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Rolf Hicker Photography
Animal * Nature * Travel Photography

Whale Watching Photographing Transients Orca Whales

One of my best whale watching days in many years happened on October 20th, 2010 with transient orca whales (killer whales, Orcinus orca) off Northern Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.

Breaching Orca Whale Scenic British Columbia Coast Mountains

Transient orca whale (killer whale, Orcinus orca) breaching in front of the British Columbia Coast Mountains

Transient Killer Whale And Seagulls After Kill
It has been a while that I made it onto the pacific ocean off the northern part of Vancouver Island. I have been out a few times this year, but more for scenery pictures and not for real whale photography . In fact I hardly photographed whales for quit some time now. Life in general took me away from photographing orca whales for many years. We were too busy traveling in the past few years in countries like Italy, France, Germany, Spain and New Zealand. Simply for survival reasons, even a professional photographer has to pay his bill's, strait survival, which is the other side of the coin for a professional photographer, especially in the last few years, especially when nature, wildlife and travel photos are your main income. We took several assignments on which brought us to many new locations overseas and beautiful new discoveries across Canada - which we traveled across from Newfoundland back to British Columbia (thats another blog one day).

Anyway, on October 20th I decided to move my butt out of my office and go out with the boat, probably the last time for this year as this is now the time where we see big storms moving through, day after day, week after week. When I left I had no glue if there were any whales around, not that I would love to see them (and photograph of course) but I simply had to be on the water that day to enjoy the beauty of being on the water.

I drove past Haddington Island and over to Donegal Head and had a listen via my hydrophone, I heard some "strange calls", I'm not a sound specialist at all (but I sure to

Transient Killer Whale Habitat
enjoy hearing the whales) but I was pretty sure that they were not resident orca whale calls. I used my binoculars and searched the horizon as good as I could. I was able to see fairly far, even up to Noomas Island and of course onto the British Columbia Coast Mountains (a million dollar view!). About half way up towards Lizard Point, probably a couple miles of Malcolm Island I saw a small fin, then a long dive then another small fin. Way off to the left, almost on the Malcolm Island shoreline, I saw a red zodiak sitting in the water.

At first I thought it is Jaret Tower maybe taking new Id shots of the whales, but after watching the scene for a little bit I realized that he would be waaaaay to far away from the whales to get decend Id's. I decided to get a little bit closer to the action. It was still a little bit of a drive to the scene, especially because I didn't want to go fast, with my 4-8 knots it took me maybe 15 minutes till I was maybe 200-300 meters aways from the zodiak and the whales. The whales were moving slowly towards the shore so we all could see each other but also have been a good distance away from each other.

It took me a while to figure out what was going on, at that time I only saw 4 animals, very small pointy dorsal fins. They were swimming in large circles, lots and lots of seagulls around, all pretty much in one spot, then I saw the first male orca, wauhhh, what a beautiful animal. In the meantime the outgoing tide drifted me closer to the zodiak, a small group of people started waving as soon as we had eye contact. A guy said "hey

Orca Killer Whale Fluke Underside
Rolf - how are you?" - hmmm, do I know that guy? I had a closer look at his zodiak and it said "Western Explorer", honestly I have not heard about a "Western Explorer" up here yet, but maybe somebody new came in while we were on the road? Anyway, he told me that they have witnessed a kill - this group or orcas, now clearly identified as transient orca whales, had killed a sea lion just an hour ago.

The "Western Explorer" left soon after they updated me what was happening, now I was all by myself, enjoying every second with the whales which seemed to stay pretty much in this area. In the next almost 3 hours I only started my engine once. It was amazing - the whales did huge circles, came a little bit closer, then they moved a little bit away but all together they stayed in the same spot for almost 3 hours.

It was difficult to figure out how many animals where there, typical transients, long dives and very unpredictable where they would come back up - probably the biggest challange for a photographer, other whales like Humpback Whales are often "easy" - sorry let me rephrase - "easier" to photograph, they are not as fast, the make a nice arch before they go for a deep dive, all little hints for a photographer to focus and be ready. But those transients where making my head spin, animals everywhere but only for a very short time, no way for me to figure out a pattern they swim with or even figure out for sure how many animals where here.

