The Johnstone Strait,
British Columbia, Canada, 2-7 September 2003

Orca

Trip diary


02/09/03 Vancouver and journey to Quadra Island, British Columbia

We awoke to blue skies, in the Ramada Plaza hotel, near Vancouver airport. From the balcony, I soon found my first new species of bird for the trip, an American Crow. A flock of nominate race Canada Geese fed on a small soccer pitch down below, while a couple of Barn Swallows flicked past, heading south. Several gulls were cruising by along Puget Sound in the distance, the only one coming close being my first Glaucous-winged Gull, a dirty great third winter beast, lumbering along over the rooftops.

We flew out of the domestic terminal on time, on a thirty seater twin prop plane, which was a little nerve-wracking. Heading west then north up the strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland, we watched the snowy peaks of the mountains inland pass by, while splashes far below in the sea could have been our first Killer Whales (Orcas)!

Our Pacific Coastal plane touched down briefly at Comox, Vancouver Island, before heading on to Campbell River, a little further north, where we disembarked into a sunny Canadian morning. A short taxi ride down to the smelly ferry port (there is a large pulping plant at Campbell River) and I was watching our first Pelagic Cormorants, Common Loons, Bonaparte's Gulls and more Glaucous-winged Gulls. The ferry soon arrived and we headed across the strait to Quadra Island.

Chatting to another passenger, we found out that sightings of various whales and dolphins are fairly frequent during this short ferry crossing. But no such luck today! We took a taxi, once on Quadra, round to Heriot Bay, to the beautifully located Harbour House B&B, overlooking Rebecca Spit and the mountains beyond. We chilled out on the deck until our hostess, Susan arrived home. After settling in to the gorgeous B&B, Susan gave us a lift round to the spit, where we had a walk. One or two Thayer's Gulls, were among the commoner Glaucous-winged and American-Herring Gulls. Rebecca Spit was a lovely strip of rounded boulders topped with pine woods, cutting off Heriot Bay from the strait. We walked along, seeing several new species, including Cedar Waxwings, Northwestern Crows, Northern Flickers, Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Pine Siskin.

After our walk, Susan collected us and took us down to the Yak Shak, where we hooked up with our crew for the expedition up the Johnstone Strait. Everything and everybody seemed cool and we all met later for a beer and a meal in the local pub. A great start!


03/09/03 Quadra Island, journey to Cracroft Island, and the northern Johnstone Strait

After watching Mew Gulls, a Great Blue Heron and several Common Loons in the bay, we headed off to April Point to catch our ride up the strait. A couple of cracking Belted Kingfishers , hammered around noisily, while we packed our kayaks and kit on to the "High Flyer", a catamaran that would take us up to camp. Recognising some "chip" calls, I watched as small flocks of Red Crossbills, bounced among the pines overhead.

The journey up to Cracroft took about three or four hours at high speed. Highlights of the trip included a superb Fork-tailed Storm-petrel, which flew alongside the boat for a few minutes, along with our first Dall's Porpoises, Harlequin Ducks, Rhinocerous Auklets and Surf Scoters.

As the High Flyer slowed and we pulled in to Boat Bay, we were all quiet, being awestruck by the beauty and tranquility of this spot. Ravens, cronked forbodingly, as we unloaded, while being watched intently by the dishevelled bunch of kayakers huddled on the beach, who were about to head home. They looked really miserable, which I decided must be a good thing- this place must be pretty cool! Unloading, Justin, one of our Canadian guides instructed the departees not to say anything about what they had seen. One woman whispered that I "should watch out for the bear!" as she climbed on to the High Flyer! Cool!


Our campsite was on a little lump of rock jutting out of thick temperate rainforest on the west coast of Cracroft Island. This place was used as a permanent base for Spirit of the West (SOTW) expeditions in the Johnstone Strait between June and September. All food and toothpaste is kept locked in bear-proof chests, but usually, the bears leave the kayakers alone. Well, most of the time! Not so the Cougars, which have caused the camp to be evacuated in previous years. Indeed one Cougar casually dragged a young woman into the woods from a beach nearby, a few years ago. She was lucky to survive, as her friends had chased the cat away. This was not a SOTW tour group however! Not sure I will be going to the toilet in the dark then!


