Tika, meet Jimmy Dean

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in British Columbia since July 28 and I have yet to feel a drop of rain. Thursday was another picture perfect day on both land and water – a perfect day for whale watching as it turned out.

I had pre-booked a four-hour excursion but it wasn’t until after I checked into my Victoria hostel that I realized the hostel and dock used by the whale watching company were about 200’ apart. Nice co-incidence, I thought. So on Thursday morning I got up bright and early, grabbed a Starbucks and the day’s Times-Columnist, and was sitting on the dock at 7:30 for a 9:30 departure. Even the staff didn’t arrive until after 9:00 in true Victoria style. With the exception of ambulances, nothing moves very fast on Vancouver Island, or as I like to call it, “Snore By The Shore”.  I’ve also heard it called “God’s Waiting Room By The Sea” but I prefer SBTS.

I watched Captain Mike, an Aussie of about 35, as he parked his bike at the top of the Government Wharf and came strolling down the dock. We chatted for a few minutes while he sorted the survival suits and started to prep the 12 passenger ‘Tika’ for another day at sea.

Captain Mike has been leading these types of tours for 10 years and has worked all over the world. “These Aussies sure have perfected the dual-hemisphere work thing,” I said to myself. This one got to work summers in both hemispheres while the Aussie snowboard dudes that I met at my Calgary hostel worked about 5 months of the year in each hemisphere and travelled the world between gigs. Not bad, I thought, but still nothing compared to the lifestyle of the standardbred stallions who do double-duty in North America and Australia/New Zealand where harness racing is relatively popular.

After a while Mike realized that a new girl had been manning the ticket booth on Wednesday and she had told some customers that we would be departing at 10:30. It wasn’t an issue, he promised, as it would give us another hour to scan the two-way radio. Most local tour operators share information throughout the day, especially in the early morning, so when whales are spotted, all operators deliver on their “you-will-see-whales-or-your-money-back” guarantee.

After a few minutes of static over the radio I heard another heavily accented voice say, “This is London. I’m at D’Arcy and it looks like we’ve got the gays headed this way.”

Now that caught my attention. When did Atlantis, RSVP or Olivia start running whale-watching charters, I wondered?

Mike explained that the other Captain was referring to D’Arcy Island. In the early 1900s it was a leper colony for Chinese immigrants, and because of its proximity to the US border, prohibition-era bootlegger Roy Olmstead used it to stash tens of thousands of gallons of Canadian whiskey. From there he would employ smaller boats to deliver it to remote areas of the Washington coastline.

Mike made no mention of a T-dance or pool party on D’Arcy Island so I finally asked why “the gays” were headed to D’Arcy Island. “For breakfast,” came his reply. “It’s the IHOP of the Whale World,” he added.

Later he told the group that biologists have identified most of the whales that travel up and down the coast and they even know which pod each belongs to.  Steve Jobs would proud to know that today we would be tracking whales from either J-Pod or I-Pod. That’s when I realized that the other Captain probably didn’t say “the gays” but rather “the Js”, as in the whales of J-Pod.

Mike disagreed with the other Captain though. He was certain that we’d find a transient pod of whales who were headed to a small rocky island just north of D’Arcy Island.  “It’s home to cormorants, sea lions, otters and plump little seals who are destined to be ‘breakfast’ for half a dozen killer whales,” said Mike.  That explained the IHOP reference. Mike added that in the eyes of an Orca, seals are little more than “breakfast sausages”. Many would disappear before the whales moved on to find better dining options to the north.

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Within an hour of leaving Victoria’s Inner Harbour we were about 2 km south of D’Arcy Island. It was clear that we were “in the zone” as there were about 15 boats in the vicinity with names like “Orca Spirit” and “The Prince of Whales”. Within a few minutes of arriving we spotted plumes of spray to the starboard side. The stars of the show had arrived on set and they were right on time.

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Although we spent about 90 minutes observing this transient pod, we didn’t actually get close enough to see if they enjoyed the buffet. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get closer (or that I didn’t have a camera with better zoom) but I understand that we have to keep our distance. Mike explained the importance of limiting engine noise now that so many boats show up when there’s a single sighting.

Mike said that he was “old school” and didn’t believe in getting any closer than we did. At the end of the day, I was okay with that. I’d much rather go ashore and have a late breakfast than be a breakfast.

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