Hunting for killers on the loose

Killers on the loose ... orcas off Vancouver Island.
Killers on the loose ... orcas off Vancouver Island. Photo: Tourism BC

Craig Platt embarks on a desperate search for killers going wild off Vancouver Island.

The word is across town early in the morning - killers are in the area. But it's excitement, not fear, that is palpable as we head out to sea off the coast of Vancouver Island, Canada. This is one of the best places in the world for whale watching and while it is highly likely that we'll see grey whales here, we're really hoping to see orcas, or as they're more commonly known, killer whales.

We're told a group of seven or eight killers were sighted early this morning. It's now after 11am and our small whale watching boat is hoping to find them. But the Pacific Ocean is a big place, so we're going to have to get lucky. Fortunately, the local whale boat operators help each other out, despite being in competition with one another, by communicating on CB radios to let each other know where the whales have been spotted.

Still, we're about 45 minutes into our two-and-a-half hour trip from the resort town of Tofino on the island's west coast, and no one has seen the orcas. Our captain, Pete, takes us to a small island that's a favourite hangout for sea lions and seals. It's not part of the orca search – while the ocean's largest predator is known to hunt seals, in these waters the local population of killers feed only on fish.

A grey whale has been spotted near the seal colony recently, but it doesn't put an appearance today. Pete says he'll take us over to the feeding grounds of the grey whales. The orcas, he suggests, have moved further up the coast, out of range of the Tofino boats.

"But maybe we should just head into the inlet and take a look, eh?" he asks.

We agree. After all, the grey whales are easy to find (many of Tofino's whale watching operators guarantee sightings during the warmer months, when a staggering 22,000 greys migrate through the area), so we can always come back to see them.

Just as Pete turns up the throttle and heads towards the grey whales, the CB crackles to life - the killer pod has been found. They've been spotted further up the inlet, but it is not known where they are headed. Pete decides to go in a different direction to the other boats, tipping that they may have turned back towards Vancouver Island.

As it turns out, he's wrong. A call comes over the radio again stating that the whales are further up the inlet, so Pete changes course and sets off.

We arrive to find two other boats floating in a wide expanse of water. No sign of the whales though. It starts to look like we might have missed both the greys and the killers. I'm not sure how the sighting 'guarantee' is delivered, but it looks like we might be about to put it to the test.

For many foreigners, Vancouver Island sounds like a quaint little ocean speck off the coast of the mainland and the city that shares its name. In reality, the island is huge at 31,000 square kilometres - that's a little under half the size of Tasmania.

Though sparsely populated, particularly on the Pacific side, the island is home to the provincial capital, Victoria, a grand old city of 78,000.

Victoria puts the British into British Columbia – it is a city of gardens, impressive buildings (Victorian, naturally) and closely in touch with its colonial heritage.

Vancouver Island's high rainfall ensures lush gardens in front of every house – and even the apartment blocks - with the type of thick, manicured lawns Australian gardeners can only dream of these days.

Established in 1843, the city is named after Queen Victoria. The impressive legislature building was lit up by thousands of electric bulbs (still a rarity at the time) to commemorate Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee. The locals liked the effect so much, they kept the display up, so every evening the building twinkles with thousands of fairy lights.

Free tours of the buildings are offered and well worth doing, but a further exploration of the area's history, and particularly its natural and native history, can be found next door in the impressive British Columbia Museum.

The city is a weekender favourite for mainland British Columbians, who take the short ferry ride across to enjoy the quaint shops and fine dining on offer. In keeping with the very English feel, it's the breakfast options that I find most attractive.

We visit the James Bay Tea Rooms for breakfast, a tiny, cottage-like café with walls covered in pictures and commemorative plates depicting the royal family, from the Queen Mum to Prince Harry. It's full English breakfast all the way, including artery-hardening fried bread. The only concession to Canadian cuisine is the appearance of pancakes on the menu.

But after two days of indulgence in Victoria, it is time to head up the coast to the 'real' Vancouver Island – the rugged west coast. Here, the ocean pounds rocks and surrounding small islands, occasionally dislodging a tree. These get rolled around in the waves, stripped of their branches and leaves and end up washed up on the shore. It gives the coast an eerie, dangerous feel.

These loose logs don't bother the local surfers though, nor do the bitterly cold northern Pacific waters. Vancouver Island is a hit with lovers of water sports, though most don neck-to-toe wetsuits before hitting he waves.

The tiny village of Tofino, surrounded by old-growth forest on one side and cliffs and beaches on the other, is a popular weekend escape for Vancouverites. While it maintains a sleepy hamlet feel (the population numbers about 2000), it is also home to some spectacular restaurants that make the most of the abundant seafood available locally.

It's also where you'll find a large number of whale-watching operations and it is with one of these, Ocean Outfitters, that we embark on our search for the orcas.

Back on the boat with captain Pete, it's all quiet. The drizzle has turned into rain and we're cooped up inside the boat's cabin. I decide to venture out into the cold for a better look. After a minute or two, I suddenly see several long, black dorsal fins emerge from the depths, about 100 metres away.

"There!" I cry, pointing towards where I saw a fin. Pete turns the boat around and heads roughly in the direction I pointed. A tense minute passes before the backs of several whales break the surface - they're heading straight towards us.

They pass by the boat – a pod of four, two mothers and two young, making their way slowly but surely up the inlet. They're not in a playful mood: there is no breaching today. But it's still an awesome sight as we watch the whales disappear, then break the surface again some distance away. And the guarantee holds.

Craig Platt travelled as a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism British Columbia.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

V Australia flies from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Los Angeles, codesharing with Alaska Airlines for connections to Vancouver.

BC Ferries run regular ferry services Vancouver-Victoria, Vancouver-Nanaimo on the island.

A rental car is the best option for getting around on Vancouver Island. You can take the car on the ferry.

See http://www.bcferries.com

Staying there

In Victoria there is a wide range of accommodation options, including the high-end and majestic Fairmont Empress. http://www.fairmont.com/empress/

The Oswego is a modern hotel just off the waterfront in Victoria. Rooms feature full kitchens and many offer views of the legislature building. See http://www.oswegovictoria.com/

In Tofino, Middle Beach Lodge offers self-contained cabins and lodge accommodation overlooking the ocean and beach in a forest setting. See www.middlebeach.com

Whale watching

Ocean Outfitters run regular whale watching trips and wildlife tours from downtown Tofino. Two and a half hour whale watching trips (with guaranteed sightings) are $79 per adult. See www.oceanoutfitters.bc.ca

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