After a bit of grub, we headed down to the beach in Boat Bay, where we had stored our kayaks. The SOTW kayaks are really excellent. Another guide, Scarlet, gave us an explanation of kayaking in the Strait and some safety tips on how to react to Orcas, if they came close!

Off we paddled, Vicky and me in a twin kayak, Vicky in the front, me behind (so I could take it easy, while the wife paddled!). Heading north out of Boat Bay, through the thick floating matts of Bull Kelp, Scarlet nonchalantly mentioned the Orcas "blowing" on the far side of the Strait! Whoaaa! In the distance, over near the Robson Bight, plumes of white spray were shooting up vertically against the black pinewoods, cladding the hills of Vancouver Island. Even at a good mile range, you could hear the boom as the breath, or "blow" went skywards. Cool!





Gabe, our third guide, suggested we raft up as the Orcas were heading our way. Rapidly, the three young males devoured the distance. Soon, they surfaced heading straight for our makeshift kayak raft. The silence while these huge black dolphins were under was terrifying. Where would they surface? Which direction were they heading precisely when they dived?

They came up right in front of us, blowing in unison, like canons being fired, with a huge sucking inhale clearly heard after. A rush of emotions coursed through me. Awe, terror, love, panic, all took hold. They glided away, leaving us all wide-eyed and laughing nervously, bobbing out on the sea, fragile and vulnerable.
Surrounded by the beautiful scenery of the Robson Bight, this was a truly breathtaking, magical experience and so much more than I could have ever anticipated. Dangling my fingers in the cold, clear waters of the Strait, over the side of my kayak, I could not quite believe that three four tonne Orcas had just casually cruised past within ten metres or so, without so much as a sideways glance. Wow!

As we headed back to base, we glided past our first pair of Bald Eagles perched serenely in gnarled old pines, overhanging the shore, while gulls, including California, Mew, Ring-billed, American Herring, Glaucous-winged and Bonaparte's loafed around, as gulls seem to enjoy doing.

In the early evening, some huge Steller's Sea-lions lumbered past, and we watched half a dozen Orcas, including a female with a well-grown calf swim past, heading south. As the gloom gathered, a lone bull Orca, with a huge straight dorsal fin, slowly made his way south. A great end to a great day!


04/09/03 The Johnstone Strait

Up early, we watched six Orcas head south down the Strait as we ate breakfast. The whales in this pod were very playful, slapping tails, or flukes, on the surface regularly, as well as fin waving, lunging out of the water, and rolling about. Another big, pale Steller's Sealion, swam leisurely past and we spotted an albino Harbour Seal, which dove for fish in the shallows. Around the camp, the bushes and trees held a large flock of Golden-Crowned Kinglets, with many Chestnut-backed Chickadees. A couple of Pacific Loons flew south down the Strait along with a male Surf Scoter.

At 9.30am we left camp, me again sharing my kayak with Vicky. The Strait was flat calm. It was cloudy, but with sun breaking through. After half an hour, a female Orca with a well-grown calf in tow came past us. This was our closest view yet (see photo at top of page). Vicky was paddling backwards and I was paddling forwards, so we just hung out, midstream, while the whales coursed past. Further north, we encountered many seabirds including several Cassin's Auklets and two or three Marbled Murrelets. The auks seemed quite curious about our kayaks, and would only dive if we got too close. Large, dark Rhinocerous Auklets were common, along with Guillemots, or Common Murres.

After a few hours paddling north, we reached a stunning beach on an inlet, where we hauled out for lunch. Gabe, Scarlet and Justin rustled up a hearty snack, while we chilled out, watching the Bald Eagles soaring over head and the occasional Barrow's Goldeneye or Harlequin fly past.


After we had eaten, a small pod of Orcas came through, disturbing the tranquility of the inlet as they hunted salmon. They headed off as we re-embarked into our kayaks. We followed the whales south, back towards camp. The sun had come out and the afternoon was lovely. The black forest, cloaking the hills became a deep emerald green and the Strait like a silver mirror. Back south in front of Robson Bight we suddenly paddled into heavy whale traffic. Out in midstream, we were among about twenty Orcas. The booming blows could be heard all around. Some were way over near the Vancouver Island shore, others much closer. A young playful calf pottered along with his mum, continually flapping his fluke on the surface. The youngster must have just realised this was a fun game! "He" even breached clear of the water, which was fantastic. And then we spotted the big bull Orca we had seen yesterday evening. This was obviously his pod. He headed our way at a leisurely pace. We held our breath. He surfaced close to Gabe, just off to our port side.


