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15 Sep Vancouver Island North completes Whale Heritage Site audit

What does responsible whale watching look like? This question motivated our visit to the Vancouver Island North region for the onsite audit of the Whale Heritage Site candidate. To our surprise, we began to see firsthand the answer to this question before we had even seen a single dolphin or whale!

Our onsite audit started in Campbell River, the southernmost city in the candidate region. Campbell River boasts a population of about 30,000 and the title of “Salmon Capital of the World” – which was evident through various salmon imagery and fishing tourism operators. The broader economy of the city includes renewable energy development, forestry, aquaculture, and the ever-growing tourism sector.

While salmon was once central to the tourism sector, declining stocks and other socioeconomic factors is gradually shifting the tourism focus to whale watching activities. Campbell River now hosts a large number of whale watching operators, the majority of which are NIMMSA (North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association) members and participate in community-based management of this activity.

And so we set out with Jos Krynen and Eagle Eye Adventures, one of the newest NIMMSA members, that morning to hopefully see Orcas. We journeyed through various channels and passes, spying Bald Eagles and Steller Sea Lions amidst the rocky shores and towering pine trees. Throughout the morning, Jos communicated regularly with other operators trying to locate one of the northern resident (salmon-eating) or transient (marine mammal-eating) Orca pods in the area. By 2pm when we stopped for lunch, no one had yet seen a single Orca or even Humpback Whale!

In an effort to maintain customer expectations, Jos started planning for the worse – not seeing any Orcas or even Humpback Whales. During our lunch break, he made plans for each group to go out another day or some future date. When lunch ended, there were still no signs of Orcas – but one of the other vessels had spotted a small pod of Pacific White-sided Dolphins! We headed there immediately.

The other vessel waited on our arrival before continuing their journey back to port. Most operators in the VIN region operate in this “tag-team” fashion as a means of cooperatively sharing animals amongst companies and not over-crowding the animals at the same time. When a vessel spots a dolphin or whale of interest, it communicates the location to a channel of operators and researchers. The vessel then stays with the animal and leaves as other vessels approach to view. In this fashion, both operators and animals win.

Orca. Taken with a telephoto lense and cropped. Photo: Stephanie Stefanski.
Orca. Taken with a telephoto lense and cropped. Photo: Stephanie Stefanski.

We then began the journey back to port – disheartened to have not seen Humpbacks or Orcas but entirely understanding of the situation and thrilled to have been out on the water.

Suddenly the vessel came to a stop.

Jos reported – another vessel sighted Orcas! We changed course and made our way to the site.

As we pulled up to the Orcas, we noted that every whale watching vessel at the site was displaying the “Whale Flag” – a local creation to advertise to all boaters that Orcas, Humpbacks, or other baleen whales are in the imminent area. Every vessel was traveling parallel to the Orcas and maintaining at least 200m of distance, even more than the mandate due to the windy and rough conditions. As we approached, the other vessels left – continuing the tag team manner of viewing these animals.

It was an incredible display of a community coming together to find Orcas for their customers to view but still maintaining responsible standards, even after the frustration of day-long search.

And that was only our first day!

The following two days in Campbell River were spent interviewing First Nations representatives, tour boat operators, and other community members. We visited museums to investigate how the local community educated and shared its history and relations with cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) and photographed any celebratory signs of these animals – from wall murals to brewery logos! We even pulled off from the road to join other people viewing the Orcas from land as they passed by.

Meeting with local community. Photo: Stephanie Stefanski
Meeting with local community. Photo: Stephanie Stefanski

We then traveled to the northern end of the candidate region – to the heart of Orca research and whale watch operators. We would spend the following three days meeting with tourism and regional coordinators, research managers and programs, First Nations community members, and whale watching operators.

We first arrived to the tiny town of Telegraph Cove, population 20. Once a fishing and cannery village, it has since become a regional hub for eco-tourism due to its location on the Johnstone Strait and proximity to the Robson Bight ecological reserve. The ecological reserve is the culmination of effort of local researchers and whale watch operators to set aside a marine area for the protection of the orcas and their natural foraging and beach rubbing behavior. All whale watch operators voluntarily abide by this limit and will not enter the reserve to view wildlife.

Our half-day tour from Telegraph Cove with Stubbs Island Whale Watching was filled with wildlife viewings and educational information on threats to Orca populations and what we can do to help. The trip opened with Dall’s Porpoises, traveled past resting Stellar Sea Lions, paused to observe Humpback foraging behavior, and concluded with listening over the hydrophone to the captivating vocalizations of Nouthern Resident Orcas of the A30 matriline communicating amongst each other as they left the reserve and passed in front of our vessel.

Iconic Telegraph Cove. Photo: Stephanie Stefanski
Iconic Telegraph Cove. Photo: Stephanie Stefanski

After the trip, we met with Captain Roger and educator and naturalist Jackie Hildering. Jackie describes Orcas as the “barometer of human value systems” – once hunted and vilified by humans, they were then captured for entertainment purposes, and now the recognition of their unique cultures, family structures, and intelligence is beginning to become better understood and used for grounds of their freedom and conservation.

Vancouver Island North embodies this current human value system. The OrcaLab, whose philosophy is research without interference, streams 24/7 live sound and surface and underwater video of the Johnstone Strait area to the world to help educate on these important Northern Residents, the occasional transients that pass through, and the growing number of Humpbacks, once a rarity in the region. The majority of whale watching vessels monitor and patrol each other, adhering to Be Whale Wise guidelines and displaying the Whale Flag.

First Nations communities respect and revere the Orca for its role as a historical ancestor and healer. Orcas and Humpback Whales are featured throughout their artwork, cultural masks, totems, and burial grounds. First Nations have started the first land-based salmon aquaculture operation in the area, alongside other renewable energy and tourism initiatives. The Guardian Watch program is enabling the First Nation communities to take ownership of their historical territories and begin monitoring and collecting scientific data on marine mammal populations, oceanographic conditions, and human activity within the waters of the candidate Whale Heritage Site.

While there is still work ahead, our brief but in-depth visit to the region provided us an answer to our question: Responsible whale watching is the culmination of community engagement with and respect of its surrounding environment through an ever-changing and evolving process of communication and cooperation to conserve and protect its marine mammal residents and visitors.

Read more about Whale Heritage Sites on the website. 

Discussions with whale watch companies. Photo: Stephanie Stefanski
Discussions with whale watch companies. Photo: Stephanie Stefanski
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