Whale Watching & The Broken Group Islands
The zodiac boat cruised through the sparkling water just offshore of Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island. That perfect line that divided the sunny blue sky and the Pacific Ocean was suddenly interrupted by the shooting spray of a whale’s blow hole on the horizon. The engine was cut and everyone scooted to the edge of their seats, eyes squinting into the distance looking for another sign of the magnificent creature.
“That is a Humpback whale,” said Brian Congdon of Subtidal Adventures. “Humpbacks will usually breathe 3 or 4 times before diving down again to feed and when they do we’ll usually see then arch their back and then if we’re lucky they’ll show us their tail!”
It did just that. Another spray is shot into the air followed by an arching grey back and then a gigantic tail as the whale dove into the water again.
I was on a whale watching tour with Subtidal Adventures, a whale watching and wildlife tour company that has been in Ucluelet for over 30 years; and the whale watching partners of Black Rock Oceanfront Resort.
We started the tour with a cruise through the Ucluelet Harbour. There we saw bald eagles perched high in a tree on an island in the middle of the harbour. Following the barks of California sea lions, we found ourselves at the fish plant docks where the sea lions searched for dropped fish scraps for lunch!
When we left the Ucluelet Harbour we went straight out to sea lion rock. There we saw the crowds of Stellar sea lions basking in the sun shine. The larger ones let the other’s know who was boss by throwing their heads back and letting out a throaty growl. Several sea lions dove off the rock into the water and congregated together, floating with their fins out of the water watching our boat as it slowly passed by.
“Let’s go find a whale!” said Brian as he pointed us out to open waters and headed offshore. It was then that we saw that first blow hole spray and whale’s tail, but that wasn’t the last.
It wasn’t long before another spray signaled the arrival of a second Humpback whale. We watched as the two whales swam next to each other, taking turns diving. After 3 or 4 breaths each would give us a steep arch of its back before plunging its body towards the ocean floor in hopes of gathering a mouthful of lunch.
“Humpback whales feed on krill and other baitfish,” said Brian. “They take in giant mouthfuls of water and food and then filter the water back out through their baleen.”
Baleen is like a long comb that hangs off of the whale’s top gums in the front and sides of its mouth. It allows the whale to ‘lunge feed’ by taking in water, and keeping in all the nutrients and food as the water is pushed out. In one lunge a whale can take in enough water to fill a city bus! Once the water is filtered out they are usually left with about 11 kilograms of food. Whales usually feed all day long!
After about half an hour we left our new Humpback whale friends and headed straight for the Broken Group Islands. This archipelago of over 100 islands, inlets, and rocky outcrops is part of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. It is nestled in Barkley Sound and provides sheltered waters for boating and kayaking…it is also offers some of the most breathtaking coastal scenery you can find and is truly a gem on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
The water was calm as we traveled through the islands. We were able to get close to some of the rocky shores to view bald eagles and the thick forests that have grown from these scattered islets. Since they are only accessible by boat, and are protected by Parks Canada, the Broken Group Islands display truly beautiful, remote, west coast wilderness.
We cut left the Broken Group and drove towards the western shores of Barkley Sound. Nearing the mouth of the Ucluelet Harbour we stopped at another rock to see some harbour seals. They are much smaller than sea lions, lighter in colour, and seem fuzzier with puppy dog eyes watching our boat as we coasted by.
As the boat slowed into the harbour I thought about what I’d seen out on the water that morning. The new afternoon sun shone warm as we glided through still waters into the inner boat basin. Bald eagles, Stellar and California sea lions, Humpback whales, harbour seals, and the pristine wilderness of the Broken Group Islands; this trip was one I’ll always remember.
Until next time,
*Photo Credits: Eagle & Seal Photos by Brian Congdon*