Then he was down again and our gang all waited, anticipating where he would surface again. He came up alongside Ted and Peggy's kayak. His huge dorsal fin dwarfed them!



Click on the thumbnail above for a clip of the Orca blowing!


He paid us no attention, he had obviously seen kayakers before. An incredibly close view. He was huge!

We floated out mid channel for a while, soaking up the atmosphere among this big pod of Orcas. Blows could still be heard all around. The big bull had gone off over to the shore, presumably searching for salmon among the kelp beds. After a while, we paddled on south, past some rocks, where I checked out some Brandt's Cormorants. A few of our fellow kayakers had disturbed a Black Bear from the shore as we paddled back into Boat Bay, and I was a bit gutted I had been lagging behind as usual. Nevermind, I would have to get up early tomorrow to have a look.

Gabe and co. barbecued us some Coho Salmon for dinner, so we dined like Orcas, although I think they prefer theirs raw! A fitting end to another great day!



05/09/03 The Johnstone Strait


Vicky persuaded me before dawn to accompany her towards the toilet, which was in the woods. To be fair, it was a bit scary going on your own when there was all these things around that might eat you. As I got out of the tent, I decided that I would have a quick look along the shore, to see if the bear was back. And to my disbelief there "he" was, happily turning rocks over looking for crabs and clams for breakfast. Brilliant! We watched this, our first Black Bear as he picked his way along the beach, just metres from our stored kayaks. We woke up nearby friends, so that they could have a look. Soon, the bear melted back into the dark forest. A good start to the day!


A couple of young male Orcas came in to Boat Bay during breakfast, looking for salmon. One even chased fish along the surface, looking remarkably shark-like! After the Orcas had departed, a Dall's Porpoise was swimming around in the Bay.





Birding was good round camp this morning, with a cracking Hermit Thrush appearing in front of me on the way to the toilet, while a couple of Song Sparrows hopped about among the rocks. We also spotted an American Mink which dived into the sea, before reappearing with a fish a little later!

We paddled across Boat Bay and hauled out on the far shore. After another great lunch, we hiked up through the forest to the Eagle Eye Watchpoint, where researchers study the Orca traffic and behaviour in the Strait, They also monitor fishing activity and boat traffic, to see if any of the disturbance affects the Orca behaviour. The forest was quite quiet, probably due to the time of year, although I did see Hairy Woodpecker, which was new.

We paddled back after checking out some neat intertidal creatures and some Surfbirds and Wandering Tattlers before watching the sun set over the Strait.



06/09/03 The Johnstone Strait and journey back to Quadra Island

The day we were dreading, the day we had to leave.

Decided to spend the morning relaxing and enjoying the scenery and peace of Cracroft Island. A Steller's Sea-lion and a Dall's Porpoise entertained us early on, along with the regular seabirds. A couple of Ruby-Crowned Kinglets were among the mixed flock which came through camp at breakfast as normal. The only Orca we had was a lone bull, blowing across the strait, distantly.

The High Flyer arrived on cue and we had become those dishevelled, depressed kayakers, huddled on the beach, we had seen a few days earlier. We hated the newcomers, who would force us to leave this idyllic place. We packed our stuff and boarded the catamaran.

Half an hour into our cruise and we ran into a pod of Orcas. Having not had much luck earlier this morning, I was pleased to get some good views on our last day. And boy did we get good views! The pod hung around the boat for half an hour. A female with a calf swam very close, allowing us to see the small nick our of the front edge of the calf's dorsal fin, which must make the individual identifiable. An immature male approached us very closely and after a while delighted us all by swimming on his side right under the boat from bow to stern, while keeping an eye on us! We listened to "him" with the hydraphone and his sonar clicks increased rapidly as he past close beneath us. Presumably he was checking us out closely! "Kinky fin", the big bull we had seen most days gave us a good farewell swim-past, and it was sad to see him disappearing up the Strait.





