, but I end up heading back to the Fairmont Waterfront to pick up camera and wet weather gear and then taking a local bus to Granville Island. Granville Island is a small island sandwiched into False Creek. It is a cross between a marina and a touristy marketplace, with eateries, a small fresh food market and various tourist-oriented shops. Not my kind of place at all, however, Wild Whales Vancouver has its boats departing from there, so Granville Island it is then.

Orcas of the Salish Sea

I’m a little taken aback when the reception staff at Wild Whales insist on a survival suit. I know I’ve booked one of only four outside seats on a semi-covered boat, but really? It turns out to be a good call…the conditions are fine in False Creek, but heading across the Salish Sea towards Galiano Island, the small boat is kicking up quite a lot of spray and the conditions are definitely damp. Still better outside than inside, with the usual array of sea-sick passengers in an enclosed space. It takes a bit over an hour to reach Galiano Island and Active Pass, which is a known hunting ground for transient pods of orcas – which are hunting for the local harbour seals.

It’s an interesting area to find orcas as it features constant ferry traffic – the only vehicle-based means of transport to the islands lying off Vancouver Island. At least six ferries pass through Active Pass in the hour or so we spend there.

We’re successful in seeing orcas almost immediately. A small transient pod of five orcas well known to the captain and marine biologist onboard is swimming through Active Pass on their way out into the Salish Sea. They surface close to our boat, and seem unperturbed by the BC Ferry steaming towards them. The large male has a distinctive notch near the top of his dorsal fin, his younger brother is noticeably smaller, another presumed young male (the dorsal fin seems to be straightening), a young calf and their mother round out the pod. This pod of transient orcas – which feed on seals and the occasional humpback whale calf, is far smaller than the large pods of fish-eating resident orcas off Attu Island in the Aleutians earlier in the trip.

Melanistic Humpback Whales

The captain follows the pod out into the Salish Sea, where we lose sight of the orcas, but find instead find a couple of  humpback whales. It is not until much later, editing the images from the day, that I realise that these are a special whales. One has a small batch of white on its otherwise black fluke – almost melanistic. The other whale is completely melanistic with its black fluke lacking the distinctive white markings that allow whales to be individually identified – these whales are most likely a maternal pod – a mother and calf probably. Looking at the flukes, my guess is the calf has the slight white patch (no barnacles) and the mother is the fully melanistic whale, with barnacles providing the only gauge of age.

Harbour Seals at North Arm Jetty

On the return journey to Granville Island, the captain detours via North Arm Jetty, a man made breakwater at Iona Island. It also serves as a floating parking lot for logs waiting for transport, and has been adopted by the local harbour seals as a safe haul out area, away from the transient orcas. An orca the size of the large male in the pod we’ve just observed needs about 300 pounds of food per day…an unhappy coincidence for these seals, who weigh about 300 pounds. Drying out in the sunshine, these seals are well-disguised on the logs – their markings either blending with the logs or the rocks behind.

We’ve been out nearly 5 hours by the time we travel down English Bay, past the tankers at anchor and the yachts tacking in front of the city skyline in the evening sunshine. All up, a great day’s whale and orca watching. It’s worth following #salishseaorcasquad on Instagram to see how close the orca pods get to the coastlines on Mayne and Galiano Islands.

It’s my last night in Vancouver, so a wander around the waterfront is in order before I leave – and it’s an excellent night for it in the blue-tinged twilight. So long Vancouver, it’s been a great short visit!

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