Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Me piloting Charybdis into the storm

I recently returned from yet another orca whale trip. I think I've spent something like 50 weeks of my life in pursuit of killer whales, my favorite animal. Very near and dear to me, as I began my career 20 years ago with killer whales. Amazing creatures.

People often ask what it's like. I usually say something like "hours, sometimes days of boredom, punctuated by a few moments of magic..." That pretty much sums it up. Normally I do these trips by myself. Melissa has accompanied me a few times, but it's getting tougher these days because she is so busy with her art. Fun to remember that a week of whales in the San Juan Islands was our first date...

This time I was accompanied by a good friend, Frank WEST (, a superb photographer from Switzerland. We met in South Africa a few years ago, while chasing great white sharks. He told me that he's always wanted to spend time with orcas, so it was my pleasure to show him around.

Below is an excerpt from my trip log, a "day in the life" sort of accounting. It's not movie material, but it certainly gives you an idea what goes on behind the scenes. After the text, you'll find a link to new orca pictures from this trip.

Thanks so much to Frank for being such a great partner on this expedition. And thanks, as always, to the whales.


5am- Wake up early, again. 4 fitful hours of sleep is not enough for me anymore. Maybe when I was 25, but not anymore.

6am- On the water, surrounded by fog. Really thick. It’s been like this most mornings. Can’t see more than 20 yards or so, and with a maze of islands around us, no choice but to pull out the old crappy handheld GPS. We meander through a foggy sea for a while. Cold this morning.

7amish- Almost collide with an island. GPS doesn’t have this island on its map… Hum… I know about where we are. Philippe is kind enough not to ask me if we’re lost. We’re not, but I don’t know exactly where we are. As it’s low tide, and I’m worried about rocks, best to shut down and wait.

7:30am- Fog begins to tear apart, and we start motoring again. I get my bearings and plot the day’s course. Surprise! A group of transients off the end of Gooch Island, near the beacon. 5 whales, one big male, one tiny newborn, and three others. Pretty sure I’ve seen these guys before, but can’t recall the exact ID.

8am – 12 noon. No more fog, nice sunshine now. Transients slowly working south, obviously hunting. After a nice spyhop, still with golden morning light, we follow them into a bay. We see them investigate a number of kelp beds, circling rocks, looking for harbor seals probably. Yes, definitely harbor seals. Witness two different attacks, lots of splashing around, saw the seal frantically trying to escape. Not 100% sure, but I think the last attack were successful. Unfortunately I can’t make any photos which really show the attack.

Amazing to watch these whales go to work. The orca pod worked together effectively, surrounding the prey, even creating waves trying to swamp seals and knock them off the rocks. One orca makes stealthy approaches into the shallows, almost sliding up into a tidepool where petrified seals are cowering. Whales celebrated a bit after the kill, playing at the surface, tail slapping, etc. Very young calf leaps out of water with mouth open. All 5 play under the boat, rolling upside down and blowing bubbles. We don’t have underwater cameras ready, so all we can do is watch, enjoy the moments.

Afternoon. After leaving the transients in search of resident whales, hours pass with nothing. Zig zag all over the place, covering about 60 miles without any sightings. Where are the other whales we saw yesterday?

Dinnertime, but of course we’re still on boat, and looking for whales, not eating dinner. That might happen later, depending on how tired we are when we return. Finally at about 6:30 we see some fins far away, way south of the south end of San Juan Island. Water is fairly calm, so we decide to stick with them til sunset. About 15 whales here, spread out. J and K pod members. I’ve known some of these whales for 20 years… No breaching or spyhopping tonight, just fin shots as the sun sinks and the water glows orange. Wonderful to be out here alone with the whales, listening to them breathe.

8pm. We have a long way to go, about 35 miles to reach the dock. Time to say goodnight to the whales, top off the gas tanks. Put on the warm jackets. It’s going to be cold tonight. Speeding back north, I wonder if we’ll find the whales tomorrow…

9:30pm Things were going fine up until half hour ago, until the last few miles, when we had to slow down and navigate by gps and use the spotlight to find our path through the darkness, avoiding the sandbar, rocks, and floating debris. Pull into the dock and tromp up the ramp. Not looking forward to filling up gas tanks. Just want to sleep.

10:30pm. Back in hotel room. Too tired to eat. But have to download pictures and take care of some computer work. Need to send a picture to a client. And charge batteries and get some things ready for tomorrow.

1am. Lights out. But only for 4 hours. Start the whole thing over again soon…