We arrived back at April Point safe and sound, thoroughly exhillarated but totally devastated that our expedition was over. But really, for us, our trip had only just begun!

We all hooked up after showers and shaves in the pub near the Yak Shak for food and lots of Piper's beer. At 2am we rolled home!


07/09/03 Quadra Island

Rather large hangovers were left in bed as we headed out for a walk around Rebecca Spit. A pair of superb Pileated Woodpeckers brayed ten bells out of a nearby dead tree, just near Harbour House.


We spent the morning pottering around, watching many birds including Harlequins (including the adult male moulting out of eclipse above), Black Turnstones, Vaux's Swifts, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Brown Creepers, and Swainson's Thrushes. We took lunch in the pub where I was relieved that they let us back in- we had obviously behaved not that badly last night! I asked a few locals if they knew where the Varied Thrushes hung out. They knew them well, but said they were quite shy and not that easy at this time of year. In fact, they were impossible and I dipped.

The evening ended in fine style, sharing a cool Piper's beer in Susan's hot tub, out on the deck, watching Mars and the Moon, reflecting in the Johnstone Strait.


08/09/03 Quadra Island, return to Vancouver

Susan gave us a lift back to the ferry early on. I felt very sad to be leaving this place so soon, it had been amazing. Again, no Orcas from the ferry back to Campbell River, but we did meet Justin, and we laughed about our shennanigans in the pub two nights ago. We boarded the plane and soon left. A fantastic experience, with fantastic people in a fantastic place! Thank you Spirit of the West for making this possible!


Bird List



Pacific Loon, Gavia pacifica

Two seen flying south off Cracroft on 04/09/03.

Common Loon, Gavia immer

Common, the highest count being 8 together in the bay off Rebecca Spit on 02/09/03.

Red-necked Grebe, Podiceps grisegena

One off Rebecca Spit on 02/09/03.

Fork-tailed Storm-petrel, Oceanodroma furcata

One from the High Flyer on 03/09/03.

Brandt's Cormorant, Phalacrocorax penicillatus

Common around Cracroft Island.

Pelagic Cormorant, Phalacrocorax pelagicus

Common along the coast.

Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus

Occasional individuals seen along the coast.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

Seen every day in ones and twos around Cracroft.

Canada Goose, Branta canadensis

A flock of 30 feeding on a soccer pitch on the outskirts of Vancouver, on 02/09/03.

Harlequin Duck, Histrionicus histrionicus

Common along the coast, usually in sheltered bays. The largest count was 36 in the Rebecca Spit area on 07/09/03.

Surf Scoter, Melanitta perspicillata

Commonly seen during the week along the coast.

White-winged Scoter, Melanitta fusca

Several from Rebecca Spit on 07/09/03.

Common Goldeneye, Bucephala clangula

Several large flocks seen along the coast.

Barrow's Goldeneye, Bucephala islandica

Small numbers seen along the northern Strait.

Common Merganser, Mergus merganser

Individuals seen most days around Cracroft.

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura

Two seen on Quadra Island on 07/09/03.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

At least two adults and a couple of juveniles seen daily while kayaking.

American Kestrel, Falco sparverius

A pair near the Yak Shak, Quadra Island, on 02/09/03.

Wandering Tattler, Heteroscelus incanus

One seen near Cracroft Island on 05/09/03.

Black Turnstone, Arenaria melanocephala

A flock of 34 on Rebecca Spit on 07/09/03.

Ruddy Turnstone, Arenaria interpres

A single bird among the Black Turnstones on 07/09/03.

Surfbird, Aphriza virgata

Two on rocks in Boat Bay on 05/09/03.

Sanderling, Calidris alba

A large flock flew south past Cracroft on 04/09/03.

Red-necked Phalarope, Phalaropus lobatus

Two on the sea off Cracroft on 05/09/03.

Bonaparte's Gull, Larus philadelphia

Very common along the Strait.

Mew Gull, Larus brachyrhynchus

Very common along the Strait.

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

Fairly common along the Strait.

California Gull, Larus californicus

Common along the coast.

American Herring Gull, Larus smithsonianus

Common along the coast.

