GOING WILD IN OAK BAY: Salish Sea provides one surprise after another

A pair of northern right whale dolphins frolic off the coast of Washington in 2005. The lack of dorsal fin makes this species easier to identify.

A pair of northern right whale dolphins frolic off the coast of Washington in 2005. The lack of dorsal fin makes this species easier to identify.

Sightings of whales and dolphins are possible year-round along Oak Bay’s oceanfront.

As some whale populations rebound from the whaling days, more sightings may occur in the future.

Even old stories can resurface with a new angle, such as the recent confirmation of a new species of dolphin seen in our waters 13 years ago.

In mid-February, I was at the observation post in Walbran Park on Gonzales Hill, where I met a tall man with massive binoculars mounted on tall tripod. He was looking at three orcas – one male and two females from “J” Pod, he told me – swimming near Clover Point a few kilometres away. I was surprised to see them so close to the city and so early in the year.

These were my first orcas of 2011 and reminded me of my last orcas of 2010, seen in late October, off the Trial Islands.

That was a truly spectacular experience. It took place during one of my routine, one-hour outings in my kayak. Unbelievably and unexpectedly, I counted 18 orcas, one humpback whale and one grey whale swimming near me within 20 minutes.

I felt the power of the orcas’ breath. And as if more oomph was needed, the humpback flapped its long, pectoral fins on the water and the grey swam under me, then surfaced nearby before heading into McNeill Bay. It took me an hour to calm down after these glorious encounters, which made me wonder what it must have been like in Oak Bay in the pre-whaling days.

An old dolphin story with photos also resurfaced lately. It led me to confirm the first occurrence of the rare and little-known northern right whale dolphin, not only for Oak Bay but for the entire Salish Sea. This oceanic, squid-eating dolphin usually lives far offshore.

This particular animal was photographed by local kayaker Ben Garrett in McNeill Bay in August 1998. It was seen by several experienced whale watchers, including Victoria’s Ron Bates, but somehow went unreported for 13 years.

The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network (Vancouver Aquarium) and the Friday Harbour Whale Museum on San Juan Island, graciously helped me pull all the records available on this strangely named and shaped species. Amazingly, this dolphin was first seen in May 1998, in Oak Bay and Puget Sound, and later in the San Juan Islands and near Tacoma.

In recent decades, the northern right whale dolphin has been decimated, being caught accidentally as bycatch in the North Pacific squid driftnet fishery. To see another one here in the future is unlikely, but not impossible.

So, always be ready; the Salish Sea is still full of surprises. Even old stories can have pizzazz when seen in a new light.

– Jacques Sirois is a retired wildlife biologist. He lives in Oak Bay and frequently kayaks around the waterfront.