Marine mammals such as orcas, dolphins and porpoises are much harder to find than their land dwelling counterparts. Oftentimes they are spotted far off in the distance, disappear beneath the surface only to reappear in the least likely places. I remember my first sighting of an orca as if it was yesterday. We had headed out of Campbell River for only a short while when an orca, a large bull, appeared out of the depth right in front of our rigid hull Zodiac not 30 meters away. It had been my first outing on a rocking boat and as I scrambled to turn on the camera, take off the lens cap, select the appropriate zoom range and compose the shot a rogue wave hit the boat just I was ready to squeeze the trigger. The lens pointed skyward and, as I tried to recover and reset for the shot, the bull disappeared beneath the waves. I remember the scene as it played out through my viewfinder quite vividly but, as far as photos are concerned, it is one of the shots I missed. Suffice to say that it would have been spectacular. We followed the orcas for a while and I shot some nice photos but none as nice as the missed shot.
Another opportunity to photograph orcas arose several years later. It was a beautiful September afternoon as we set out on a wildlife watching tour. After photographing dolphins and sea lions we spotted the tell tale orca fins way off in the distance. It was as small family group, one bull, one cow and one calf making their way south along the shoreline of one of the islands north of Campbell River. I squeezed off a couple of frames and the orcas were gone. Everyone aboard was on the lookout for more orca signs as the boat sliced through the dark blue water toward a point where we expected the orcas to reappear. Everybody watched with great anticipation for any sign of the orcas. They finally surfaced, but not in the anticipated spot. It was a backlit scene I watched through the viewfinder: one, two, three spouts, fins and bodies emerged from below the water’s surface. I had the chance to squeeze off five frames. Then they were gone only to reappear a short distance away for another five frames. Then they were gone for good. As it turned out the orcas were on a hunt. Two minutes after the last shots I photographed a line of dolphins heading away from the orcas with great urgency.
Dolphins are playful creatures and are often seen having a grand old time. The first time I encountered dolphins they were in a group of at least one hundred animals. Amongst them we spotted two sea lions who were desperately trying to keep up with them. Sea lions are quite agile in their watery environment but no match for the sleek and powerful dolphins. When we first spotted them they were far off in the distance but within what could not have been more than a minute they were all around the boat. It was a target rich environment with one big problem: once a target was spotted and the camera was ready, the scene had all but disappeared or the photo turned out blurry. Summersaults and just plain jumping were the order of the day. It was non-stop action and some anticipation was needed to get some decent photos. It took a short while but I finally figured out how to photograph the dolphins and ended up with some decent material after all. On another occasion I had the privilege to watch a group of dolphins feeding. There was no fast action this time as the animals had split up in small groups and were swimming just below the surface with only the dorsal fins above the water’s surface. They seemed to drive the herring toward each other and have their feast. It was time a gain to adjust and look for interesting scenes to shoot. It was a sunny day and the ripples of the blue water reflected on the dolphin’s bodies. The distortion, which was caused by the water and the waves, gave me some interesting patterns to photograph.
Dahl’s porpoises (pictured below) gave me another challenge. The groups I encountered on several occasions came to play but never cleated the surface like dolphins. Their jumps were much shallower and did not give the same photo opportunities as dolphins. I noticed however that a number of them swam underneath or beside the boat. Once again I had to change tactics and, after several attempts, managed to get some nice shots of the fast moving creatures as they passed by. Of course the calm water helped tremendously.
Sea lions are another marine mammal worth mentioning in this spot. Usually perched on rocky shores these creatures are loud and smelly. Big males usually have the safest spots away from the water’s edge with the lower ranks closer to it. The competition is fierce and the individual animals will defend their territory with great ferocity. Exceptions are the smaller females who are allowed to stay with the big males on the high ground as I observed on several occasions. Clumsy on land they are agile swimmers in the water who, when there are no orcas around, will come out and play. I have photographed them just playing in the strong ocean currents around Campbell River on many occasions. One spot comes to mind in particular. It is a narrow passage with a very strong current. There I have photographed sea lions bodysurfing in a standing wave. They entered the wave, surfed and once finished swam around for another go-around.
This brings me to harbour seals. More timid than the other species they usually can be seen poking their heads out from the surface only to disappear again at the slightest sign of danger. While kayaking I observed some harbour seals following me only to slip below the surface whenever I turned my head. They are also ferocious hunters as I saw for myself in the Courtenay River. It was a sunny September afternoon when I went for a walk along the Airpark walkway in Courtenay. A loud splash alerted me to the drama which was unfolding before my eyes. I watched through my camera’s viewfinder as a harbour seal was trying to subdue a rather large Coho salmon, which it had by the salmon’s head. The seal’s body was halfway out of the water, the salmon’s silvery body writhing in agony, while a lone seagull swooped in to pick up any morsels, which were falling off in the struggle. When it was all over I could not wait to look at the photos I had taken. Much to my chagrin I discovered that I had forgotten to insert the card into the camera! I never made that mistake again but I missed some great shots that day. I have shot harbour seals devouring salmon on many occasions since but
never in that spectacular fashion.
Dahl’s porpoises, sea lions and harbor seals feed onsalmon and dolphins feed on herring. And they are all in turn on the menu of the transient orcas who frequent these waters in an everlasting great circle of life. May the salmon and herring be abundant to sustain it forever.
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