Thayer's Gull, Larus thayeri

Uncommon, but seen every day along the northern Strait.


Glaucous-winged Gull, Larus glaucescens

Very common.




Common Murre/Guillemot, Uria aalge

A few individuals seen daily while kayaking.

Marbled Murrelet, Brachyramphus marmoratus

One or two seen daily while kayaking.

Cassin's Auklet, Ptychoramphus aleuticus

Several to the north of Cracroft on 04/09/03.

Rhinocerous Auklet, Cerorhinca monocerata

Common along the Strait.

Rock Dove, Columba livia

Common around Campbell River.

Belted Kingfisher, Ceryle alcyon

Seen regularly in pairs or alone around Quadra and Cracroft Islands.

Vaux's Swift, Chaetura vauxi

A pair seen over Quadra Island on 07/09/03.

Northern Flicker, Colaptes auratus

Common around Quadra Island.

Hairy Woodpecker, Picoides villosus

One seen near the Eagle Eye Watch Point on 05/09/03, with two on Rebecca Spit on 07/09/03.

Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus

A pair seen near the Harbour House B&B on 07/09/03.

Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Empidonax difficilis

A single seen well near Heriot Bay, Quadra Island on 07/09/03.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

Common around Vancouver.

Northwestern Crow, Corvus caurinus

Common on Quadra Island.

Common Raven, Corvus corax

Common.

Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica

Two seen over Vancouver on 02/09/03.


Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Poecile rufescens

Abundant around Cracroft Island and Quadra Island.



Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

Common along Rebecca Spit.




Brown Creeper, Certhia americana

Fairly common along Rebecca Spit on 07/09/03.

Winter Wren, Troglodytes troglodytes

Common.

Golden-crowned Kinglet, Regulus satrapa

Very common around Cracroft Island.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Regulus calendula

A pair seen at camp on 06/09/03.

American Robin, Turdus migratorius

Very common on Quadra Island.

Hermit Thrush, Catharus guttatus

One seen on Cracroft Island on 05/09/03.

Swainson's Thrush, Catharus ustulatus

Two seen on Rebecca Spit on 07/09/03.

Cedar Waxwing, Bombycilla cedrorum

Very common around Quadra Island.

Starling, Sturnus vulgaris

Common.

Myrtle Warbler, Dendroica coronata

Several along Rebecca Spit on 07/09/03.

Spotted Towhee, Pipilo maculatus

Common on Quadra Island.

Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina

Two seen on Rebecca Spit on 02/09/03.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

A pair around base camp most days.

White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys

Common on Quadra Island.

Slate-coloured Junco, Junco hyemalis

Three at April Point on 06/09/03.

Pine Siskin, Carduelis pinus

Common around Quadra Island.

Red Crossbill, Loxia curvirostra

Several seen around April Point on 03/09/03.

House Sparrow, Passer domesticus

Common.


Mammal List



Orca, Orcinus orca

Up to twenty individuals seen every day in the northern Johnstone Strait, in the area of Cracroft Island and the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve. All individuals assumed to be of northern resident pods. I am awaiting confirmation of this from photos.

Dall's Porpoise, Phocoenidae dalli

Two or three seen daily while kayaking and from the High Flyer in the northern Strait.

Harbour Porpoise, Phocoena phocoena

One or two seen daily in the Strait.

Steller's Sealion, Eumetopias jubatus

Up to three seen daily, usually from base camp on Cracroft Island.

Harbour Seal, Phoca vitulina

Regularly seen in the Strait, often hauled out on rocks.

Douglas Squirrel, Tamiasciurus douglasii

This attractive squirrel was fairly common in the forest around Cracroft.

Red Squirrel, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus

Common.


American Mink,

A single was seen fishing in the sea by the base camp.




Black Bear,

A solitary animal was seen twice foraging for invertebrates under rocks on the beach in Boat Bay.


Acknowledgements


Huge thanks to our fantastic, hard working Spirit of the West guides, Scarlet, Gabe and Justin for making our kayaking trip spectacular. Massive thanks to Ted, Carly and Geoff, Cath and John, Joco, Peggy and Ron and Vicky for making this trip an experience of a lifetime. Big thanks to Susan at Harbour House for her hospitality and sharing her gorgeous home with us.



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