A group of up to 10 Bigg’s orcas, including a juvenile, paid a surprise visit to the seaplane docks in Victoria's Inner Harbour on Sunday, frolicking and getting close enough that people were tempted to reach out and touch one.
The whales are believed to have followed harbour seals into the harbour while hunting.
They lingered for about 10 minutes, delighting those working on the dock and at surrounding businesses including a whale-watching company.
“They were so close, I could have just reached out and touched them,” said Christopher McKay, a dock hand with Harbour Air who video-recorded the encounter.
McKay said he initially heard that a pod had come into the harbour and swum in the direction of the Johnson Street Bridge.
”I didn’t think any more about it and then they were right beside the dock. They then swam under the dock and came up in an area between the dock and the shore. There were between six and 10 of them diving and surfacing for about three minutes. I still can’t believe it.”
Jessica Boatman, who works with Orca Spirit Adventures, a whale-watching tour agency, has seen whales before, but at a distance in the open ocean.
“I would have been happy to just see one up close, let alone a whole family,” said Boatman, who works in ticket sales for the company. “While our boat captains have been telling us it has been a really good whale-watching year, most of the time they are sightings of humpbacks. With orcas, it’s more of a hit or miss, as they travel quicker.”
It was amazing to see them so close, she said, adding one of the whales was significantly smaller than the others, and likely a juvenile.
Sightings of orcas in the Inner Harbour are becoming more common, with a lone male spotted looking for a meal last December.
A few months earlier, in September, a pod of five Bigg’s orcas spent half an hour diving and surfacing in the water close to the Empress Hotel.
Howard Garrett, a U.S. citizen scientist who operates the Orca Network, said orca numbers are on the rise, growing at about four per cent every year.
He said the mammals are found along the coast, between Alaska and California, and can travel up to 160 kilometres in 24 hours.
He speculated the pod on Sunday was in the harbour looking for a meal. “Seals are here year round — and so are they,” said Garrett, who has been observing orcas since 2001.
He said Bigg’s killer whales are matrilineal, so it’s highly likely to have been a family grouping: “mom, her kids and even her grandkids.”
What was unusual was the number observed. Garrett said the animals typically travel in hunting packs of three to five, so they can “triangulate,” flush and hunt their prey effectively.
Pods have been known to join up and travel with other pods for a while, before breaking up and going their own ways.
“A pod of 10 orcas is a good sign. It tells me that they are getting plenty to eat,” he said.