Boats and seaplanes came to a standstill Friday morning when five transient orcas entered the Inner Harbour, most likely in search of prey.
Around 10 a.m., bystanders saw the group swimming into the Inner Harbour toward the Harbour Air terminal, before heading to the waters near the Delta Hotel, and finally toward the Johnson Street Bridge. The whales turned around before they could cross under, however, heading back toward the open sea.
They only spent about 30 minutes in the area, but to Hailey Olsen, marketing manager for Orca Spirit Adventures, time slows down when you’re watching whales.
“Even though we talk about whales all day, it’s still an incredible experience to see them right off the shores and right off the Inner Harbour,” she said, noting that crowds of onlookers formed near the Delta Hotel and Inn at Laurel Point.
“It’s amazing, it’s something people dream to see.”
The last time an orca was seen that close to the harbour was August 2019, when a lone transient whale was spotted near Fisherman’s Wharf.
In 2018, a group of at least four whales was seen in the harbour and spent about an hour in the area.
Jared Towers, director at Bay Cetology, a team of marine biologists and research technicians based out of Alert Bay, said it’s not uncommon to see whales from transient populations in coastal waters, where they often come to hunt mammals like seals and sea lions.
“We’ve got a lot of food for these whales,” he said. “If the food is here, they are going to learn to deal with these noises and disturbances.”
The orcas spotted Friday morning were members of T124A, a maternally related group that’s seen up and down the coastline, from Alaska to Oregon and along B.C. shores.
They’ve been spotted in Vancouver Harbour, too, Towers said.
“When you have animals like this in busy waterways, there is a risk to them,” he said. “With more boats in the water, there’s a higher likelihood of a vessel strike or some kind of interaction like that.”
But on Friday morning, Olsen saw boats back away from the whales, and Harbour Air held its flights until the orcas had left the area.
The airline said that in the event of orcas being spotted in the harbour during a scheduled landing, the plane would do a “go-around,” orbiting outside the harbour until it was clear to land, using the extra fuel it has on board if necessary.
Towers was happy to hear that boats and float planes gave the whales space, as per the Department of Fisheries and Oceans rule for vessel operators to stay 400 metres from orcas in southern B.C. coastal waters. Boaters have to turn off echo sounders and engines if a whale comes closer.
“The rules are in place so we can coexist,” Towers said. “The best thing we can do is be good neighbours.”