Fluke Orca Killer Whale Sunset
After watching the scene a bit I loaded my "gun", Canon D7 (love the speed) with the 2.8/300mm, for me the best "weapon" to "shot" (photograph) whales. First of all I don't have to worry about getting too close to them, which is always a big concern as I try to follow all the whale watching rules. It is the same on the water -as it is on land: try not to distrub, interrupt or interact with animals, and leave nothing behind but footprints (ok, that part I have not figured out on the water yet).

Camera was loaded, I got my bearing and as always I was trying to photograph some ID photos first. Pretty much all orca whales are identified by their sattlepatch (fingerprint) and the dorsal fin, both must be visible, shot at 90 degree from the left side. In my time when I was focusing on whales I shot way over 30,000 ID photos and shared them with the research community, I got a little rusty on the ID practise, but after a few minutes it felt like that I never stopped to photograph whales.

Sometimes it is hard for a professional photographer to shot Id's first. Why? Simple to answer, photography is my only income so when I spend money going out with our boat I have to see it as a investment. A half day can cost easy $ 200 in gas and oil (wish the boat would work on solar panels), often you go without getting a good enough shot so costs are going up a lot. Anyway, that is a complete different issue. Fact is that this time, as almost always I started to photograph for research first. I knew that the research community would appreciate the pics very much, especially from transients as they are not seen that often.

Spy hopping Whale Watching Transient Orca Whales
As the afternoon continued I got enough ID's so I could concentrade of shots I wanted to take for my portfolio. I'm a big fan of showing animals interacting with each other and also showing them in their habitat. Having the whales on the backside of Malcolm Island means that  I had the British Columbia Coast Mountains to the North - hard to beat that background! Sometimes the whales came up like the resident family groups - in beautiful resting lines, only difference was that the surface time with the transients were very short.

To come to an end of this day... it was simply amazing, probably one of my best whale watching days I had for a long time, the peace and silence made it to a very unique experience - I wish I had my wife and my little boy with me at this time, but it is simply to early for him to get out in our small boat.

The experience was so incredible because it seemed like that the whales were not bothered at all by my present, actually it was almost the oposite, at one stage they lined up and came all it sudden over to my boat and dove right underneath, upside down, I could have touched their bellies. Honestly, as incredible as that was, I prefer to have them a little bit further away, it was a strange feeling having 5 transient whales, including 2 big bulls, aiming for my boat all it sudden.

I had action all afternoon, breaches, tail slaps, spyhops, rolls and back strokes, pretty much everything man can ask for. But it also was a bit frustrating at the same time, because they were so unpredictable it was almost impossible to get the breaches, they only breached once, only spyhopped once and and and - simply impossibly to get all the shots but I knew I should have gotten still some amazing images. You never know for sure what you get at the end of the day, shotting with the D7 and 2.8/300mm at low light, aperture mostly wide open you only have a few centimeters to focus, from a always moving boat and shooting at a moving "targets".

Whale Watching Orca Killer Whales Playing Sunset
Just at about 6.16 pm I took my last photos, it was getting to dark and it was time for me to start my journey back home, about a 45 minute trip back to Port McNeill.

Back at home I started immediately to download my images, a little later I needed to share my experience with my wife and then I already started working on the pics - ID's first which I was able to send out partly this evening, the rest next morning. I was happy that I got enough ID's which I shared with researcher at the Orcalab and with Jaret Tower, Greame Elis and Dr. John Ford from Fisheries and Oceans. Everybody was very thankfull for the pictures and they all identified the transients as the T30's and T137's.

Wauhh, what a day on the water, I didn't expect anything and got almost everything - enjoy the photos, I believe they are some of my best pictures I took of Orca whales for many, many years - definetely a day to remember for a long time.

Here you can find my photo gallery "Orca whale photos" and here another blog about orca whale watching in British Columbia.

Sunset Whale Watching Orca Whale Backstrokes

Transient orca whale (killer whale, orcinus orca) playing on its back, doing powerful back-strokes

Author: Rolf Hicker - 2010-11-09
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