Killer whales spotted in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour a sign of return to balanced ecosystem

Robert Johnson’s shift was almost over at Vancouver’s seaplane terminal in Coal Harbour when he saw something he’s never seen before. 

“All of a sudden there were these massive black creatures underneath the plane’s nose,” Johnson said. 

Two orca whales breached the surface right next to the terminal pier on Saturday at around 5:30 p.m. and Johnson took out his phone and caught the whole thing on camera. 

“It’s surreal to see that kind of amazing majesty. That was the largest creature I’ve ever seen in my life. I can’t believe things like that live. It’s crazy,” he said.

Johnson has worked at the terminal for three years and said it was the first time he’s seen whales while on the job.

Whale sightings increase near Vancouver’s shores

“It’s definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity, without a doubt. I mean, I don’t think I’ll ever see something like that ever again,” he said.

Andrew Trites, a professor at the University of British Columbia and director of the marine mammal research unit, says he’s quite certain the killer whales seen in Johnson’s videos are Bigg’s killer whales, transient orcas that eat small mammals.

He says the fact there were only two spotted in the footage is one clue, as the other type of killer whales found in the Salish Sea, the endangered southern residents, usually travel in larger groups. 

Killer whales have been increasingly spotted close to shore in recent weeks, Trites says.

“What you’re seeing is the return of marine mammals to the Salish Sea. Some of them have been absent for 100 years and they’ve come back,” he said. 

In the early 1970s, Trites said seals and sea lions were killed off in what he calls a “mistaken belief” that they were out-competing fishermen for salmon supply. 

“Now that seals and sea lions have stopped being killed, populations have increased, attracting killer whales to a reliable food source close to shore,” Trites said. 

Due to the increasing number of killer whales, seals and sea lions that used to be concentrated in certain areas have started to spread out to hide from predators, further attracting whales to a number of spots around the coast. 

“Now we’re seeing the entire Salish Sea has become one big hunting ground,” he said.

Trites noted there may be an increased number of young and naive seal and sea lion pups in the waters since mating season ended in August, providing easy prey for the whales. 

It’s a change that Trites says he didn’t expect to see in his 40-year career, but he’s encouraged by it.  

“We have the killer whales now, which are here in high numbers because their food supply is here and it’s stable. We’re seeing a return to a balanced ecosystem unlike anything that I knew in my lifetime and perhaps for the first time in centuries.

Sightings around the B.C. coast aren’t limited to killer whales. Humpback whale sightings were captured on camera close to Bowen Island, along with a rare spotting of a beluga whale in Washington state’s Puget Sound. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries West Coast Region tweeted that they were tracking a beluga sighting hundreds of miles outside the whales’ usual range. 

“It’s come here from the Arctic, from Alaska, but it’s really strange because they’re not supposed to be here. They’re an Arctic species,” Trites said.https://www.youtube.com/embed/3m7Uh4Zdwas

He said the animal most likely strayed away from its pod. He had no explanation for why it would’ve done so, but says the whale won’t likely survive if it doesn’t make its way back to the group. 

Trites says the sightings are giving those who witness the majestic animals a better appreciation for them in our oceans. 

“There’s a whole new discussion happening as we’re seeing this changing relationship with the Salish Sea. And I think in the end, it’s both enriching the ecosystem, making it more diverse and productive. But I think it’s also making it healthier for you and I.”

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